In the Spotlight: Mona Babauta
This month’s In the Spotlight interview features Mona Babauta, the first-ever Executive Director of SolTrans. She has been in the transportation industry for almost her entire career. She started with the agency in 2012 and is a recent graduate of Eno’s Transit Senior Executive Program.
Tell me a little about yourself
I’m originally from Guam; although, I spent my childhood traveling the world as an Air Force brat and even had the opportunity of going to high school in Europe. I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame. While in college, I would go back to Guam during the summer and intern with the legislature, and after graduation, I worked there full-time on community outreach projects, primarily. (That was my first real experience in government). After college I attended the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University where I received my Masters in Public Administration. I am now the first Executive Director of SolTrans and a new alumnus of Eno’s Transit Senior Executive Program.
Tell us how you ended up in transportation
My first job out of graduate school was as a Management Intern for the City of Anaheim’s Public Utilities Department (Orange County, CA) working on budgets and conducting various analyses of internal management and accounting practices as the Department braced for the deregulation of California’s electric industry at the time. It was a great first step into city management, and I really thought that would be my career path for the rest of my life.
However, an opportunity came along with the City of Culver City’s Transportation Department. They were looking for a senior management analyst who would focus on finance and administration. I went for the job and got it. This was my first job in public transportation.
The person who hired me was a gentleman by the name of Dave Ashcraft. I felt like I was working for a superstar in the transit industry back then; we couldn’t walk through a conference expo hall together without being stopped at least 50 times! I always remember him telling me “Stop trying to read circulars and that big binder with “ISTEA” on the front cover. Instead, go out and meet people; that’s the fastest way to learn this industry!” I took his advice, and now, I have a huge network of colleagues who have, in many instances, become good friends. From my first days at Culver City working for Dave, I have come to love this industry.
What kept you in this industry?
Really, to a great extent, my friends have kept me in this industry! It’s hard to leave people I love! Also, I’m very much a results-oriented person who needs to see the fruits of my labor in order to gain satisfaction at work. Every day, as I look out my office window or travel around town, I see hundreds of people using transit, which gives me a great sense of accomplishment. I’ve also been fortunate to have had the experience of managing a few construction projects, and, personally, nothing is more exciting than to be part of a team, managing a thousand moving parts, and building something tangible over time. There’s so much to learn and do in public transit, especially while working for a smaller agency where you can “touch” various aspects of the industry, and I find a lot of satisfaction in that. Also, I love the fact that public transit helps shape healthy, productive and engaged communities, and I’m very proud to be a part of that process.
You started as the first permanent director of SolTrans after the merger of Vallejo Transit and the Benicia Breeze. What was the biggest challenge when you took on the job? How did you overcome or embrace it? Did the merger affect that?
The biggest challenge, out of the countless many that this start-up agency faced, was getting the communities in the cities of Benicia and Vallejo to embrace the new transit system and see the value in the merger. Prior to consolidation, both cities were operating service levels that the public enjoyed for at least a decade, but weren’t sustainable. For SolTrans to succeed, it needed to become sustainable. Consequently, service cuts and fare increases were implemented, and free transfers on the local fixed route system were eliminated. This was done on July 1, 2012, one year after SolTrans assumed all transit services from both cities, and less than 1 month after I assumed my new roll. It was baptism by fire for me as I started the job and my first stint as an Agency head!
I focused on five primary areas when I started: 1) building my team given that I was the first employee of the agency, 2) “pounding the pavement” and build relationships and credibility in the community, 3) fixing the operation to run efficiently, safely and reliably, 4) restructuring our finances, and 5) creating a strategic plan that included performance measures to track progress. I felt that if I did all five things, then I would be able to establish a system that the community would embrace.
Sure enough, as I made progress in these five areas, the Agency was able to expand levels of service, deliver projects, contribute to the community through partnerships, and demonstrate organizational results and achievements. And, we made sure to celebrate our successes all along the way, no matter how big or small. I felt that by doing this, we could build credibility and trust with the community, as well as shape a positive image of the Agency.
And, you ask if the merger helped; I believe that it did. We have been able to combine the resources of two agencies and create one that is sustainable and growing, especially in ridership!
In your opinion, what has been your greatest career success?
So far it has been serving as the first, permanent Executive Director of SolTrans. This past December we celebrated our fifth year as an organization. It’s been a lot of hard work but I believe that the community has embraced us. We’ve seen a big increase in ridership in the past five years and a change of attitude towards our service. Through the leadership of my Board of Directors, we have accomplished a lot, and I am very proud to be a part of the SolTrans team.
What do you think is the biggest priority for a leader or manager at a public transportation company like SolTrans? And how do you tackle that?
I think the biggest priority is understanding the needs of the community that you are tasked with serving, in order to embraced by them as a valuable community asset or resource. A large part of our success at SolTrans is being thoughtful of the community fabric and understanding their needs. We want to help move everyone, not just those whose only transportation option is SolTrans. If the community does not embrace you, they will not likely use or promote your service.
In order to understand your community, you need to engage and become involved in it. Seek out local leaders and build relationships with them; they can share information about the community and help you promote your system. Participating in community events and allowing the public to engage you in conversations is also a good way to learn about local needs. Furthermore, building partnerships in which you can work cooperatively with others on projects or special events, in which transportation plays a significant role is a great way to demonstrate your system’s value as a community asset. Lastly, financial sponsorships have worked wonders for SolTrans. Once local groups find out that you are willing to contribute, even a small amount, towards an event or program in exchange for public exposure, your logo being placed on marketing materials, or an opportunity to speak briefly about the agency, you will be seen as a valuable resource!
You are an Alumnus of Eno’s Transit Senior Executive Program (TSE). What were your biggest take-aways from the class?
I really enjoyed the speakers. Alex Bond and the instructors did a great job of bringing in speakers with great experience and who offered “pearls of wisdom” that can help me avoid potential pitfalls in my current and future leadership roles. We explored practical strategies for improving our leadership capacities. Also, Eno did a great job of creating an atmosphere of confidentiality and trust; so, we were all able to explore topics, ask questions and share personal challenges in a safe and constructive environment.
I must also share the fact that my classmates were all amazing, and Eno did a great job of creating the right mix of “leadership students!” I probably learned just as much from them as I did from the speakers and instructors combined!
Overall, the Program challenged me to think about areas in my leadership style that need work and how I might be able to become a stronger and more effective leader in all facets of my life.
How have the lessons you learned in the TSE program changed or affected the way you work?
When I returned to the office after Eno’s course, I pulled my staff together and asked them to give me feedback on how I could lead them and manage the agency better. This opened up lines of communication that would not have necessarily been there before. I have learned to listen more closely to my staff and think about the process of solving a problem before jumping into it.
Eno’s course provided me with an opportunity to do a lot of self-reflection on my management and leadership style. I came away with a sense of clarity about myself and my job that was not there before.
In a few months we will host the next TSE class. What advice do you have for the participants?
We all have very busy careers and smartphones that can keep us constantly connected to the office. My advice for whomever participates would be to let go of everything happening at the office (including that email app on your phone) and focus on the training. On top of that, go into the course with an open mind and a willingness to learn. You will not only learn from Eno’s instructors but also from the other executives in the class.