The most important factor of what makes a great leader is the individual's underlying set of values, according to Laura Sen, president and chief executive officer of BJ's Wholesale Club, Inc., a Wakefield native who returned to town on January 18 to speak to the members of the Wakefield Chamber of Commerce.
Sen, who grew up in town has spent the last three decades working in, managing and leading the retail business, and has served as CEO at BJ's since 2009. She got her start working for Jordan Marsh, and continued on to the Zayre Corportation in Natick.
Throughout her distinguished career, Sen has had the opportunity to learn and grow as a leader, and has fine-tuned her own personal approach to leadership. She said she doesn't just look to businesses and business leaders, but also to sports and coaches.
She said one of the stories she's most inpsired by is how Tony Dungee, coach of the Indianapolis Colts, reportedly scouted his players. Sen told how Dungee first employed all the regular means, including stats, performance, history, etc. But he also wanted a way to determine the player's underlying character as a person. He asked an unlikely scout: the equipment guy.
"This says, what's most important isn't your uniform or your number, but what's on the inside," Sen said.
It's this focus on personal character and values that Sen says most influences her leadership style.
1. Establish a set of values: Sen said that although strategic plans and financial plans and all kinds of other business plans are important, the most important plan that seeks to inform all others should be a set of values.
"At BJ's, our values are permanent, and we use them to hire the right people, to make decisions, to steer our personal conduct and to create value every day," Sen said.
Those values are to respect others, speak with truth and candor, act with integrity, to succeed as a team, to impress members with great service, to embrace diversity, and to give back to the community.
2. Stand by the values: "I would argue these values are what we've all been taught by our teachers, coaches and parents, but unless you hold them up on a regular basis, things get in the way," she said. "We remind people that there's no business decision that will take priority, and that we will not win without insisting on both."
Sen mentioned she's been in situations where she's had highly skilled people in specialized areas that she's had to part company with along the way due to conflicts over values.
"You just have to say, sorry, I'll find somebody who can produce the resutls I want, and also buy into the set of values," she said. "If everyone else looks at me as someone who is supporting somebody who is not the right type of person, it's just a bad apple situation."
3. Succeed as a team - Sen said when she was faced with some underperforming stores, she brought the issue before the entire team.
"It's much better for ten brains to work on something than for one to have all the answers," she said.
The idea everone came up with was to implement a buddy system, to pair underperforming stores with successful stores, and allow them to work together and advocate for one another.
"Those buddy clubs turned around and outperformed the company in sales and growth and never looked back," she said.
Sen said what she loves most about leadership is the opportunity for it each and every day.
"There's an opportunity to lead every day by example," she said. "And yes, the equipment guy is watching."