Discovering Your Purpose with Charlene Wheeless

Charlene Wheeless is a recovering c-suite executive who is unapologetically authentic. When she started immersing herself in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) conversations, she heard so many excuses for why corporations were failing at DEI, including the “we have a pipeline issue” rationale.  That wasn’t going to fly with Charlene.

Charlene on Linkedin

Charlene’s book, You Are Enough! Reclaiming Your Career and Your Life with Purpose, Passion, and Unapologetic Authenticity


Jackie Ferguson: Hi, and welcome to season four of the Diversity Beyond the Checkbox Podcast sponsored by The Diversity Movement. I’m your host, Jackie Ferguson equality advocate and certified diversity executive. On this show, we discuss how diversity, equity and inclusion benefit our workplaces, schools, and communities by sharing the stories, insights, and best practices of game changers, leaders, and glass ceiling breakers that are doing the work to make our world a more understanding, welcoming and supportive place for us all.

Please welcome Charlene Wheeless to Diversity Beyond the Checkbox. Charlene is a former Communications Executive, winning PR awards from PR Week Magazine to Washington Business Journal and beyond. She is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and leadership and harmony life coach. Charlene, welcome to the diversity beyond the checkbox podcast. 

Charlene Wheeless: Thank you. I’m excited to be here with you, Jackie. Thanks.

Jackie Ferguson: Charlene, can you tell us a little bit more about your early career and then get into what you’re doing today?

Charlene Wheeless: So, I started out when I decided to go to college, I’m the first one in my family to go to college and I thought I would be a teacher when I went to school. And it was really a product of one, I liked the idea, but growing up a teacher was the only black professional I had ever seen. And so that seemed to me that that’s what I was supposed to do. My freshman year in college, I was telling somebody about this, getting ready for my education courses.

And we talked a little bit about what the lifestyle and quite frankly, what I probably would be making as a teacher. And I thought, whoa, maybe I should think about something else, but I was still pretty dedicated to it. But I took an elective course, and my first elective was a journalism course.

And so, it was a love at first letter, and from the moment I started in journalism I knew my career would be in journalism, PR communications, and 35 years later I’ve never looked back, you know? And so, you know, I did the typical. You graduate from college, you take on a corporate job and you climb the corporate ladder, or claw the corporate ladder, which is most appropriate. 

And I became a vice president at a company, a multi-billion-dollar company that was, I was their first female vice president at the age of 35, and continued to climb the corporate ladder. And then, in 2017, I was at the height of my career. I was a principal vice-president for a $40 billion company, running all of their corporate affairs at work.

And I was diagnosed with breast cancer and that completely changed my life. And so, the life I live today is, you know, 180 degrees different from anything I thought I’d be doing.

Jackie Ferguson: And Charlene, you often talk about being a recovering C-suite executive, tell me what that means?

Charlene Wheeless: Well, you know, I alluded to a little bit, you know, climbing the corporate ladder as an only, right. An only female, only minority, is really hard. And, you know, I’m not going to sugar coat it it’s tough. What you find is that in the process of becoming successful and getting attention that you are often made to turn yourself inside out, turn yourself into something that’s different from who you are.

 You know, after a while, and particularly getting to the level that I was at, you know, I turned myself inside out so many times that I just didn’t even know who I was anymore. And so, once I stepped away from that and created a different life for myself and had a chance to just step back and be unapologetically authentic, then that’s why I say I’m now a recovering C-suite executive because I’m not willing to do that anymore. And I think that people can be successful being authentic. 

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. That is so important, you know, especially as we get older and we think well we’ve carved this one path ourselves, but so often there are circumstances, life events, realizations, personal realizations that make us want to say, you know, I think I want to do something different. To be empowered to do that and feel confident and comfortable in doing that, I think is so fantastic. 

Charlene Wheeless: Yeah. Well, you know, I have to be, you know, honest about it in that, when I was that type a personality hard charging executive achieve at all costs, I wasn’t unhappy. I would not have, I would not have left that life if I hadn’t had cancer and that demanded that I changed my life and I’m better off for it, but I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to come to the spot that I’m in today if that hadn’t happened. 

Jackie Ferguson: Got it. Thank you for sharing that. Charlene, you work with companies on equity injustice in the work place. Talk to us about why this matters to organizations and company culture.

Charlene Wheeless: Sure. So, you know, companies and business in general have been working on, diversity, on DEI for the better part of 30 years. And I remember, you know, when I started my career at a very large company it didn’t take long for me to ask, you know, why aren’t there more people who look like me? And the answer I would get is, well, it’s a pipeline issue, right? Right, and so now it’s 30 plus years later.

And I think to myself, how can it still be a pipeline issue? Haven’t those people grown up yet, you know? So, what that says to me is that we can’t just look at diversity equity and inclusion. I think we have to take a step to the left to say, what is feeding that issue? And that’s really why I focus on equity and justice and my work with ATPCO worldwide.

Is because companies need to look at their systems and their structures and what is in the way of keeping people and particularly people of color, people who are underrepresented, you know, what is keeping us from ascending to the top levels of the organization. And so, we have all heard about the business case for diversity, which I think is great, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.

And also, when you think about equity injustice, that also means that all of your ideas are valued. You’re valued. You’re not just included, but you belong, right. So, equity injustice is about creating equity and justice for everybody, right? Not just one set of people or one group of people, because you know, people often will say, you know, we have to correct the system.

And I want to remind people, the system works exactly as it was intended, to benefit one group of people and to disadvantage another group. So, it’s not about just looking at that system. It’s about dismantling that system and creating a new one that is built on equity injustice. And I think in your company, if you can center your company and your company culture on equity injustice, you’ll be the winners in the war for talent, in the war for customers and in the war for reputation.

Jackie Ferguson: I love that, I would ask that that the listeners rewind that part and listen to it again, because there are so much information in that statement, thank you for that. As you think about a pipeline and you know, that’s certainly part of the work that I do is just often people find that their pipeline looks a lot like them and it’s because their network looks a lot like them. Go to the same schools, you know, same friend group, same demographics. And when you start to expand that network, that network of where you’re pulling, you know, potential hires and candidates from you can grow your pipeline and diversify your pipeline that way. And if you’ve got an issue there, Charlene, to your point, you’re going to have an issue with recruiting, you’re going to have an issue with promoting diverse candidates inside your organization as well. 

Charlene Wheeless: Absolutely. You know, one of my biggest concerns in business right now is that companies are pouring money into getting diverse talent into the pipeline and in their organizations. And they’re going to spend about two years, you know, putting all these resources into it and then their minority candidates are going to walk out the door and it’s going to be because they never felt that they had a fair chance that there was not opportunity for that.

 Companies need to look at the entire maturity scale, right, the entire journey. And I always find it interesting with leadership teams, when you have a group of, you know, six or seven men, usually white men sitting around the table saying, what do we need to do to make more black people comfortable? Right. Well, how would you know? Right? 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s exactly right.

Charlene Wheeless: It’s an interesting phenomenon to me. 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s right. You really have to lay the foundation at your organization of inclusion of equity before you’re even ready to start recruiting those diverse candidates. So important.

Charlene, one of your keynotes is on communicating to understand. Yes, it’s so important because so many of us do not feel understood at times, how can we work towards that?

Charlene Wheeless: You know, I used to have a boss who would say, you know, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Right. and, so I think when you talk about communicating to understand, it’s really about listening to understand. And people forget when they are communicating that effective communication isn’t me talking to you, it’s you understanding what I’m saying? And my understanding what you’re saying, but so often people are so focused on disseminating information and quite frankly, in the business environment about showing how smart we are, that we forget to stop and listen and understand, and, you know, everybody has a story.

And they bring that story with them every single day. So, listen to it, you know, listen to what people are going through. And I think one of the things about the pandemic, and I know a lot of people say that they have, you know, zoom fatigue, and you know, they’re tired of all of this. And, you know, I’m, I’m one of those people where I don’t have zoom fatigue. And the reason I don’t is because when I talk to people, in work situations and they don’t have a virtual background, they have their actual background, I’m seeing things in their background that tell me about who they are as a person. Not who they are when they would walk in the office and tried to leave everything behind, but who they are, even if that means a little dog runs by or a cat runs across the desk, you know, whatever it is.

It’s another way to understand. So, you know, with my book where I talk a lot about authenticity, that gets to the understanding too, is letting people be authentic and then listening to them when they are. so, remembering that, I guess the short way with, you know, long story short, too late, right. But the you know, the short way is to focus on whether or not the person you’re talking to understands and hears what you’re saying, rather than focusing on what you have to say.

Jackie Ferguson: That’s right, absolutely. Let’s talk for a moment about the pivotal moment when you were diagnosed with breast cancer. Can you talk about your journey a little bit? 

Charlene Wheeless: Wow. Yes, I can.  It was in 2017, although it still feels like it was yesterday and I had, you know, type a personality, you know, achievement oriented, didn’t have time. Oh, I’ll get a mammogram sometime I’m busy, blah, blah, blah. And for some reason I did stop and have a mammogram and everything came out fine.

But the doctors said that they’d like to do a biopsy, so I needed to go in to see a breast surgeon.  because my insurance required a pre-approval. So, I went to see her and, in the process, she did a breast exam and she said, hey, I feel something, but it’s not on your films.  do you mind if we do a biopsy here in the office, I said, okay, sure, that’s fine.

 Good for me. Let’s get it over with. And so, she did the biopsy, that was a Friday afternoon. She called me on a Monday, that Monday afternoon, I was, I’ll never forget it. I was in a meeting and I’d taken my phone with me, which was unusual. I don’t use to take my cell phone into meetings, but I knew she might call and she called, so I stepped outside and I’m in the hallway and she says to me, Charlene, it was that spot.

You have breast cancer. And then I said, okay, that’s all I did. I just said, okay. And then I felt tears burning behind my eyes and I said, I have to go. And I hung up and I grabbed my things from the from the office that I was in and I went to my office and I just got in my car and I drove home and then I called her and I said, okay.

I said, I don’t know how to have cancer. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. What do I do? And that started the end of a life that I had spent 30 years building and the beginning of a life that I had no idea where it was going. It was heartbreaking. 

Jackie Ferguson: Charlene, thank you for, for sharing that, you know, I’m going to get super personal 

Charlene Wheeless: with the course.

Jackie Ferguson: I have a friend that is dealing with cancer right now that I think needs to hear from you. Okay. Do you mind just sharing some words of wisdom for her?

Charlene Wheeless:  Take care of yourself, put yourself first, and I really mean put yourself first. And what’s going to happen is you’re going to have friends who rally around you and it’s such a beautiful thing, but what you quickly start to feel is that some friends come around because they need you to make them feel better about the fact that you have cancer. 

And while they are intent, their intentions are good, it’s exhausting. And when people leave, you don’t have any energy and you need that energy to get better. So, self-care is not the same as being selfless, being selfish. And you’re going to have good days and think that you can, you know, climb a mountain because they pump you with steroids when you have chemo.

But when you crash, you crash hard and just know that you’re going to bounce back from it, and that it’s scary and it’s always scary, but that you can do it. You can fight through it. You won’t always feel that way, but you can. And, but you have to put yourself first and you have to believe in your inherent ability to get better.

and don’t push yourself. You know, some people, they, and I started out this way, you know, my whole focus was on fighting for my life so that I could get back to the life I had. And I wish someone had told me that. I would never have the life I had. You’re never going to be that person again, but you might just be somebody better, right, and to embrace that, and by all means, do whatever you want. If that means you’re having ice cream at three o’clock in the morning or whatever it is, or you’re having wine at 10 o’clock in the morning do whatever you want indulge yourself indulge yourself, but don’t give up hope. 

And I’d say one thing that that I think is really important that people often don’t do, and it comes down to self-advocacy and if you are getting the best care that you think you can fantastic. But if you get one little inkling that you need to talk to somebody else or see a different doctor, don’t waste a moment thinking about it. If you go to someone else, you’re going to hurt your doctor’s feelings, shocked at how many people get stuck in that one.

If your doctor cares about you, they want you to have the best care, even if that means it’s not them. Yeah, right. But really, you know, hold onto yourself, hold on to the people who are, who are close to you and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You know, we get so weak and we feel like asking for help makes us weaker.

It gives you strength. Sometimes you need the strength of other people and it’s okay. It’s just it’s okay. And just believe, and I tell you Jackie’s friend, Jackie has all of my contact information. And if you ever need to call text, email, whatever it is, don’t hesitate. You just reach out and say, this is what I’m going through, or I’m having a really crappy day.

Or if you just want to cry to somebody who doesn’t know you, it’s all. Okay. And. I’m here. 

Jackie Ferguson: Thank you so much. I appreciate that. Thank you very much. 

Charlene Wheeless: Of course, of course we all belong to each other. I really believe that. 

Jackie Ferguson: Charlene you say it’s choice, not chance that changes your life, and I couldn’t agree more with that. How can we be more intentional about our choices to change our outcomes, and what do you say to people that, that feel stuck in their situations? 

Charlene Wheeless: Well, let me start with the people who feel stuck, and I immediately ask them what are they afraid of? Because if you’re stuck, typically it’s because you’re afraid. So, I will ask the question what would you do if you weren’t afraid? And let’s just think about that.

And then how do you get over that fear? And I have this saying that I use quite often and it’s called seven seconds of courage. Okay. I think you can change your whole life, your whole world with seven seconds of courage. Because it takes just seven seconds to take a deep breath, make your decision and take an action.

Seven seconds. And if you look at the neuroscience of it, it will tell you that between second, six and second seven is when the emotion leaves your decision-making process. And so, I tell people, okay, let’s think about this. Let’s take a deep breath, seven seconds of courage. What would you do in those seven seconds?

And people will say, you know, in my coaching business, people will say, well, I would do this, and I said, well, okay then. Let’s talk about how we’re going to do that. Let’s break that down and figure out how we’re going to do that. But the number one thing is to get fear out of the way, right. And that’s why my book, which has as you know, has a very long title, but that’s why it starts with you are enough because so many of us, especially women, women of color and people from underrepresented groups, we never feel like we’re enough.

Right? Whatever it is, we don’t even know what we’re not enough of, right. We’re always told that, we’re not enough, or we’re made to feel that we’re not enough. And let’s start with I am enough. I am exactly who I need to be, and so I’m going to stop giving my most, and I’m going to give my best.

And that’s going to change your life. So, when I say it’s choice, not chance that changes your life, it is choice, right. And often, you know, people will say to me, or I’ll, I’ll, I’ll talk to folks and they’ll say, I got this promotion, I was so lucky I was in the right place at the right time. And I just say, stop.

Yeah, you were not lucky you got that promotion because you earned it. You own it. Own your value, you know, and I just want women, and especially women of color, for us to know deep inside, we are enough. And when you do that, you let go of the fear, you know, and I tell people, stop trying to get everybody to like you when you don’t even like everybody. Right? So why are we doing this?

Jackie Ferguson: Oh, that’s such good advice. You know, what would you do if you weren’t afraid? I love that question because there’s so much possibility in that question. 

Charlene Wheeless: Absolutely, absolutely. And there’s so few things to be afraid of. A lot of them just live in our head when it comes to taking an action. So, seven seconds of courage. 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s so fantastic. Charlene, let’s talk about your book, it’s called “You Are Enough: Reclaiming Your Career and Your Life with Purpose, Passion, And Unapologetic Authenticity.” What are readers going to learn, discover and understand by reading that book? 

Charlene Wheeless: Well, wow. Well, the book is two, at least two, if not three books in one, although it’s a quick read, you know, its part memoir, which is really talking about my life and my climb up the corporate ladder.

And I really take the time to tell the real stories. I don’t gloss over what happened when I was climbing that ladder, right. Because I want people to learn from that, and there were some hard lessons I learned and I want people to understand that yes, you might walk in my shoes, but maybe I can make it a little bit easier for you than it was for me.

The other part of it is more of a, how to resilience story. You know, I took the lessons I learned in climbing that corporate ladder and creating my career. I took those same lessons and applied them to my battle with cancer and particularly after cancer to create the life that I wanted versus the life I had.

And so, in the book it’s really my journey. Of how I did it, how I found my way to myself, how I found my purpose and my mission and got the courage to do it and helping other people be able to giving them permission and showing them how to find that same courage to create the life they want, right. And it’s a fun read too as well. 

Jackie Ferguson: Yep, really is.  It’s an easy read because you know, you just go through your story and you just feel like you’re getting to know you, but you get these amazing nuggets all along the way. So, I really enjoyed it, Charlene.

Charlene Wheeless: Oh, I’m so glad. I’m so glad. I hear a lot of people tell me, you know, I started the book thinking I was reading your story and by the time I finished, I felt like I was reading my own story. And that’s such a great gift. I didn’t know that I could do that. That was such a great gift. 

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. And let’s talk about the beginning of the title. You Are Enough. It’s such a simple statement, but a powerful statement.

And, you know, as we talked about earlier, so many of us need to hear that because, you know, we go through life with the media and with what we see and hear, and then we go into the workplace and very often we’re talked over, we’re not given credit for our potential, the way other demographics are given credit for potential versus accomplishments.

Right. Right. How do we empower ourselves and how do we empower each other? To know that we are enough. What are your tips there, Charlene? 

Charlene Wheeless: Yeah. First and foremost, just because someone tells you you’re something does not mean that you have to believe it, own it and become it. Right, and so often when someone says, well, you can achieve, but you’re limited in what you can do.

We say, well, okay. I guess I’m limited in what I can do. And what we need to say is thank you for your opinion, and I’m going to go on and kill it like I know that I can. So, you know, often when people limit us, they underestimate us we have to understand that that’s saying so much more about them than it is about us, and we don’t have to own it and we don’t have to accept it.

Right, and so often we will give away our power. And so, I really like to encourage people, don’t give away your power. Why would you do that? And it starts with little things, you know, particularly and you look at the studies with black women in the office, it has been scientifically proven that black women more often than any other race are called by each other’s names in the office, it’s almost like we’re indistinguishable from one another, to the powers that be in an organization. And this has been scientifically proven, it isn’t just, you know, the gospel according to me. And what we do is we say, oh, we see, we may correct the person. And we say, oh, that’s okay.

Don’t worry about it. blah blah blah. Yes, worry about it. It’s your name. People need to get your name, right, because that shows respect. And you know, as I’ve told my girls, as they’re climbing and making their way through their lives every day, you’re teaching people how to treat you every single day.

So don’t let the little thing go by so that you don’t become the angry black woman in the office or the person who makes everything about race. If you think I make everything about race, that tells me you think everything is about race, not me, right. So, you know, I think we just have to start with the understanding that no one can tell us who we are, except for us.

Right. And we are enough. I mean, I’ve been through the work environments of, you wear, your colors are too bright. We don’t wear bright colors in the office. We don’t wear high heels in the office. You know, you need to have on a French manicure, you can’t have, you know, you can have colored nail polish.

That’s not professional. Well, you know what? I just call the BS flag on all of that, cause what does any of that have to do with my ability to get my job? And so that’s, it’s, you are enough, you know, I end my book, which, you know, so if you’ve read it, you know, the last things I say in my book is that after all the years of opportunities and triumphs and challenges, I rely on two undisputable truths.

And that is, I am the child of the most high God and I’m enough, and that’s enough for me. And I want that to be enough for everybody. Sorry, you can tell Jackie, I get kind of passionate and carried away with that. 

Jackie Ferguson: The thing about it is, I love that. And it’s so important because you can’t reinforce that enough for people that need to hear it because so much of what’s happening on the outside, you know, whether it’s media or, you know, just our society or in the workplace, it’s the negative is reinforced. And so, I want to give you every single second that you wanted with that because people need that people need that.

Charlene Wheeless: Let’s talk about imposter syndrome for a moment. Studies have shown that 70% of girls, teenagers, walk around with imposter syndrome, thinking that they are not good enough.

70%. Yeah, what’s worse is in the workplace, it’s 80%. So, eight out of every 10 women are walking around thinking that they’re going to be found out at some point that they’re not as smart or as good as they’ve been pretending to be, and it’s ridiculous. It’s based on absolutely nothing. Right, but we all feel it even, I, you know, I fell into it too.

It’s like, oh my gosh, I have this big job. What if they find out I don’t know that I can do it? Well, guess what? You have the job because you can do it. So, when you start hearing that negative soundtrack in your head, that saying, oh, you’re an imposter. You can’t do this. You can’t do this.

Start asking your imposter voice, what are your facts? Tell me what your facts are, because your facts usually are not going to base are not going to follow with what that voice is telling you. And I am on a mission, quite frankly, Jackie, to eliminate impostor syndrome in women, because it just holds us back for no reason. And part of it is we need to build each other up. We need to build up each other. 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s exactly right. Charlene, I’ll tell you when I got into DEI and I’ve worked in marketing and HR and different aspects of business, I wrote a course, right, that’s being used all over the US. I started doing speaking engagements and, and for, you know, 300-400 people.

And I said to my husband, this was a year into it, why do people want to talk? Right because, you know, what, why would they want to talk to me? And that’s real imposter syndrome and that feeling and wondering if you are enough, is real for so many of us. And it wasn’t until just much later that I said, okay, because I know what I’m talking about.

Right. I have a real perspective that can be valuable to people to hear. And it took time, it took real time after I had already proven that I was qualified that I had the credentials, right. It took me some time to really lean into it and feel comfortable in myself that I knew what I was doing.

Charlene Wheeless: Right, right. And that’s the best gift you can give yourself and the audience who’s listening to you. Right, because they’re trying, they want to get that knowledge, that power, that confidence they want to understand. And I think spreading a message of empowerment is one of the best things that we can do. It’s how we share our success, yeah. And congratulations by the way.

Jackie Ferguson: oh, thank you, thank you. You know, it’s, it’s been such an exciting ride, all of the things that I’ve been able to do and the people I’ve been able to talk to and touch and help, and it’s been really fantastic. But stepping out in the front because I’ve always been, you know, in a support role, operations role, to step out into the front was a tough transition for me.

Charlene Wheeless: Oh yeah. Well, tell me about it. I just walked away from a 33-year corporate career, I know exactly what you mean, yes. 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s so important. Charlene, many of us understand being the only one in the room from a business standpoint. Tell us about what you call the lessons from being invisible and how to climb the corporate ladder anyway.

Charlene Wheeless: Ah, yes. So, lessons from being invisible comes from a lecture series, a lecture I’ve been giving for years that I have been building for at least 20 years. And it really just talks about how women and women of color, how we can become invisible. You know, you’re in meetings and you say something brilliant, no one says a word.

And then someone who doesn’t look like you says the exact same thing, and everybody says, oh, that’s a great idea, and nobody even remembers that you ever said it right. Or, you know, every day you have to prove yourself when other people are just automatically considered competent. Right, because we are invisible.

So, in my book, I talk about the strategies. of how not to be invisible, you know? And one of the first ones, of course, in the first chapter is quit whining, right. And it’s a bit of tough love, I know, but let’s stop asking ourselves when is somebody going to fix X and let’s just take charge and fix it for ourselves.

Right, another is ask for what you want. You know, when I was first promoted to a vice president at a billion-dollar company, and when I was 35, I asked the chairman one day, I said, you know, I’ve been working at this level for quite some time. What took so long for me to be promoted to a vice president.

And he said, Charlene, you never told anybody you wanted to be a vice president. I was like, what? And he said, if you were a man, a man would have walked in here five years ago and said, my goal is to be a vice president at this company. He says, you never said that, you were happy, you had two young children, you had a very successful husband.

We assumed you were on the mommy track, not the executive track. Ask for what you want. If you don’t ask, how are you going to get it? And I, you know, I won’t go through all of them because then nobody needs to buy the book. One that I will share that I think is hugely important is not everybody is invested in your success.

And some people are invested in your failure. Recognize it, find those people, and then move on. And then find the people, your champions, not your mentors, but your champions who are going to advocate for you when you can’t be in the room. 

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. Charlene in your book, you talk about self-discovery. How you begin that journey?

Charlene Wheeless: Well, I imagine it’s different for everybody. For me, it was really because of the cancer diagnosis and, my cancer treatment was intended to be seven months long. You know, I had the surgery where I had my breast cutoff. I had chemotherapy and I had radiation. And then I thought I just go back to my life.

And when the smoke cleared, I started having complications. My seven-month treatment turned into a four-year treatment. And when I looked up, I realized I didn’t recognize the life I was in, and when I tried to go back to work, I didn’t fit into the life I had, and I wasn’t getting better on top of it.

So, I, one had to make a decision to put myself and my health first, and then I had to step back and say, okay, I’ve left my job. What am I going to do? What is it I’m supposed to do? And rather than get worked up and start thinking about different things, I just sat with it for a while. I said, I’m just going to sit with this.

Yeah, and I’m just going to let it come to me. Now, I have to acknowledge I’m one of those people that I think if something bad happens to you, that you have a responsibility to turn it into something positive for someone else. so, I sat with that to try to figure out what was that gift because I really didn’t know.

And Jackie, literally, I woke up one day and I said, I have to write a book. I’m supposed to write a book, and that’s what started the process. And I thought that the story I needed to tell was my journey through cancer, but then I realized that my story I needed to tell was climbing that corporate ladder and asking myself at what cost right.

And figuring out, for other people, that there’s a saner way to climb. Right, and that’s why the book is not called claiming your life. It’s called Reclaiming your Career and Your Life with Purpose, Passion and Unapologetic Authenticity, because I think people can be successful. No, I know people can be successful and should be able to be successful just by being themselves.

Cancer was my catalyst. I’m sure it’s something different for other people. But what I would say is whatever it is, when it hits, sit with it, don’t try to answer the question, just sit with it and let it be revealed, and once I decided to write the book and I then decided I was going to start focusing on equity injustice.

Everything else just started unfolding in front of me, not because of me, but for me. It was just an amazing thing. And it’s the same thing with being the, getting into coaching and being a leadership and a harmony coach, a life harmony coach. It just revealed itself to me. Yeah, and I think that’s what happens when you really discover your purpose and your mission, but you get to have to get off that treadmill to find it.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. I love sitting with it because very often we have this intuition or this instinct or feeling, and we talk ourselves out of it some way. Right, but being able to sit with it and finding that balance and finding what’s right for you is so important, right?

Charlene Wheeless:  Yeah, and we ha we have to let all the other voices go away, people telling us what we should be doing, or shouldn’t be doing, and just let it go, like put on your noise canceling earphones, and just sit with yourself. And it’s just amazing what can be revealed to you. I know it sounds a little woo woo, but that’s what happens.

Jackie Ferguson: Absolutely. You know, we’re so busy, right? Whether, with whatever’s happening in our life and our mind with our family, you know, what’s our schedule and really sitting down and just being able to be still can reveal so much.

Charlene Wheeless: Yeah, I was so busy being busy until I couldn’t anymore, until my body said no. But even, I guess, in the process, you know, I talk about work-life harmony, not work-life balance because I actually don’t believe in work-life balance.

Right. I’ve never seen it. I don’t think it exists. And I wish people would stop trying to get it because it is, it is elusive. Think more about it as work-life harmony, because there are times where certain parts of your life needs you and other times don’t, and when there’s a conflict, that’s when you have to think back to you to your values, to what really matters.

But I really try to encourage people to make decisions that work for them. Stick with those decisions and don’t apologize for them, right. Because what works for me may be different for you. And that’s okay. It’s just what works for our family, you know, but don’t give into the pressure. You know, I live in the suburbs in what I call Pleasantville.

You know, at least three quarters of my neighborhood, the women, when my girls were little, they all worked in the home, which I have great respect for, but when I would leave in the morning, you know, they would be at the bus stop with their kids in their cute tracksuits and their ponytails and their Starbucks coffee.

And I nicknamed them the mommy mafia because they were judging me every day, right.  And I finally just said, you know, I’m working because I want to, because that makes me a better parent, a happier parent. So, you do what works for you and, and own it, right. Don’t make, let other people think you have to apologize for it. Cause you are enough. 

Jackie Ferguson: That’s right. Charlene, tell us who or what has inspired you to achieve so much to keep moving forward, to push through all the challenges that you have. 

Charlene Wheeless: Well, I was raised by a single mother. My mother was an abused wife, a battered wife, and she ultimately when I was around seven, she left my father. And my, I have three brothers and they went to live with my father and I stayed with my mother.

And I watched my mother work two jobs, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet just so that I could have a life so that I could have opportunity. And my mother died in her fifties having her second heart transplant. I am confident that the stress she carried and her early life contributes significantly to a very premature death.

And so, for me, she sacrificed so much for me that I just feel like I am her living legacy. And whenever there’s a time, had been a time in my life when I wanted to give up, or I just say this was too hard, I would think to myself, how dare I, when my mother sacrificed so much, just so her daughter could achieve, how dare I not give 150% every day?

And so, my mother drives me because I am her living legacy. Yes, I want her to be proud every single day. Excuse me, sorry. I get worked up, but, you know, and, and I tell my girls the same thing, you know, my girls will say, oh mom, we are your living legacy. And I say, no, you are your grandmother’s living legacy, and don’t forget that.

Jackie Ferguson:  I love that, thank you for sharing that. Charlene, I’m going to ask my favorite question, I ask this of all my guests. Okay, tell us something about you that not a lot of people know.

Charlene Wheeless: So, I’ll give you two. When I was in high school, I was the president of the future homemakers of America, which nobody ever believes. Yeah, no one I know ever believes that. And I spent four years as an NFL cheerleader for the Washington football team.

Jackie Ferguson: Yeah, really fantastic. Wow, okay.

Charlene Wheeless:  Yeah, see I had a rabbit to pull out there. 

Jackie Ferguson: I love that question because I never know what I’m going to hear, and that is really interesting. All right, Charlene, tell us how people can connect with you, how they can purchase your book. 

Charlene Wheeless: Great. So, my book is available on, on Barnes and Noble, in independent bookstores as well, and I think it’s even on also, and then through my publisher Amplify Publishing You can reach me on my website, at and I’m also very active on social channels on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, all of them, you can reach me on any of them, LinkedIn as best other than my, than my website. I do public speaking. I am primarily, there are a number of topics I talk on, but I primarily talk about resilience. I’m a motivational speaker. And I also serve as a leadership coach and personal development coach.

 And so, if people are interested in in those services as well, they can reach me through my website and through LinkedIn. And sometimes even if you’re not looking for a coach, but you just have that one question that you need answered, or you’re wondering, hit me up. I’m more than happy to answer the question that not everything has to be for a fee.

Jackie Ferguson: I love that. Charlene, thank you so much. And you know, certainly we have all gotten a taste of your motivational speaking just on this podcast. So, thank you. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you, Charlene. Thank you so much for being here today and sharing some time and your amazing insights with us. I really appreciate it. 

Charlene Wheeless: Of course, it’s been my pleasure. I wish you great luck in your continued success, I will be praying for your friend as well. And certainly, I really mean if there’s anything I can do for either of you please don’t hesitate to let me know because I’ve been through it and no one else has to go through it alone ever again, as far as I’m concerned.

Jackie Ferguson: Thank you so much Charlene.

Full Episode Transcript

Diversity Beyond the Checkbox is brought to you by The Diversity Movement, hosted by Head of Content Jackie Ferguson, and is a production of Earfluence.

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