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Telle Whitney

President & CEO

Palo Alto, CA

By leaning in, I learned a lot about myself and improved my leadership, strategic thinking and communication skills. Most importantly, I have been able to lead the organization I care so much about to new successes.

I had been the CEO of a small nonprofit for four years and had moved it from financial instability to a well-respected organization. During that time, I never received any feedback from the nonprofit’s board about my performance. I assumed that was because we were all too focused on addressing the organization’s financial problems and were busy expanding its programs.

At the beginning of my fifth year, the board gave me the first assessment of my performance since I joined the organization. They expressed concerns about my skills and ultimately, my ability to lead the organization in the future. They had specific issues with my communication skills, including my ability to share information with the board and the broader world. They also questioned my capacity to think strategically; to create a vision for the organization and deliver on that vision.  A couple of board members requested I be replaced; many others were on the fence. All of the board members felt I needed their candid feedback. Fortunately, many believed I also deserved the opportunity to respond.

I was shocked and hurt. I had put my heart and soul into the organization. Before that meeting, the only feedback I’d received was positive encouragement from individual board members. I was angry and frustrated that they seemingly didn’t recognize all the great achievements that were the direct result of my efforts. It was easy to blame them.

Despite those feelings, I felt determined. I wanted to continue forward with what I had worked so hard to create and ensure the organization’s future success; I wasn’t done with the work yet. Also, since the feedback came from people I respected, I knew I would benefit from addressing the issues they raised. I decided I should figure out how to fix the problems they identified so that I would grow as a leader.

So, I leaned in.

I addressed the problems head on by developing a plan and presenting it to the board. The plan called for a team of advisors, including two professional coaches and other CEOs that I would use as resources. The plan also included explicit metrics for evaluating my success and a clear vision of what that success would look like.

Implementing the plan was an exhilarating experience, but also overwhelming at times. I certainly had many moments of fear: the fear of failure and the fear of the unknown. Ultimately, I succeeded. It took perseverance, engaging the right extended team, listening to often painful, but accurate feedback and taking the many recommendations for change seriously.

By leaning in, I learned a lot about myself and improved my leadership, strategic thinking and communication skills. Most importantly, I have been able to lead the organization I care so much about to new successes.

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