What I’ve Learned Since College: Joni Earl ’75—CEO of Sound Transit
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
When Joni Earl ’75 joined Sound Transit in 2000, she was unaware of the crisis facing the agency, which provides public transportation for Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties. As the new Chief Operating Officer, she was asked to review the struggling $1.9 billion project to build a light rail 21 miles along the Puget Sound corridor from SeaTac Airport to Seattle’s University District. She discovered that it was several years behind schedule and would cost at least $1 billion more to complete. Three months after she took the job, her supervisor resigned. Earl became the acting executive director and later that year was hired as the permanent CEO.
Throughout her career Earl has gone into messy situations and cleaned things up. In July, Sound Transit opened its first 14 miles of light rail service. By December, the line was extended all the way to Sea-Tac Airport. Sound Transit now serves 14 million riders annually with buses, commuter trains and light rail.
Earl recently welcomed Hannelore Sudermann into her office at the old Union Station in downtown Seattle to talk about her life and career and helping to shape a community through transportation.
Pay your debts: At WSU I typed term papers and did odd jobs. It gave me spending money. I would come home on vacation and I would work for the city of Bremerton and I would work in the county auditor’s office. I worked as much as I could. I had saved enough money to pay my tuition and books. My parents were able to send me $60 a month. But by my senior year the last semester I was just flat out of money. I was carrying 21 credits. I just didn’t have the time (to work). I was going to have to go on food stamps.
My family had a family meeting. My grandparents took out a mortgage for $750. It was a big deal because they had no debt. When I graduated I had $120 left. My girlfriends and I piled into a Datsun B210 and drove down to Reno. Our place to stay fell through, so we had to find a cheap motel. That left me with $15 to $20 a day for everything. I would take my $20 and leave the rest in the hotel room. The last night, I was out except for whatever little I had left. I was playing keno cards constantly—because it was a slow way to lose money. We were going to leave at midnight. At 11:40 that night playing keno I won a $750 jackpot. I came back and paid my grandparents and was clean and clear.
Check your work: One of my first jobs was working in the Bremerton city treasurer’s office. About a year into it the city treasurer passed away unexpectedly. So they appointed the assistant city treasurer to the position. Then they tested under civil service for assistant treasurer. Three of us took the test. I came in ranking second. I felt really good about that. Then I went to review my scores and I found they made an error in my score. They took it back to the civil service commission and it was corrected and I got first. I had 17 people working for me when I was 22 years old. That started me on an unplanned management track. Every job I’ve had since then has been a management position.
Learn from your employees: It was a great training ground—both on how to work with people when you are young and inexperienced and how to handle a crisis. The city also had a major conversion of a new water billing system going on. That is an unfortunate or fortunate pattern in my career. It was crisis I didn’t really understand when I went for that position.
Opening up helps people trust you: I was just pretty candid with the employees when I met with them one on one... . I was very quick to say I know I don’t know. (The situation improved) once we got over that initial hurdle of them going “Oh my god, she’s a baby practically and we’re working for a woman.” I’m often, especially early in my career, the only woman in the room in management ranks. Once I got through those initial hurdles of them getting to know me better, I think it ended up well.
Seek a challenge: (In 1987 she became city manager of Mill Creek.) I came in on year four of a newly incorporated city. And I was the fourth city manager in four years. It was a bit of a tumultuous time. I learned later that the debate of the city council behind the scenes was that they thought I was too young. I was 32. But they ended up voting for me. They hadn’t found out yet at Mill Creek how to be a city. I was there four and a half years and it was a stabilizing time.
Be ready for “the ask”: I was starting to think about what’s next. I was up for a new challenge. Bob Drewel asked me (to be his deputy county executive for Snohomish County). We went to the Olive Garden in Everett. We barely had our napkins in our laps and he said, “I have just one question for you Joni: Would you be as excited to come and work with me as I would be if you’d say yes?” I said, “I think so. Are you offering me a job?”
Know where you’re going: From the time I announced I was leaving Snohomish County—I gave a six-week notice—there started to be these newspaper stories and opponents to the (Sound Transit Light Rail project) calling for audits. I called and said is everything OK? Bob White, the executive director, said, “Don’t worry about it. I need you to come. Everything will be fine.” I started October 9th(2000). By the first week in November it became abundantly clear that we had huge problems and we didn’t know how big they were. Then Bob White asked me to look at the light rail project from top to bottom, to look at all the costs. We did that over a five-week period. We were $1.1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule. It got worse, but that was the bad news at that point.
I had been in media settings before, but nothing this intense. I was the face of that news because I had led this effort. In those days I had never dealt with anything this big.
Take charge: When Bob White resigned, I was appointed acting executive director. There wasn’t really anybody else in a position to do it. A week later, a new Congress was seated—and a two-year Federal audit was started. Then a new secretary for transportation under the Bush administration held up the money (a $500 million grant).
We reexamined the project with finance and other people. The cost system and decision process had to be revamped. It ended up with us taking the 21 light rail miles and breaking it up. It was so intense I went for five months without a day off. I had some 24 hour days in there where I just called my husband and he brought me some clothes. I look back now and I don’t know physically how some of us got through it. It was just adrenaline and fear. The easier part was that I didn’t own the problems. At that time I was more the person helping to bring it back around.
Learn along the way: It’s kind of embarrassing now. At one point I had to stop the engineers and ask what is a TBM? It’s a tunnel-boring machine. I had built jails and roads and been involved in a lot of capital projects. But nothing this size and scale.
Own your mistakes: I’m so proud of this agency, and the board. The public during those really dark days got really angry at Sound Transit, but the region and the elected officials never lost the vision. The community believed in it, they just questioned Sound Transit’s ability to deliver it. I’m so proud of how we’ve stood up. We’ve kept our integrity. There was never fraud, never scandal. Ours were genuine mistakes.
Leave when you’re ready: This is legacy work. This year was a huge year for us. We opened light rail in July. That was just wildly successful, 92,000 people over the weekend. And now the airport. In many ways some would say that this might be a good time to leave. But I’m not ready yet.
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