Whitnie Wiley of ‘Shifting Into Action’: “The real key — this starts before hiring”

The real key — this starts before hiring. Your job as a leader is to create employee development-focused environments and cultures and hire for potential, not the job at hand. In order to make this work however, leadership has to be trained and committed to talent retention and development. Absent that, all the programs and incentives in […]

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The real key — this starts before hiring. Your job as a leader is to create employee development-focused environments and cultures and hire for potential, not the job at hand. In order to make this work however, leadership has to be trained and committed to talent retention and development. Absent that, all the programs and incentives in the world will fail because the underlying commitment is not there.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Whitnie Wiley.

Since graduating with her organizational development and leadership degree, Whitnie Wiley’s aim has been to guide aspiring and new leaders to be the kind of boss many only dream about — one that’s encouraging, supportive, gives constructive feedback and is transparent.

Study after study has proven, while this caring approach to leadership may take more work upfront, in the long run it makes employees not only happier but more productive as well. And when they’re happy and productive, they not only stay, but the company’s bottom line also increases.

As an in-demand coach, speaker, and mentor, Whitnie shares her wisdom from her own life experiences with grace, humility, and humor to drive change in today’s business world. Using proven strategies, she takes you on the journey of developing your best characteristics and inspires you to step into being your better self, leading by example and pulling those around you up the ladder, too.

Whitnie is a six-time bestselling author, hosts several podcasts and is a frequent podcast guest. Her book The SIMPLE LeaderTM is a compilation of her leadership columns originally published in the Association of Corporate Counsel’s award winning Docket Magazine and the inspiration for her signature program The SIMPLE Leadership MethodTM.

To learn more about Whitnie, you can find her on LinkedIn or Facebook or purchase her most recent book Women Who Empower on Amazon today.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Simple. Born and raised in Berkeley, California and surrounding Bay Area cities. Sort of a rebel with a determination to do things my own way, even when I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Smart and smart-alecky. Third of four children born to parents who were married and together until my father passed away about 12 years ago.

Currently married. Second time around. Mother of one son, who passed away almost 16 years ago on the day of his high school graduation. Bonus mom and grand mom to my husband’s children. Former lawyer and lobbyist. Former waitress. Former college dropout or more accurately kicked out. Christ follower late in life after an encounter on the side of the road. Sort of like Saul who became Paul.

Wife. Mother. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Runner. Golfer. Tennis player. Aspiring pianist. Entrepreneur. Coach. Consultant. Speaker. Bestselling Author. Podcaster. Artist. Realtor. Philanthropist. The list goes on.

So many labels, yet none tells the story of me.

At my core, I am a woman who loves God, loves my family and helping people be the best they can be. Using the gifts and talents I’ve been given to make the world a better place. Turning the tragedies, trials and triumphs of my life into lessons that bless others. Current chapter on developing legendary leaders and enthusiastic employees who in turn create outrageously successful organizations.

Nothing perfect about me, except that I am perfectly me. Here to love, serve and give. That’s how I’m known and how I’ll to be remembered.

Steeped in the knowledge — I am here for such a time as this.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of the most interesting things that has happened as an entrepreneur was my path to becoming a bestselling author and podcaster. In late 2019, as we were gearing up for 2020, the focus was on Vision 2020 or creating a 2020 vision and how the new year was going to be a time of awakening and accomplishing great things. Little did we know at the time that 2020 would be a whole other level of challenge and simultaneously, opportunity.

My intentions for 2020 were to focus primarily on two things, trusting God and creating connections. I was a solopreneur and was very happy coaching clients in the areas of leadership, career management and transitions.

The first two months of 2020 were going well as I worked to complete my first book and secure speaking engagements for the year. Then the pandemic hit full force and the shelter in place orders started. Initially, like many, I didn’t know exactly what that meant for the world, let alone my business.

I’m not sure why, I think it was simply because I had some information that others could benefit from, so I started sharing videos in one of my Facebook groups about transitioning to working at home. From there I developed a few video series on different topics.

Then I got a call from an acquaintance who invited me to contribute to a book she was producing on success habits. Saying yes to that book changed the entire focus of my year, the trajectory of my business and connected me with people and opportunities that I had never contemplated.

Instead of sticking with the original plan for the year, I made a decision to follow my gut and my heart as opportunity after opportunity presented themselves. By the end of 2020, I was a six-time Amazon bestselling author and was hosting or co-hosting four different podcasts and producing a couple of video series. In all that, I continued to work on my book and spoke more times in 2020 than was my original goal, which set me up for a 2021 that will include at least five books, growing the podcasts and speaking on more stages, in person and virtually.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest thing that’s happened to me was not realizing that I needed some time to recover from the toxicity that was my career for the prior 18 years and to take significant time off after working since I was 15. It never occurred to me that I would need more than a few weeks of downtime to make the shift from employee to entrepreneur. Afterall, I’d been working with clients from before I officially launched my business. In fact, it was because I was getting so many referral clients that I felt the time to leave my job to become a full time entrepreneur had come.

I did all the right things or so I thought. The week after I quit my husband and I took a two week vacation. There were a few days of planned activities, but for the most part, my grand plan was to chill. Simultaneously, we were in the early days of purchasing a new house. Other than reading, a trip into Temecula for wine tasting and exploring houses for sale in that area for fun, I was determined to do nothing and then hit the ground running when we got home.

But when we returned, I wasn’t motivated to do anything and couldn’t seem to tap into the previous excitement I’d had for striking out on my own. For weeks, I didn’t get up in the morning to workout, do my quiet time or work. Initially I chalked it up to being preoccupied with the house search, but it was deeper than that and it would takes months before I figured out what was going on and finally gave myself permission to do nothing.

By the time I was ready to get back to work it was nine months after I’d quit my job. During that time, we went into contract on two houses, the first we let go after 60 days when we couldn’t reach agreement with the seller about issues with the house.

Eventually, after the move and some other challenges calmed down, I took the time to explore what I was feeling. Two aha’s came to me, 1) I had worked for more than four decades and I was tired, and 2) financially I didn’t have to work and a part of me just didn’t want to. When I finally gave myself permission and grace not to, the motivation came flooding back.

As a change management professional, you would have thought I’d realize what was happening. But I hadn’t, so for a while I kicked myself for not seeing the obvious. Then as has become my way of approaching most things I had a “come to Whitnie meeting” and simply reminded myself, “it is what it is.” The time had passed and I could either accept it, make a plan to move on or continue kicking myself about something over which I could do nothing. The logical girl I am, I listened to myself, accepted where I was and set about moving forward.

I started at the beginning, asking what my vision was for my life and my work. Was it the same or had it changed? I checked in with my values and priorities making sure that what I did going forward was in alignment. I made a promise to myself that I would do what I wanted, when I wanted, with people I enjoyed and would be grateful each and every day. Along with the motivation, which has not waned since, I added discipline and my life and business are unrecognizable from where they were when I was emotionally struggling.

My biggest lessons were to be in the moment, pay attention to not just what I’m thinking but what I’m doing, dealing with any gap between the two and to be open to change, if that serves me better.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

The best way to retain great talent is to recognize that you have great talent and they are worth keeping. To keep talent worth keeping you have to prioritize keeping that talent.

There is an underlying premise by many in management and leadership that people should be grateful to have jobs, therefore there is no reason to do anything beyond pay them and possibly, not treat them like crap. But that is a foolish approach for two reasons. First, mediocre or poor employees are rarely terminated except in extreme circumstances. That means they continue to perform with mediocrity and the best talent is picking up the slack. Second, because your best talent has the ability to get up and go, when they do, you are left with underperformers.

Let’s get this clear, there should be NO underperformers and their very existence is evidence of a problem with leadership. It is a leader’s inherent duty to get the best out of each and every employee and those that don’t make the cut after investments in developing them, should be reassigned to positions more in line with their abilities and potential. When that is not possible, they should be let go.

The real key — this starts before hiring. Your job as a leader is to create employee development-focused environments and cultures and hire for potential, not the job at hand. In order to make this work however, leadership has to be trained and committed to talent retention and development. Absent that, all the programs and incentives in the world will fail because the underlying commitment is not there.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

Synchronized, effective teams are on the same page, working toward a shared vision, are clear on everyone’s roles and willing to hold each other accountable. And the best way to make that happen is to create that vision together. Your role as leader is to facilitate the conversations and help everyone buy into the end goal. Once you know where you are going, you can identify where you are and the gap between where you are and where you want to be. It is only then that you can chart a course for how to get there.

It is this gap, the path from here to there where everyone’s gifts, talents and abilities will be called upon for the journey. As a team, you’ll figure out what everyone can do using their best and desired skills to contribute. Communication is key and you’ll need everyone to understand and accept their role and how their individual puzzle piece fits into the larger picture.

When team members are clear on what they are doing and how failing to do their part lets the team down, you’ll have less trouble getting everyone to keep up their part.

In one of the larger projects I’ve led, I had responsibility for bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders none of whom I had legitimate authority over. In other words, they didn’t work for me nor did they answer to me in any appreciable way. However, we were working toward a similar end, namely to protect the legislative interests of our respective members, clients and employers in the passage of legislation on a subject of great import in the state of California. From the outset it was apparent that by working as a team, we would be stronger in our negotiating position and therefore more likely to get our desired outcomes.

As the representative of the entity for which the vast number of stakeholders were members, it was my job to advocate on behalf of the whole, even as individual members had competing interests. Therefore, it was imperative that I get as much consensus as possible on those things we could agree and then let stakeholders, in those areas where we couldn’t agree, advocate for their own interests. We spent months working to identify commonality and differences so that we could draft and advocate for language that protected and promoted our position.

What I learned as one of my most important responsibilities was to make sure everyone felt heard. Then to find the right people to work on the various component pieces. Matching abilities and interests to the various roles meant that team members had the opportunity to use their gifts and talents to lift the entire team.

Not every day of that almost yearlong project was rainbows and unicorns. There were disagreements and tension and I spent a great deal of my time creating time and space for members to address their differences and work them out when possible and facilitate a solution when not. It wasn’t easy, but in the end, I was recognized for the Herculean task of managing the team with its constantly changing membership, the project and getting us to our end goal.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

Let’s start with the definition of team. If you are thinking it’s a group of people working together, you are partially right. The other component is about the reason they are working together, which requires the members work toward a common goal and vision.

Also it’s important to note, leadership is not about you; yet it’s all about you. Say what? Yes, sorry, it’s not about you. Leadership is about uplifting, empowering, supporting, nurturing and guiding the team for the purpose of accomplishing the vision for which you are assembled.

Fortunately, I’ve not had any failures as a team leader. Were some experiences less than ideal? Absolutely. But either you win or you learn. I’ve learned a lot. To be clear, there was a time when I wasn’t a great leader because I didn’t understand what it meant to lead. Back then I was focused on myself — my needs and wants. And much of what I did was to pad my resume.

For a long time, I volunteered for leadership roles because I wanted things done my way or to get out of doing other things. One example was as president of my Toastmasters club. In my opinion the club wasn’t being run well. However, I was transactional in my approach rather than relational. While it may have been commendable to step up, it would have been a superior leadership move to help those in charge perform their functions better, not take over for my benefit.

The lessons about the difference came when I sat on the Committee of Bar Examiners. During my four years on the Committee, I had the opportunity to observe others lead the Committee as a whole, along with the various subcommittees. The work we were doing, while not about politics, was political in nature and required an entirely different approach.

To be effective in my roles as subcommittee chair and eventually Committee chair, I realized I had to build relationships with my colleagues, not just expect them to do what I wanted. Out of that came the importance of listening. Even when people don’t get their way, when they feel heard and their input valued they are willing to be influenced to find acceptable solutions or accept results they disagree with.

That lesson and others were reinforced in both my bachelor’s and master’s programs. My developing leadership philosophy was tested while working in concert with others who were also asserting their own approach to leadership. Besides my personal experiences and academic studies, I made a point to observe leadership in action in multiple contexts as a leadership columnist for the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Docket magazine.

The following five things are needed to lead successfully: 1) shared vision, 2) common values and priorities, 3) accept responsibility, 4) self-awareness and 5) care for team.


Vision is the first of the five things you need. Without a shared vision you 1) don’t have a team and 2) you won’t be able to ascertain whether you are successful or not. You have to know where you are going in order to know if you’ve gotten there.

One of my favorite experiences when I was studying at Saint Joseph’s was with a group affectionately dubbed the “A Team.” Before jumping into the course assignments, we did two things, we took the time to get to know a little bit about each other and we set a vision for our time working together.

Our vision was simple. We wanted to learn the material and we wanted to get A’s. We discussed everyone’s strengths and figured out how to delegate assignments so that we could maximize those strengths. We created a weekly schedule to meet and discuss that week’s assignment, how we would approach it, who would be responsible for each component and then assemble it. Each of the four of us had opportunity to lead the team and put our leadership skills to the test.


Once you are on the same page with your shared vision, it is imperative to make sure that the team is operating under the same values and priorities. If there are competing values and priorities, even with a shared vision, it is easy to get off track. Team members will be pulled in competing directions. If vision outlines the path you are on, your values and priorities provide the guardrails that keep you on that path.

I contrast the above experience with one of the worst while I was in this program. Prior to joining the “A Team,” I was a part of a different group that for weeks failed to get off the ground. Despite the incentive of getting to select the week to present our group project, several members of this group were nonresponsive and by the time we ended up getting connected and coordinated, we were left with only three weeks in which to complete the assignment and presentation.

From the very start it was clear that not everyone in the group had the same values and priorities when it came to school, which is fine, but it created discord in the group. Some members of this group didn’t care about grades or about the quality of the completed assignments. They didn’t seem to care about timely communication and therefore there was animus because those who did had to pick of the slack of those who didn’t, providing those who didn’t the reward of a grade for which they were not really entitled based on their contribution.


These two examples highlight the importance of being on the same page, starting with the need to have a shared vision and then operating with common values and inline priorities. This leads into the next necessity which is each team member taking responsibility for their role on the team. Included in this is understanding what your role is and what functions are yours to complete.

This aspect of successful leadership is evident when tough decisions have to be made and your willingness to stand by your decision even if it’s not popular or results in blowback. We all have to make hard choices and the results of those choices are not always optimal. But making the best decision you can with the information you have available to you and in alignment with your values requires true leaders to own those choices.

During my tenure as Committee of Bar Examiners chair we dealt with a contentious issue about disclosing minority applicant bar results. Notwithstanding the controversy and context of the debate, as the Committee chair, I owned the 5–3 decision the Committee ultimately took and when called on the carpet by the media and others, it was my burden to stand by the decision. I didn’t blame staff or any number of other factors. Good leaders, while doing everything possible to minimize undesired outcomes, have to accept responsibility for the actions taken and live with the consequences of those actions.


Nothing has been as beneficial for my growth as a leader as learning about and understanding who I am. This truly is the greatest gift you as a leader can give your team. When you understand yourself, you will constantly be working to improve in areas that result in less than optimal outcomes. As I’ve mentioned, early in my career I was focused on myself and my needs. That meant I was not paying attention to what my team needed.

Two adult experiences have highlighted the need for this trait more than any others: motherhood and marriage. What I’ve come to realize is that I cannot do it alone, I don’t know everything and even when I’m right holding it over others doesn’t get us where we need to go. By recognizing my tendencies to do things that prevent others from having the space to learn and grow in their time, has done two things, 1) increased my patience and 2) reduced my stress. For others, they get a chance to spread their wings and take chances which increases their confidence and competence.

Take the time to understand how things you do impact others and whether you are getting what you want from your actions. Then be willing to make changes as appropriate.


And finally, it is imperative to care for your team members. As a Jesuit educated organizational and leadership professional, I believe it’s about leading with love. Even before my formal education, I agreed with Maya Angelou that, “They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” There is already a divide between employees and leadership and a feeling that leaders are only looking out for themselves. One of ways around this is to put your team’s needs ahead your own. This could mean that leaders don’t get raises when budgets don’t allow their teams to get raises. Or that when a mistake is made you don’t throw your team members under the bus.

Understand who is on your team, why they are there, their plans, needs, etc. Help them achieve what you can. And trust that your investment will pay huge dividends for you and the organization in the long run.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

As stated previously, people don’t care what you know till they know that you care. This may seem a simple statement, but it’s true. Yes, the employer-employee relationship at its core is transactional and your employees are there to do the job for which you pay them. But there is a difference in a group of people showing up daily to do a task and a team banding together and on a mission.

When you started your business, did you have a long to do list of things you wanted to accomplish or a vision for the business you wanted to create? Sit with that for a moment. I could be wrong, but you had a vision of some sort. Probably in the beginning it was just you doing all the things that needed to get done. Then over time you were able to grow your business to a point at which you couldn’t do it all alone. Once you began employing others to help you, you became not only an entrepreneur, but a leader in your company.

This new role requires a different mindset. The best thing you can do for your employees to help them thrive is to accept this role, the mindset of a leader and then begin to cultivate and develop your employees to be a part of your team, not just a group of people doing things for you for the money you pay them.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I am sparking is changing how we do leadership. I’ve developed the SIMPLE Leadership Method, which is a leadership development framework that is about helping the aspiring, new and veteran leader get out of their own way so they can be the catalyst for change in those they lead. Leadership is not about exerting power, but influencing others to join you on a journey toward a shared vision.

One can be in a leadership position, however, that does not make them a good leader. Anyone can be a leader. As a Jesuit educated organizational and leadership development professional I concur with the philosophy that we are all leaders. The question isn’t whether we are, but whether we are effective? Unfortunately, that answer is a resounding no.

This goes back to your earlier question about employees leaving their bosses. The way many if not most bosses become bosses is because they were good at the technical aspects of their jobs. Then they’re promoted to manage people, but often without regard to whether they are any good at that aspect of their new role, which is compounded by the failure to be properly trained for that responsibility.

One of two things happen. 1) In their new role, they approach it without any thought of what kind of boss or leader they will be and do what they have learned from others. That means if they had a lousy leader they will perpetuate that. Or 2) they will intentionally choose to do something other than that which they’d learned because they know that approach doesn’t work. Everyone taking on any job, whether in management or not, but especially in management and having responsibility for the development of human assets, should be very intentional and purposeful in what and how they will do that job.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two that are relatively new for me, but have been absolute game changers as I’ve learned to be less judgmental about myself, other people and situations that relate to the stories I’ve told myself about how things should be and how I choose to see the world.

First, “nothing has any meaning other than that which we give it” and second, “what’s wrong is always available and so is what’s right. So choose what’s right.” I don’t know if these originated with Tony Robbins, but I first them heard a few years ago at his Unleash the Power Within event. I use them on a daily basis by remembering that facts are facts and just because I feel or think a particular way doesn’t mean it’s true.

For instance, suppose we had plans for dinner this evening and at the last minute you called to say you couldn’t make it. I could take it personally and start telling myself the story that you are standing me up and you do this all the time. The truth of the matter is you not having dinner with me means nothing other than you are not having dinner with me. If I interpret you cancelling to mean anything other than that, I am giving my own meaning to the event. I can work myself into a frenzy about you not liking me, not wanting to be friends or that you are always busy doing something more important than me.

In fact, any or all of those could be true or none of them. Regardless of which it is, the way I feel about it isn’t going to change the fact that we are not having dinner tonight. So it is best if I accept what is and then move on from there. Depending on whether it is true that you cancel or stand me up all the time, I can make other choices about how to continue our relationship, but getting angry about tonight’s dinner doesn’t do anything except leave me in a state of anger.

If I choose to give things meaning by making assumptions about what you are thinking or feeling that could impact our relationship depending upon how I treat you as a result. As I have begun taking full responsibility for my life, my thoughts and actions, I see that ascribing meaning to events and motives to people doesn’t serve me.

Applying the second quote to this same scenario, if I’m going to make assumptions about people or situations, why wouldn’t I assume what works for me, what’s in my best interest? In this case, you cancelling dinner with me, instead of assuming that there is something wrong with me or you don’t like me, I’d choose to think that you were simply busy and now I have some extra time to do something else I’ve been wanting to do. Again, if there is a recurring theme to you canceling often, I need to make another set of choices about asking you to dinner or remaining friends.

The benefit of applying these two quotes to my life is reduced anxiety about things not working out the way I want or think they should be, I have learned to go with the flow and am now more accepting of the opportunities that follow what would have been disappointments.

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