Leading With Humanity

Stephanie Wiggins is the Chief Executive Officer of Metrolink, a regional commuter railroad serving six Southern California counties with nearly 10,000,000 annual boardings operating over 538 route miles with a budget of $793 million.

The sun rose on Monday, June 1, but there was still a darkness throughout Southern California as we saw the aftermath of history playing out in the streets of our nation.

None of us can turn a blind eye to the images of an unarmed and subdued George Floyd killed at the hands of a police officer who was sworn to protect. We cannot turn a blind eye to those engaged in peaceful protest, pleading for equality and justice in communities across our country. Nor can we ignore the coverage this weekend of the civil unrest and the destruction of countless businesses.

As an African American woman, I’ve dealt with feelings of despair as we continue to have discussions about systemic racism. And over the continued fight to have equal protection under the law. There is no joy in being on the front lines of this fight. There is no pleasure in being forced to protest and defend. There is no dignity in pretending that divisions do not exist.

As a CEO, on Monday I started the day by sending an email to the entire Metrolink team addressing the weekend events and reminding them that our agency provides resources through an Employee Assistance Program where they can get free assistance. I encouraged our team to not suffer in silence and to talk if they needed to. That afternoon, talk is just what they did.

But let me provide some context.  Since the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were instituted in March, I have regularly communicated directly with all Metrolink employees. Initially through daily emails, and in the past month, three times a week via virtual afternoon coffee breaks.  While most employees are telecommunicating to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, we’ve created a new culture of connection. We’ve gotten used to discussing our fears, and our ideas for post-pandemic recovery efforts in lively Q&A sessions. And we’ve gotten used to learning about each other as people – as we all seek humanity.

Monday’s coffee break was different. With no agenda, I simply asked, “Is there anything you’d like to share?” What followed was an agency-wide discussion that was authentic and honest. It was filled with emotion and empathy. I cried. I was not alone. I was honored that our employees – Black, Latino, White, Asian; Millennials, Gen Xers, Boomers, and Gen Z – felt safe enough to share their feelings and their vulnerability. They spoke. We listened, and we learned.

One employee shared how sad these events make him feel. He vividly talked about being afraid as a Black teenager when he was stopped by the police and was guided by his father’s standing advice to do nothing and obey whatever the officer said so he could make it home. His voice quivered as he told the story. Next, a White man, a friend and colleague of the first man, shared that it is hard for him to fathom that experience, because he was raised to treat everyone with dignity, but he held space for the first man’s experience and thanked him for sharing. Then a woman shared that hearing the emotion in the first man’s story was the most impactful way she has heard those words expressed in her life.

leadership

As an African American woman, I’ve dealt with feelings of despair as we continue to have discussions about systemic racism.

STEPHANIE WIGGINS

The emotion in the chatroom was palpable. I was touched to be a part of this powerful discussion and to see our team come together to connect and show respect.

They gave me hope.

As a CEO, wading into this discussion can be precarious. Openly talking about race while at work can be risky. It goes against all the HR rules we learn as managers. As leaders, though, we also learn about the value and power of listening. And, sometimes, taking a risk is the right thing to do. On Monday, I learned that no matter their stations in life, people are shaped by their experiences.

Monday’s session was a gift in humanity. I witnessed compassion, empathy, fear, and truth – in the span of 30 minutes.  And the timing was perfect because during this dark chapter in our nation’s history we need hope. Hope and the comfort that comes from knowing we are not alone in our hurt – that we must be able to rely on each other for our humanity.

As an African American woman and as a leader, I found myself being both comforted in a personal sense and inspired, professionally.  When I became CEO 18 months ago, I told the entire staff that they could expect me to promote a culture of respect and that culture was on display during that chat.

I am writing this because I want to encourage other leaders to allow these moments of vulnerability in their organizations and hope that other teams will be open to sharing their truth as our team did. Leading with humanity – it’s a simple idea with profound results. As Desmond Tutu said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” I invite you to join me, show your humanity. Better still, give others the space to show theirs. Together, we will get through this. Together, we will make our community a place where diversity is valued and where all people are respected. 

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