This is 30: On walkup songs

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” the management consultant Peter Drucker once said. Today, those words are repeated by leaders around the world. For large organizations to work, we know that building an effective culture is essential. But how do you start? What’s the playbook? How do you measure success? When Stephanie Wiggins became Metro’s CEO in 2021, she introduced a well-loved baseball ritual to encourage an organization of 11,000+ people to connect. That’s right –– walkup songs! Read on to learn why music can bridge singular viewpoints with universal emotions and foster a sense of belonging.

By Stephanie Wiggins

I wasn’t born with an innate passion for transit. Growing up, I was a latchkey kid. I read a lot, played the flute, and was part of the marching band.

Transit was something I just fell into, first when I lived in Alexandria, Virginia without a car, and relied on the train to get around. It didn’t have anything to do with money or social class. Taking transit was the smart way to travel if you worked in Washington, DC. A couple times, if I was out late at night, a friend would offer to drive me home. Whenever I did, I had trouble giving the driver good directions. Buses and trains were the maps with which I made sense of my surroundings.

When I moved back to Southern California, I signed up with a temp agency, and they placed me in the finance department at the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA). I didn’t expect to be there long-term. I was just trying to make some money before I took the GMAT and applied to business school. I remember attending their board meeting. Mostly white men. Very few women. None of them looked like me. These folks made critical transportation planning and funding decisions that impact residents’ quality of life. I didn’t know this type of policymaking existed, and I wanted to learn more.

I secured a permanent position, moved up in the ranks, and then successfully interviewed for an opportunity to work on the policy side with the Riverside County Transportation Commission. So it was ten years after that temp assignment — after falling hard for public transportation’s mission, I finally picked back up studying for the GMAT, and enrolled in business school while continuing to work full-time.

Fast forward to 2019, when I became CEO of Metrolink after more than ten amazing years learning to lead at Metro. I realized very quickly that I needed to differentiate myself. My predecessors came from a different generation –– I couldn’t match what they brought. Nor did I want to. By then, I had been in the business long enough to know that my greatest strength was to be who I was.

Add that to the fact that 90 percent of my Metrolink leadership team was new. Nobody knew what they stood for. I wasn’t quite sure how to introduce them to the staff, and we had our first all-hands meeting coming up. One night I was watching baseball on TV (I’m not a die-hard baseball fan, but I always get into the games.) Maybe it was because I wasn’t a superfan, and didn’t know every player’s story, that their walkup songs spoke to me. It set a tone before batters stepped up to the plate. And it energized the crowd.

I went down one of those rabbit holes on Google and started reading about the origins of this tradition. This was an opportunity I thought, to put a little fun into leadership. It shakes off the cobwebs of anxiety. It forces you to reflect on what you stand for. What do you want people to know about you? What are you bringing to this role?

Walkup songs aren’t just for the walkers. They’re for the listeners as well. Our thoughts and feelings are so personal. They feel so particular, so specific –– like no one really ‘gets them’ but us. Music reminds us that human emotions are universal. That struggles and triumphs and heartbreaking losses are shared by so many others.

The next day, I told the entire leadership team that they would have to choose their own walkup songs – (TBH I was met with both enthusiasm and head scratching by the leadership team). But the staff at the all-hands absolutely loved it.

I brought this tradition to Metro when I became CEO in 2021. I felt that it was an important way to get us all on the same page. Metrolink has around 300 employees. Metro has more than 11,000. I needed a way to not only introduce myself but to demonstrate what kind of leader I am. Sure, I could give a speech about the culture I wanted to cultivate. But a song, I thought, could show that through a melody that we may already know by heart.

I’ve been at Metro for almost two and a half years now. Every new fiscal year I change up my walkup song:

  • When I started as Metro’s CEO in June 2021, my song was “Outstanding” by The Gap Band. It’s an older song –– it came out in the early 1980s –– and I used to hear it at family reunions. Coming back to Metro after three years away felt a little like that. That song is a boomerang for me.
  • In July 2022, I switched things up and started playing Drake’s “Started from the Bottom.” The first time I heard it, I nearly froze –– it spoke to Metro’s road ahead perfectly for me. The pandemic had shaken our ridership and cast some of our biggest societal problems to light. It made us rethink everything. There was no way to go but up.
  • This July, I switched my walkup song to McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” Why? Well, we’ve got some momentum. We opened the K Line last year, and then the Regional Connector this past June. We’re building new stations, and we’re opening bus lanes. Ridership is up. Crime is down. We’re on the right path and it’s only possible because of the efforts of over 11,000 people who work here.

Walkup songs are now part of Metro’s culture. But here’s the real question –– does it work? Recently, I talked to an employee about our all-hands meetings. It has always been an important way to convey information and answer questions –– but holding everyone’s attention when we’re all very busy is not always easy to do. The employee told me that she now enjoyed the all-hands meeting. She said it’s more fun, and she’s more likely to listen. That conversation stuck with me.

I used to think that all you need to lead was having a vision and the ability to articulate it. I was wrong about that. You need those things, but you can’t forget about the people, what they care about, and how to connect with them. Metro’s culture is still evolving, and walkup songs have played a part in that.

That’s it! We finally hit the 30th story in our “This is 30” series. We still want to hear your transit stories, however, so hit us up if you’d like to share them. And before we sign off, we have to ask –– do YOU have a favorite walkup song? Let us know in the comments!

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