Charlene Wheeless of APCO Worldwide: “Self-discipline matters”

I like my own company. I thought I’d go nuts without external stimuli, but it turns out, I’m pretty good company. As a part of our series called 5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure to interview Charlene Wheeless. Charlene is a speaker, author, and communications pro […]

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I like my own company. I thought I’d go nuts without external stimuli, but it turns out, I’m pretty good company.


As a part of our series called 5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure to interview Charlene Wheeless.

Charlene is a speaker, author, and communications pro who leads her namesake consulting business serves as the Sr. Advisor for Equity & Justice at APCO Worldwide and is in her second term as chairman of the Page Society. Her debut book, “You Are Enough: Reclaiming Your Career and Your Life with Purpose Passion and Unapologetic Authenticity” publishes in May. In the book, she provides personal accounts of her climb to being one of the first Black female Communications Executives and her three-year battle with breast cancer that forced her to take stock and rebuild her life with purpose.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I’m originally a California girl, raised in Oakland, but moved to New Mexico with my mother when I was a teenager. The first person to go to college in my family, I thought I was going to be a teacher, but before even starting education courses, I took a journalism/PR course elective. It was love at the first letter and from then on, I’ve been passionately dedicated to working in and evolving our field. I’ve worked in the corporate world for more than 33 years and 20-years at the C-suite. I left Corporate in January 2020, just before the pandemic. Talk about timing!

What has been the biggest adjustment while working from home from your in-person workplace? Can you please share a story or example?

I was not really accustomed to sitting at a desk all day — I’m more of a running around kind of person so it’s taken some getting used to all the screen time as well as working in the same place as my husband who has only one Zoom voice and it’s loud! Once we made that adjustment, it’s been smooth sailing.

What do you miss most about your preCOVID lifestyle?

Pre-COVID I was still coming off of a battle with breast cancer and related complications so it’s hard for me to look fondly back at the previous two years leading up to COVID. In some ways, being stuck in my house was a good thing because it gave me a chance to be introspective and to look at all that was happening around us over the past year and see the criticality of the senior communicator and a look at where our industry is headed. And, it gave me a chance to start to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life.

The pandemic was a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see as a result of the COVID pandemic? What do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response?

The shut-down that forced most of us into our homes was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it gave us all time to just regroup once the initial fear passed. It also gave everyone a front-row seat to the dysfunction of our nation when it comes to social and racial equity and justice. The collective outrage we saw after the murder of Mr. George Floyd and others showed me that it isn’t just Black and Brown people who care about racial issues. There were more allies out there than I thought, and now that the covers have been pulled back it will be harder for organizations and society to behave as though there isn’t a problem. I hope that the awareness that we have will remain and with it, a sense of responsibility to act more than we talk.

I know that many people have Zoom fatigue, but I’m not one of them. I’ve enjoyed talking with people who are sitting in their natural habitat — their homes and getting a look at who they really are as a person and not just as someone I work with every day. When people don’t have green screen backgrounds, there is an intimacy that develops because you are often seeing the whole person surrounded by things that matter to them and that tell a story. I think that’s been a gift that people overlook.

I’ve also enjoyed the on-demand and delivery society we’ve become. While I look forward to going out to restaurants again, I also enjoy having food and margaritas from my favorite Mexican food restaurant delivered to my door. I mean, who wouldn’t want that to continue?

How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?

I’m still waiting for the tedium to set in. I’ve managed to keep pretty busy. I wrote a book, started a business, joined a company, fine-tuned a keynote speech, and continued in my role as chair of the Page Society. But to be fair, I also have watched more than my share of trash TV balanced with some great documentaries as well. But usually, reality TV wins out. At the end of the day, I prefer to relax with a glass of wine and the Real Housewives of wherever. I save the cerebral stuff for during the week.

The first couple of months of the pandemic my oldest daughter who lives in California was with us. We spent a good amount of time on TikTok — watching and performing TikTok dances, etc. When she went back to California, it was just in time because I was about to go in pretty deep on the TikTok thing.

What has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?

It’s been hard watching the suffering of others and there has been so much of it that it is hard to comprehend, and it is really sad and heartbreaking. I know people who have lost loved ones, who struggle with loneliness and mental health issues and economic issues. My hurt pales in comparison to the hardships of others, so I don’t like to even acknowledge it.

Like many people, and especially, Black and Brown people, the events over the summer, were very traumatizing to me and my family. We are an interracial family and the impact of seeing how all of this has played out in our country and around the world has been hard. We’ve always taught our mixed-race girls that they are the future and that they are proof that two races can come together and that love always wins over hate. Well, America really tested that over the past year and even within our little family of four, we had some difficult conversations about race. I realized that we had done a great job teaching our kids about race, but not as good a job talking about racism. I wrote a three-part blog piece on what the racial injustice movement looks like to a mixed-race family and I asked each of my children and my husband to contribute. I am so proud of the raw honesty they shared. It was truly beautiful. The series is called Half-and-Half and you can find all three pieces on my website here: www.charlenewheeless.biz/blog-3. You’ll have to scroll to get to it, but it’s worth the time to read it. It’s also on my LinkedIn page.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. I like my own company. I thought I’d go nuts without external stimuli, but it turns out, I’m pretty good company.
  2. My dogs — I have two — are very needy. They whine if I leave the room and they follow me around all day, every day. They will need tranquilizers if I ever work outside the house again. But, you can’t help but enjoy the unconditional love.
  3. I have a lot of stuff that I don’t really need. Unlike many people, though I have not tried to purge my closets, etc. But, I’m keenly aware that I have nearly 200 pairs of shoes and none of them have been worn in a year. I stuck with my three or four favorites — cowboy boots, rhinestone sneakers, Uggs (yes, from the early 90s), and a black pair of heels.
  4. Self-discipline matters. I’m not a sweatpants person, but that seemed like a slippery slope to me. It would be pretty easy to go from sweatpants to no pants, etc., you get the picture. So, I made sure that I got dressed every day as though I was going to work or somewhere that required real clothes, shoes, and make-up. And, as much as possible, I’ve tried to stick to a schedule.
  5. The importance of humanity — showing others some grace and showing yourself some grace.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?

I don’t know that the pandemic made my life lesson quotes any more relevant but they still hold up, and I’m afraid I have to give you two.

From Dr. Maya Angelou: “When you know better, you do better.” This quote took on a whole new meaning over this past year when we were all forced to take a good look at our beliefs and behaviors.

“It’s choice, not chance, that changes your life.” I think Oprah said this, but I’ve said it so often that it feels like mine now.

How can our readers follow you online?

The two best places are my website www.charlenewheeless.biz and LinkedIn, but like everyone else, you can catch me on Insta, Twitter, and Facebook too! I’m off of TikTok for good (I think).

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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