Create a safe space for uncomfortable conversation. There is a lot going on in our world right now and people need a safe space and room to have uncomfortable and difficult conversations without fear or consequences or retribution for telling the truth about how they feel. Make it clear that everyone has a voice in your company and that their views are respected. Open communication promotes inclusion.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlene Wheeless.
Charlene Wheeless is a renowned communications expert, author, and speaker with more than three decades of experience in corporate affairs and communications. She is the founder and CEO of her namesake strategic communications consulting company, where she helps companies and senior leaders navigate and solve their toughest business challenges. Charlene’s debut book “You Are Enough! Reclaiming your Career and Your Life with Purpose Passion and Unapologetic Authenticity,” which is slated for publication in late 2020, details her experience as a Black, female executive in industries that are traditionally white and male, her courageous fight with cancer and lessons from her popular talk ‘Lessons from Being Invisible.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve been in corporate communications and corporate affairs for my entire career. I’m one of those rare people who knew early on what I wanted to do from a career standpoint. My first job after college was with IBM in their communications department, and I’ve never looked back.
A little more than three years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That experience led me to a professional and personal pivot. In short, when my treatment was completed nearly a year later, I figuratively looked up and felt that I no longer recognized the life I had — I was never going to be my pre-cancer self again, so I put on my big girl pants,
left the corporate world, wrote a book, started a public speaking career, and launched a strategic advisor/consulting business.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As a female executive leader, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to advise other women in business. Among the lessons I like to share, at the top of the list is to know and own your value. But when looking to close my first consulting project I ignored my own advice and took on far fewer fees than what I should have. I knew at the time that I was making tactical and strategic errors, but for whatever reason, I fell into the trap of devaluing myself and my expertise. I vowed to never do that again. But it was a great reminder of how easy it is to fall into the trap of wanting to please the customer at the expense of you.
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?
I started my business in earnest during the height of COVID-19 so most of my interactions have been virtual. I learned pretty quickly that you have to pay attention to what’s in the background. My husband has been working in our home office, so initially, I was working from my dressing room. It’s a nice dressing room, with a loveseat in it. I also have a small elderly dog that never lets me out of his sight and for the most part he spends his entire day following me around and laying on that loveseat. During one Zoom call with a potential client, I noticed that my the client was a bit distracted and I felt myself losing him but I wasn’t sure why. I tend to record my Zoom calls so that I can recount the customer’s needs with clarity. Once the meeting ended I watched the recording to see if I could figure out what happened and then I saw it. My little dog decided to clean/lick his private parts during the last half of the call! No wonder my client lost his concentration. It was horribly embarrassing and I’m still waiting for it to be funny to me. Everyone else thinks it was hilarious! I stopped working in my dressing room and moved to another part of the house.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
How much time do you have? There have been so many people who have helped me through various stages of my life and my career. The most influential person from a motivation standpoint is my mother. I was raised by a single mother who died when I was in my twenties so she didn’t live long enough to see my career take off, but the sacrifices she made for me are what propel me forward. My success is how I honor her memory every day.
Also, a CEO I worked for in the late 1990s stands out as an important champion throughout my career. He was the first executive to treat me as a true executive and through his support, I was appointed to a vice president and corporate officer at the age of 35. When I ultimately left the company, it was very difficult for me to leave him. I told the company that was recruiting me that the offer had to be so good that my current CEO would tell me to take the job. They did, he did, and I did.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m not a nervous or anxious person, but before a big meeting I give myself a pep talk and I mentally channel someone and assume their persona. I don’t always channel the same person, but the person I channel most often is Oprah because she knows how to command a room. Sometimes I think, ‘Hmmmm, what would Oprah do or say in this moment?’ Other times, I just remind myself that it’s just a meeting, not rocket science — unless it is.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
The business case for diversity has been made several times over, but something I always come back to is the fact that our population is changing and by that, I mean the racial make-up of our country. With that in mind, if your company and especially your leadership team are not a diverse population the decisions they are making about the future of the business are inherently misguided and wrong because they are making decisions for a demographic that isn’t true anymore. The world is diverse. You need to have a diverse executive team to truly serve the needs of the business.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I think we first have to recognize the moment that we are in right now, which is not about diversity and inclusion, it’s about systemic racism and racial injustice. From that vantage point, my top three are:
1. CEOs need to lead as a human first and CEO second. Employees are stressed out, traumatized and scared. Everyone’s world has been turned upside down due to what I call a societal trifecta — the pandemic, the challenged economy, and racial injustice on clear display. Now is the time for leaders to lead from a point of humanity and empathy. A by-product of that will be inclusion.
2. Create a safe space for uncomfortable conversation. There is a lot going on in our world right now and people need a safe space and room to have uncomfortable and difficult conversations without fear or consequences or retribution for telling the truth about how they feel. Make it clear that everyone has a voice in your company and that their views are respected. Open communication promotes inclusion.
3. Don’t just say it — show it. Companies need to make concerted efforts to diversify their leadership teams, workforces, supply chains, customer bases, office locations and the types of products they make. In business and in government, there has been a lot of rhetoric around equality, equity, and diversity. The time for talk is over. Make your changes visible. Diversify your teams. By the way, it isn’t about removing one person so that you can put in another. Why not just make the pie bigger so that there is room for all?
I guess one more point that I’d like to share is that I don’t think inclusion is enough. I think we need to focus on belonging — making sure that people not just feel welcome, but that they belong.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I used to think that the most important role of the CEO is to make decisions and solve problems. But in actuality, a significant amount of time is spent on people, leadership, and helping others to think through solving problems. Additionally, the CEO is the company’s Secretary of State and a company’s brand is very closely tied to the reputation of the CEO so being visible externally as well as internally is extremely important.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That you own your own time. CEOs are pulled in so many directions all of the time. There is always someone who wants something from you.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Again, how much time do you have? Women executives still have to prove themselves, while men are presumed to be competent. Strong women, who are typically the types who become CEOs still get labeled for certain assertive behaviors that men typically are rewarded for. I read somewhere recently that men are hired for their potential and women are hired for their experience. I think that says it all.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be? It’s pretty much exactly how I thought it would be. A lot of hard work, but enjoyable. A little scary at times because you don’t know when or if all your clients are going to dry up one day. But ultimately, very rewarding and deeply satisfying.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Executive traits that I see consistently in successful people are confidence without arrogance, an abundance of self-awareness which enables them to be agile, they care about people and it shows and they are great listeners.
In general, people who have difficulty making decisions or are enamored with what they perceive as the power of being an executive should really stay away from executive positions. Or people who have a thin skin. As an executive, you are always on display. You don’t get to have a bad day.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive? Build an “army of advocates”; people who will be champions for you and your team. Focus heavily on professional development of team members and invest in their success personally and professionally. Someone once told me that his philosophy in managing people is to “Pull the weeds and water the flowers.” It’s a simple statement and very helpful. So often, leaders focus heavily on the people who bring challenges at the expense of nurturing top talent. When that happens, the entire team sees it, feels it, and is usually less productive as a result.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place? Of course, first and foremost is by helping other people learn and succeed. My goal is to mentor people into greater levels of success than me because it takes all of us to make the world a better place. Like most leaders I know, I give my time and money to great causes — local and national — that are focused on leaving this world better off than how we found it. I often think about legacies and to me, a legacy is built by every person you touch and if you inspire and motivate others to take a positive action, well, that’s powerful.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.) In no particular order:
1. Hire someone to handle the back-office support of your business. I have found that the administration side of running a business is really boring and I don’t particularly like it. I wish I had found a partner to outsource these tasks to earlier, so that I could focus my time on the purpose and promise of the business. 2. That I would work longer hours and harder than I did when I was in the corporate world. That’s the
downside. The upside is that you love every minute of it. Still, it’s better in the long-run if you pace yourself.
3. Be careful about providing “free” advice. Your knowledge is the intellectual property that you have built your
business on. It’s hard to build a business if you give away your IP. 4. You will be tempted to take jobs that you shouldn’t. Write down what you are attempting to do and generate
by starting a business. Put it on a post-it note and stick it on your computer or a place where you see it every day. Stay true to your vision. It’s very easy to get distracted. 5. That there was going to be a global pandemic. Of course, no one could foresee what we are dealing with
right now as a nation and as a world, but gosh it would have been nice to have had a crystal ball.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would encourage people to live a life of purpose, passion and authenticity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” — Teddy Roosevelt
Businesses operate because of people. If you are going to build a strong team, they have to know you care about them. Many people believe that if you put the customer first, everything else will fall into place. I understand that view, but I believe that if you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers. I used to be the queen of “It’s not personal, it’s business.” And, truthfully, that thought has failed me every time. It wasn’t until I realized that if people are involved, it’s personal, that I was able to build successful teams and meaningful relationships at work.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh, that’s an easy one for me. Darius Rucker, the singer. I’ve always been a fan of his solo music because his lyrics often move me. When I was going through cancer treatment, the day I finished chemotherapy I was at my weakest and just plain tired of everything. I was sick most of the time, I was weak, and the list goes on. In an effort to cheer me up, one of my daughters sent him a picture of me sitting in the chemo infusion chair after my last treatment — bald head and everything. She sent it privately through his Instagram account with a note. He (or his people) later posted it on his Instagram account with a message below it encouraging me to keep fighting and he would keep praying. Now, I know that many celebrities hire people to manage their accounts and there is a very good chance that he has no idea that this occurred. But what came next was so powerful for me. Underneath his post, some of his fans wrote messages of encouragement to me. As I read post after post, I just cried –not pretty tears — this was ugly crying. I let it all out and I hadn’t really done that before. I don’t know any of the people who posted those messages of encouragement but reading them gave me the strength I needed at that moment to keep fighting and keep looking forward. So, why Darius Rucker? So that I could say thank you.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.