Charlene Wheeless – Author of You Are Enough!
Charlene Wheeless is the founder of her namesake firm Charlene Wheeless LLC. She is a renowned business and communications professional, author, speaker, and executive and life empowerment advisor. Additionally, she is the senior advisor for equity and justice at APCO Worldwide, a global advocacy and communications consultancy.
Wheeless is the chairman of the board of trustees for the Page Society and the HCA Virginia Reston Hospital and serves on other industry and community boards. She has received numerous awards for communications and leadership excellence throughout her career, including being named to the PR Week Global Power Book for most influential professionals in Public Relations and The Network Journal’s Most Influential Black Women in Business. Many business, industry, and lifestyle publications have featured Wheeless for her expertise and as a contributing writer.
Before launching her consultancy and following a four-year health crisis, Wheeless retired from corporate America as the principal vice president of global corporate affairs for Bechtel Corporation, a $40B global firm. In her words, “Cancer changed me; so I changed my world.”
Hi Charlene, welcome to Reader Views! What is You Are Enough! about?
The book is part memoir, a cautionary tale, and part of how to create the life you want. The book’s full title was very deliberate and speaks to the book’s purpose: You are Enough! Reclaiming Your Career and Your Life with Purpose, Passion, and Unapologetic Authenticity. The title says it all.
As you state above, You Are Enough! is publicized as a memoir, but it’s actually so much more. What inspired you to write this book?
Many people have mentioned to me that the book is more like two or three books rolled into one!
At the time I wrote the book, I was coming off a difficult battle with breast cancer. Even though I was a “survivor,” I fell into a depression and found that people don’t give you the room to be depressed. They would say, “you just beat cancer; what do you have to be depressed about?” I felt alone, but as I spoke with other cancer survivors they also spoke of depression and didn’t know where to turn. At the same time, I went back to my high-powered job and expected to walk back into my life as though cancer never happened. Boy, was I wrong! I didn’t recognize this new life I was in post-cancer – I mean, I didn’t even look the same, and I didn’t fit into the corporate life I had spent 30+ years building. I had sacrificed a lot as a Black female in corporate environments. I was lost, and I thought someone needed to start talking about these things out loud because people are suffering. So, I wrote about it in the most authentic way I could.
This may seem strange, but I made a commitment to myself that I would never ask God, ‘Why me? Why did I get cancer?’ But I did ask him through prayer to help me see what I was supposed to do with this experience. The book is his answer.
Why do you think it’s so hard for people to give others room to process and just go through the emotions and experiences needed to get to the other side?
As I was preparing for my first day back to work, my husband said, ‘Remember that no one cares that I had cancer.’ At the time, I thought that was such a cold-hearted thing to say. In hindsight, he was mostly right. Once you return, for most people, it’s like it never happened. One of the reasons is that some people are not empathetic to others and are focused on themselves in the workplace. Equally, if you haven’t been through something life-changing, it’s hard to understand that even though someone appears fine, they aren’t. Initially, I tried to keep up a brave front, but within just a few weeks, I couldn’t anymore. I wasn’t up to it, and I wasn’t okay. Now, every chance I get, I ask people to show one another some grace. Sick or not, we can all use a little grace.
You have risen above many challenges in your life. If you had to choose, which was the most difficult?
Living through it all, in general, has been the most difficult. Many of the challenges I’ve faced have impacted how my life went forward at each point. Living through it each time was most challenging, whether it was cancer, abuse, or even feeling marginalized. All of it can make you question your value. That’s another reason I want everyone to understand and honestly believe that they are enough – no matter what anyone else tells you.
What is the biggest thing holding people back from living their best lives?
Fear. People are often afraid of moving forward with something new even when they are unhappy with their current lives. If you’re unhappy or dissatisfied, it’s easier to do nothing. They feel like they don’t have a choice. I like to remind people that doing nothing is a choice.
Does You Are Enough! provide specific steps to follow? How do you recommend one read your book to get the most out of the content?
There is a how-to aspect to my book, which is why I put a few blank pages for notes in the back. Each chapter in the book is a career, and in many cases, also a life strategy. I suggest everyone read it based on what will be most helpful to them at the time. I think it reads nicely in the order intended because it’s a journey. It’s always good to start journeys at the beginning. Take notes of the strategies and how they can implement them in their own lives to change their lives.
If you are a man, you should especially read the book because I spend quite a bit of time talking about how men diminish women in the workplace without knowing it. It’s not a male-bashing book, but it is one that male leaders can learn from, and it will change how they lead.
You talked about the sacrifices you made as black woman in corporate environments. At any time did you feel your sacrifices and the progress you made on behalf of women were all for naught?
Definitely and often. Progress has been so slow. Slow enough that sometimes you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. It’s two steps forward and one step back. It’s hard. There’s no other way to put it. But I try to remember that there were women before me who fought hard so that I could achieve and that now it is my turn to do the same—to pay it forward. I have to believe that If there can be one female executive or minority executive, then there can be two and three and more.
What was your rentry into the corporate world like? After your successful battle with cancer, what changed in the workplace that prompted you to adjust your focus from being a C-level executive to helping other accelerate their own careers?
I’m a high-achieving individual who had nearly died a few times due to complications. That has a powerful way of getting you to focus on what matters. I don’t think anything changed in the workplace, but after being out of the day-to-day for seven months, I felt that I had paid a high enough price for my success and that it was time for me to find a new way to make an impact. I learned a lot during my life journey, and it became more important to me to use that experience to help others.
There are a lot of books on the market about personal empowerment and growth. How –does You Are Enough! stand out from the crowd?
It’s so much more than a personal empowerment and growth book; it’s a cancer book; it’s a career book, and it’s a book about creating the life you deserve. Most everyone can relate to it – men and women, and it’s my story that is true to my experience. Even so, people tell me they see themselves in the book. It’s also not an instructional book. There’s no five-step process to being happy, and I don’t try to offer one.
It’s absolutely so much more and that is exactly what makes it unique to me – what it combines. I’m curious as to what drove you to combine it all into one book instead of writing 1., a memoir about beating cancer and, 2. A leadership/business book?
Well, you have to remember that I set out to write a memoir first and foremost. The more I wrote, I realized how much my career shaped my life, and cancer put an exclamation point on it. It’s a purposeful memoir about resilience; it’s an accidental business and cancer book. But all of it combines to tell my authentic story.
What kind of feedback have you received on your book so far?
I’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction and feedback on the book. So many people have reached out to me through social media to thank me for writing the book, and it had a significant impact on them. A young woman told me that my book changed her life. And since then, I’ve heard that from many other people as well. It’s a remarkable feeling to hear that you’ve made that kind of an impact on someone.
Would you say people are responding more to your business advice or defeating cancer or your life story as a whole?
Yes, to all of it. I didn’t spend much time thinking about who the story would appeal to, and I recognize that is not the right way to write a book. But I wasn’t concerned about commercial success; I was focused on my purpose and my message. To my surprise –and delight—I got feedback from people who concentrated on the business side and found the cancer story interesting and others who found that the cancer story resonated for various reasons. Overall, I would say people read the book for one or the other but ended up appreciating the life story.
Can you share any success stories?
Just last week, a mid-career woman sent me a note that brought tears to my eyes. She said. “I recently read your book. It was sent to me as a gift, and as soon as I started reading it, I knew it was going to impact me in a big way. I’ve even sent it to some friends. I really just want to thank you for putting in the work and sharing your story. I cried reading several parts of the book because it resonated so deeply with me. Many passages made me feel seen and not alone. The book truly blessed my life.”
It is incredibly touching for someone who doesn’t know me to pour their heart out to me and be vulnerable.
Also, I now have lots of digital “pen pals” through social media. When someone writes to me about the book, I respond, and it sometimes leads to new friendships with people I may never see. I also hear from people who have been or are touched by cancer, and I make it a point to stay in contact with them.
How can readers deepen their experience after reading your book? Do you work with people one on one?
Yes. I provide executive coaching where CEOs and other senior executives most often contract me to coach them or a high-potential employee. I also offer life coaching where people come to me to help them work through something or gain clarity or whatever else is holding them back.
What is the single-most important piece of advice you would give to someone seeking to overcome obstacles to living their best life?
It’s choice, not chance, that changes your life, and you have the power to choose.
Is there a female executive who most inspired your business journey? How a personal female hero?
No. As I was coming up in the corporate world, few women, if any, looked like me. I can’t recall ever seeing a female executive and saying that I wanted to be just like her. There just wasn’t a lot of representation. Now, there are plenty of women that I admire, starting with my mother. I admire poets – Maya Angelou; I admire people who break barriers – Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama. I admire everyday women who are working their butts off just to make life work. No matter how hard it is, they don’t give up, and they don’t give in; they just keep going.
So, is this the beginning of your author journey? Will you write other books?
I guess you should never say ‘never,’ but I don’t currently have plans to write another book. My editor seems to think I have another book in me, but who knows. In another ten years, I might have a lot to say!