On Leadership and Ethics

BJ HessBJ Hess spoke on campus at the invitation of SWIM and the MIT Leadership Center.


There are three ethics principles that have guided BJ Hess, a former Senior Vice President of Global Operations for Arrow Electronics, Inc., who spoke at MIT Sloan last week at the invitation of SWIM (Sloan Women in Management) and the MIT Leadership Center.

Those three principles are: 1) Having a clear connection of what’s right and wrong; 2) Doing what’s required; and 3) Leading by example.

BJ was an employee of Arrow Electronics for 37 years until her retirement in 2004. She worked her way up from Inventory Control Clerk to Senior Vice President. Along the way, she endured a number of experiences that cemented her faith in integrity and doing the right thing “even if no one is looking.”

“Skill and integrity are the requirements for leadership. Skills are learned through mentors and experiences. We need to be leaders with a balance,” she said.

Perhaps the lowest point of BJ’s career was in 1980 when a hotel fire killed 13 of her colleagues, including the two founders of Arrow. BJ was also at the hotel, but was the only one of the Arrow employees in the affected hotel wing who escaped. “I watched all of the body bags carried out and then I went back to the office,” she remembered.

The general manager’s wife called and asked if her husband was OK. Unfortunately, BJ had to break the news to her that he had perished in the fire. “These people were not just my colleagues. They were my friends,” BJ said. She spent time on the phone consoling the newly-widowed woman.

That weekend, she attended six funerals, and when she returned to the office on Monday, she decided to give her notice. Staying with the company seemed to be an untenable choice. But, the CEO’s widow came in that afternoon and implored the remaining employees to stay.

“Sometimes, you have to do what’s required. So, I stayed,” BJ said. “I tried to lead and inspire hope. We learned some lessons about that. Life goes on.”

BJ was again inspired to take the easy way out when she was confronted with an abominable manager. “It would have been easy to leave, but I decided I could make a difference,” she said. Fortunately, he left, and she was promoted. Along the way, she received her MBA from Adelphi University.

“Very often, doing the right thing requires tenacity, courage, and determination. It is demonstrated every day in how we do our jobs, and how we handle the unfairness and cruelty that’s just part of this world,” she said.

Today, BJ is on the board of Opportunity International, a microfinance organization which gives loans primarily to women in Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines.