Illustrations by Zoë van Dijk.
Erin Mara has been vice president of talent management at BJ’s Wholesale Club for less than two years, but in that short time, she’s made a huge impact.
“I try to seize every opportunity to make things faster, better,” Mara says of her career. “I feel like that’s one thing that’s made me successful.”
Mara didn’t begin life planning to shake up the corporate world of learning and development. Like many learning leaders, she initially planned to become a teacher like her mother and father.
After growing up on a farm in Maine, Mara attended Middlebury College in Vermont, where she majored in psychology and minored in education. When she graduated she landed a job as a substitute teacher at a school in Colorado. It was great work, she says, but it wasn’t paying the bills.
So Mara returned to the East coast and set her sights on the corporate world. She did a short stint as an executive recruiter, and then her college mentor helped her land a job at Staples. In the new job she was tasked with helping to improve customer experience in call centers for the office supply company. That’s where Mara discovered her talent for leadership and corporate learning.
Lessons learned at Staples
After observing how the Staples reps dealt with customer requests, Mara realized that the problem was not about process, but rather whether reps were empowered and trained to actually solve customer problems. “This is where my psychology background came into play,” she says.
Mara spent the next several years focused on improving customer satisfaction across Staples and helping to create a more unified customer experience. She moved up the ranks to director of customer satisfaction for retail, where she traveled the country, visiting stores and training teams. During that time Staples’ customer satisfaction scores increased by almost 1,000 basis points. “It was really exciting to see that the work was paying off,” Mara says. “That was when I really realized that training was my passion.”
She shared her ambition with the head of HR, who found her a role as director of learning and development for retail stores. “He took a leap of faith on me and I just jumped right in,” she says.
It was a smart move. Mara demonstrated a knack for learning leadership from the start, and within 15 months she was promoted to head of L&D development for Staples’ sales organization, where she focused on creating a centralized learning experience.
By that time she had figured out that the key to transforming a learning culture is to convince decision makers that you can add value to the organization. “I had to gain credibility and trust, and you only have one chance to do that in the beginning,” she says.
She spent several months meeting with sales leaders and discovered that the organization’s decentralized approach to sales training was creating inefficiencies that lowered the perceived value of learning. “The credibility had been lost with the business because we were really order-takers, not solution providers,” she says.
She wanted her group to be seen as an enabler of business success, so she restructured sales learning into a “hub and spoke” model, with a single learning organization at the center, and specialized advisers to work with each department. When an adviser identified a learning need, they worked with instructional design and leadership development experts to craft learning experiences that would drive business outcomes and could be shared where relevant with other groups.
“It was really successful and our credibility increased, which was a great career moment for me,” she says. Mara was later asked to do the same thing for the supply chain organization, and Staples’ centers of excellence, and by the end of her 18 years with the company, she was senior director of L&D for Staples.
BJ’s comes calling
Mara might have stayed at Staples for her entire career, but when the company was bought by a private equity firm in 2017, she started thinking about her future. “When a company is acquired by private equity it can be an awesome experience and opportunity, but there’s also a big risk,” she says.
Then BJ’s Wholesale Club reached out.
Headquartered in Westborough, Massachusetts, BJ’s operates more than 200 membership warehouse clubs across the Eastern United States. Mark Griffin had recently been hired as the new CHRO and was looking for a vice president of talent management to fill a critical area of HR.
Griffin wanted to reimagine BJ’s approach to learning and bring in leaders who could chart a new course. He was looking for someone who had the operational and technical experience to drive change and create a new learning culture. “I needed someone who could become a strong voice in the corporation, who would be seen as a partner at the top of the house, and who had the presence to command respect and to work collaboratively,” he says.
He thought Mara would be perfect for the role. “Erin has incredible energy and excitement, and she’s focused on making an impact,” Griffin says. He was also impressed with what she’d accomplished at Staples. “She was a credible leader and thought partner at all levels of the organization. That resonated with me.”
Griffin offered her the job. After initial hesitation, Mara listened to the advice of a few personal advisers who all encouraged her to make a move. “It was one of those career moments that I needed to capitalize on,” she says. So she said yes, and made the transition in November 2018.
She immediately found a kinship with Griffin, who had worked at CVS Caremark (now CVS Health) for 18 years before coming to BJs. “If I was going to leave (Staples), I wanted to work for a great leader,” she says. “This just felt right.”
Taking training to the floor
Before making any changes, Mara spent three months in the field, talking to leaders and staff and getting to know the business. She found that there was a significant opportunity to position the learning department as a partner to solve business problems. “Training was on an island so far away that you needed binoculars to see it,” she laughs. But she was not discouraged.
Mara was able to create a learning culture from scratch that she knew would thrive. “To me, one of the most inspiring things to be able to do is to shape a culture,” she says. The time she spent in the field helped her build the credibility with company leaders and managers to do just that. “I needed to build their trust in me and my team so that they would know that we can do this.”
Once she had a sense of the organization, Mara’s first goal was to improve training for club team members BJ’s Wholesale Club employs roughly 27,000 team members, and all club team members require training before they can work solo on the floor. For the most part, that training was deployed on a handful of computers off the sales floor that employees would gather around to watch. “It wasn’t learning. It was compliance,” she says.
They didn’t have a chance to practice the new skills, or to return to the lesson to check their work. It was a frustrating training experience and it created a lot of hidden expenses, says Dave Carpino, senior talent development manager for BJ’s. The lack of effective training meant most new hires had to shadow someone for two weeks before having the skills and confidence to work on their own, which added a lot of extra staff hours. “That has a big impact on payroll,” he says.
In response, Mara found a solution called PlayerLync, which is a mobile workforce enablement platform that lets frontline workers master skills on the job. Mara and Carpino worked with the technology vendor to deploy custom learning modules for BJ team members, using operational materials, store planograms and other content. Then they acquired five iPads for every club so team members could complete their training on the floor. The content can be downloaded directly to the devices, which eliminates bandwidth issues, Mara says. “It enables people to take training without the use of Wi-Fi. It’s spectacular.”
The content is automatically delivered in small chunks with videos, pictures and checklists, making it easy for team members to learn new skills, like how to run a register, bake muffins or build an endcap. “They use it as an on-the-spot coach,” Carpino says.
The team is now working to create more small chunks of content to address every learning need in the club. “By the end of the year, every team member in our club will have the right training at the right time for the right team member,” Mara says.
The payoff of her first big training program proved Mara was right for the job. PlayerLync helped to drastically reduce the time it took to access training, such as job aids and how-to videos, from an average of five minutes before PlayerLync to less than 30 seconds with PlayerLync. Considering the wage savings, if you multiply this across 200-plus clubs and thousands of team members and managers, the efficiencies scale quickly. “We saw a return on the investment in PlayerLync in less than a year,” Carpino says. “It was a huge win.”
Leading with positivity
The success BJ’s had with PlayerLync made a powerful statement about the new learning culture at the company. Mara’s team didn’t just deploy an e-learning solution; they identified a problem and found a solution that added measurable value for every club. “She connected the day-to-day work to business strategy and generated business outcomes,” Carpino says. “It helps leaders to see that there can be a better way to do things.”
Once club team member training was in place, Mara turned her sights toward club management. Managers were looking for more long-term career development and the tools to be better leaders. “I took it as an opportunity to drive a culture of empathy and gratitude,” she says.
Practicing positive leadership became the pillar of her new leadership development program, which her team rolled out in 2019. The program is provided by Corp/U, an organizational learning platform provider that partners with university faculty to help build critical leadership capabilities. The Positive Leadership Program is based on Kim Cameron’s world-renowned Positive Organizational Scholarship, which he teaches at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
Corp/U worked with Mara to develop a series of short leadership “sprints.” Each sprint lasts for 30 minutes, and they occur every day over a week. Then cohorts of learners gather to discuss the content and how it applies at BJ’s. “It’s about creating dialogue around leadership,” she says. The sprints encourage leaders to think about how they do their jobs, and to share ideas about what works and what doesn’t. Many of these group discussions occur virtually, giving managers from across the club a chance to troubleshoot challenges, share best practices and learn from their peers. “They are learning, but they are also creating a culture of collaboration,” she says.
Penny for your thoughts
The leadership development program includes a number of tools and activities to help managers transition the lessons to their day-to-day practice. For example, after learning about the importance of expressing gratitude, Mara’s team sent every manager a box of thank-you cards with instructions to write five thank-you notes to someone on their team.
“The stories were just so incredible,” she says, noting that many team members reported sharing the notes with their families and hanging them on the wall. “It’s simple tasks like that that are so powerful.”
Another activity that has become part of the culture at BJ’s is to start every employee conversation by saying something positive about the work they’re doing. To get in the habit, managers are instructed to carry five pennies. “Every time you say something positive, you push a penny from your left pocket to your right pocket,” she explains. “It is a way to make sure people are applying what they’re learning into the practice that they’re doing every day.”
A bright future
So far, Mara’s changes have been well received. “I think people are grateful to have me,” she says. She’s gotten many thank-you notes from team members who are seeing the impact of the transformation and earning high engagement scores — and company leaders are beginning to see the business impact of her efforts. In 2021, she plans to expand the leadership capability model across the rest of the company.
She still has a lot to do, but she’s optimistic about the future and believes the time she spent getting to know the business and its pain points are helping her to make an impact. “Before you can provide recommendations or a roadmap, you’ve got to understand what the day-to-day life is like and the challenges the company faces,” she says. “That’s how you build credibility.”