An email sent is not an email received. — Don’t assume that technology is the most effective way to communicate. It was a lesson well learned and served as an “aha” moment for me. It reduced my frustration with others and helped me grow in my communication style.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Wiggins.
Stephanie Wiggins was named Chief Executive Officer of Metrolink by a unanimous vote of the Board of Directors in December 2018. Wiggins assumed leadership in January 2019 and leads the 275-employee strong commuter railroad with a budget of 793 million dollars.
As CEO, Wiggins directs an agency that operates a commuter rail network on seven routes across a six-county, 538 route-mile system. Wiggins has held high-level positions at three of the five-member agencies that comprise Metrolink and is well-known as a customer -focused leader who finds solutions from a regional perspective.
Wiggins’ vision for the agency is to create value and exceed expectations by prioritizing a customer-first orientation with three pillars to provide an outstanding customer experience: safety and security, an integrated system, and modernizing business practices.
Prior to leading Metrolink, Wiggins was Deputy CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) where she assisted the CEO in providing leadership and formulating and achieving strategic public transportation objectives, including the passage of Measure M, a half-cent sales tax approved by 71 percent of voters in LA County. During her tenure at LA Metro, Stephanie also served as the Executive Director of Vendor/Contract Management, where she implemented procurement streamlining initiatives and greatly expanded Metro’s utilization of small and historically underutilized businesses. Prior to that role, Stephanie was the Executive Officer and Project Director of the Congestion Reduction/ExpressLanes Program where she launched the first high occupancy toll lanes in LA County, the I-10 and I-110 Express Lanes, which improved travel times and travel reliability on two of the County’s most congested freeway corridors.
Prior to Metro, she served as Regional Programs Director for the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) and oversaw transit, commuter rail, rideshare, goods movement and rail capital projects.
Wiggins began her career in transportation when she accepted a temporary assignment at the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority and fell in love with the mission of the agency. The six-month temporary assignment turned into more than four years. She then accepted a policy analyst position with the RCTC where she worked for an additional nine and a half years in management and senior management roles.
Feeling the need for personal and academic growth, Wiggins earned a Master of Business Administration from the USC Marshall School of Business in 2007. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration from Whittier College in 1992.
Wiggins is a self-proclaimed “military brat” whose father made his career in the Air Force. She credits her experience moving from base to base and country to country as a child for teaching her the importance of diversity.
Wiggins is the founding president of the Inland Empire Chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminar. She is the recipient of many awards including the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials 2018 Women Who Move the Nation Award. She is a Board Member of the Los Angeles Chapter of Friends of the Children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born into the foster care system and adopted at six weeks old by a military family. My upbringing in a family that served this country and benefited from public service programs taught me the habit and the importance of helping others. I am a first-generation college student and am proud of the liberal arts education I received at Whittier College and my Business Administration degree.
I didn’t set out to have a career in the public transportation industry. I got here by chance. It’s been a long journey and one I’ve relished! Public transportation isn’t just about transporting people safely — it provides access to jobs, education, healthcare, and home ownership!
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The pandemic was a real wake-up call for everyone in public transportation. When we saw our ridership and revenue plunge by 90 percent after the Governor enacted stay-at-home orders in March, we had to act swiftly and examine, agency-wide, how we spent, why we spent — and look for innovative ways to deliver service. The challenge for Metrolink was clear. What was our value proposition under these new operating conditions?
I knew we had to work differently to build rider and employee confidence and trust, and continue to provide a thriving sustainable rail system. To advance our recovery, we had to quickly prepare a new business model that responded to changing consumer demands and reimagine schedules and fares based on our forecast for the future of work. All the while we kept the customer at the center, asking for their input frequently along the way.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on in my career, I was assigned to help plan a community meeting and bring giveaways as the audience would include “foamers.” Rather than asking what the term meant, I bought colorful sponges and when I arrived, my supervisor had a good laugh. It turns out “foamers” is the industry term of endearment for obsessed rail fans. That misstep taught me how crucial it is to learn about your audience instead of relying on assumptions.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Well, first of all, my mother. She only had a 10th grade education but I remember her constant encouragement to strive for more than what traditional gender roles allowed for her generation. She infused me with confidence from a very early age, and it has served me well during my career .
The University of Southern California Marshall School (USC), where I received my MBA, helped me launch a new phase in my career. My mentors, including Anne Mayer, enhanced my business acumen and convinced me that I could make a difference. As a result, I was able to launch the first high-occupancy toll lanes in Los Angeles County, the I-10 and I-110 Express Lanes, which improved travel times and travel reliability on two of the area’s most congested freeways. Additionally, the USC business network is second to none — connecting graduates with accomplished professionals and institutions that lead to increased success.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
When I think of a disruptor, I think of a change agent that results in transformation. In that sense, my appointment by the Metrolink Board of Directors was a monumental and disruptive step because I proposed a vision that was a departure from previous CEOs and I am an African American and a woman in a chief executive role in a predominantly white, male industry. All previous chief executives were white males, but the Metrolink Board knew that where we need to go is very different than where we have been.
Aggressive environmental goals and continued population growth are reshaping the region. Also changing demographics is driving demand for more inclusion and equality in the workforce. The Board recognized that leading this organization to a new destination required a leader who could take a different and bold stance. Even though we’ve faced unprecedented challenges with COVID-19, we’ve continued moving forward with key initiatives to create a healthier, more sustainable Southern California.
Conversely, being a disruptor just to shake things up rarely leads to a good outcome, only confusion. So being a good leader means keeping everyone steady and on track and identifying ways to modify your approach when needed.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“An email sent is not an email received.” — Don’t assume that technology is the most effective way to communicate. It was a lesson well learned and served as an “aha” moment for me. It reduced my frustration with others and helped me grow in my communication style.
“Relationships matter.” — A CEO gave me this advice early in my career and it has served me well. I learned that it is important to cultivate relationships in business because it makes it easier to discuss areas of conflict if you have already established a relationship with that person.
“Bad news does not get better with time.” — A delay in sharing bad information is worse than the actual news. People do not like surprises.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I know Metrolink is well-positioned to be the link to education, health, and business opportunity in our mega-region. It is the key to providing universal basic mobility and that’s how I’m going to shake things up next.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Fighting for our voice to be heard around the conference room table. Women executives need to be vigilant and fearless. And fighting for pay equality is an ongoing issue in corporate America. We need to work on closing that gap. In the U.S. women, still earn about 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, and black women make only 63 cents, while Latinas make 54 cents. It’s time for that to change. As the athlete and activist Abby Wambach has said, we have to stop just being grateful to be sitting at the table and demand more.
Women are discriminated against in the fine print as well. Identifying perceptions in policies and practices that exclude women in documents like job descriptions and hiring and policies — and then changing them — is a huge step toward a more equitable workforce. With COVID, after stay at home orders were in place and we all began working remotely, I took out language that required women to have childcare when working from home. That discriminates against single moms.
When you take that stance as an industry leader, you send a message about what you’re willing to accept — if not, the gender inequity issues will persist.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
Dare to Lead by Brene’ Brown. I lead with the same qualities she espouses in her book and lectures. Brown explores topics like courage, vulnerability, and fearlessness in leadership. I love her quote, “Choose courage over comfort” as it defines my career choices. I remember a time where a CEO asked me to consider a C-suite role to lead a department of 200+ staff — at a time where I was only leading a dept of 15 staff. While it wasn’t the C-suite role that I was looking for, I decided to choose courage over comfort. It was one of the best decisions I made in my career and is a reason that I am a CEO today.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to move the dial for sustainability in public transportation. I am working toward a zero-emissions transportation industry, which is our country’s future and one of the most significant ways we create healthier communities. I’m proud that our trains reduce vehicle miles traveled by 339,329,158 miles and removes 9.3 million weekday car trips every year. We retired the last of our original locomotives and replaced them with the cleanest available Tier 4 vehicles. The state-of-the-art Tier 4 locomotives are the cleanest diesel locomotives in the nation, providing wide-ranging environmental benefits for the Southern California region. That does a lot for our community’s congestion and helping contribute to cleaner air for the entire region.
Another way I’d like to help advance sustainability is through Universal Basic Mobility which provides maximum access to mobility and transportation for citizens from all over the region and all socio economic strata. We need to make sure everyone can get to where they need to go safely, reliably, and affordably. At Metrolink we will continue to look for partners in transportation to bundle services that can connect people to their destinations.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you argue for your limitations you get to keep them. But if you argue for your possibilities you get to create them.” — Kelly Lee Phipps
Self-talk is powerful and all too often, we let it be negative. This quote offers a tool on how to ensure that your self-talk is empowering. And I love that it doesn’t cost money, doesn’t require a training program — just in a blink of an eye, it’s your choice in how you choose to reframe your self-talk!
How can our readers follow you online?
My accounts include:
LinkedIn: Stephanie Wiggins (url: www.linkedin.com/in/stephanie-wiggins)