Consultant and CEO
There’s a difference between knowing your value and owning your value, says Charlene Wheeless, and she’s committed to helping women at work find both. A former Fortune 500 Vice President, Charlene quit her job in January to write a book called You Are Enough. “But the day I finished the manuscript, George Floyd was murdered, and suddenly, I was getting dozens of calls from [CEOs] asking, ‘What do I do as a leader? How do I step up and help? How can we talk about injustice as a company?’ They just didn’t know where to go.” So the 56-year-old gave them a place to go—her own eponymous consulting company, which is helping companies navigate tough issues of race, gender, and equity at the highest levels of business.
Charlene called us from her home in Washington, D.C. to discuss allyship, money moves, and what sermons and romance novels have in common.
You’ve been an executive for over 20 years. What do you wish you’d been taught earlier about corporate success?
What bothers me the most is that parents are still telling their children, especially their female children, that when you go to work, you put your head down and do your best, and someone is going to notice… But the world often doesn’t work that way at all. All that guarantees is that you’ll be overlooked. Obviously work hard at your job! But don’t expect someone else to build your career for you. Don’t expect anyone to be more invested in your success than you are.
How do you speak up at work in an effective way?
Read the room. Listen to your intuition. Ignore your fear. Let me explain a little more… Let’s say you’re in a presentation meeting, and it’s all senior people and a few junior people. The senior executives are carrying the conversation and the assistants are included because you’re there to learn. In that case—I’m sorry!—but I’m not interested in your opinion. So read the room.
What if your intuition is telling you to speak up?
Make sure it’s for the right reasons. Don’t talk just to hear yourself speak. Men do that all the time, and it’s not necessary, right?! But if you’re in a brainstorm, it’s ok to throw out ideas and it’s ok if the idea falls flat! Not all your ideas are going to be great. But the organization can only benefit from knowing that point of view. You want to be respectful, especially early in your career, but at an all-hands meeting, if you have something you know is of value, say it.
Any advice on how to express your ideas in a meeting?
Ignore your fear and speak up! Don’t whisper. And don’t use qualifiers. How many times have you said something like, “I don’t know, maybe this is a stupid idea, but like, have you ever, I mean, what if we…” Seriously, don’t do that! Instead, clearly say, “I’ve been thinking about this, and here’s what I believe is worth considering.” You can be demonstrative without being demanding. That’s not meek. That’s not disrespectful. That’s helpful.
What if you have a monster boss?
You can either sit there and take it, or you can vote with your feet… anytime you have the power to change something, do it.
What do you wish you’d known about being a boss before you started managing people?
I’m going to steal a quote: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I wish I had known that… You’re helping shape people’s lives. A manager who invests in their employees and helps bring out that potential can make a huge difference in someone’s career. The opposite is true as well… For the first part of my career, you would hear the saying, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” But my belief, very strongly, is that if people are involved? It’s always personal.
We talk a lot about allyship. What do white women need to know about being allies to women of color, especially Black women, in the workplace?
First, let’s agree that women have a horrible history of not helping one another in the workplace. And let’s make a promise together to stop that… I should say, it’s gotten significantly better. I’ve seen really positive changes in women helping women in the course of my career—but not as much helping Black women…
How can we fix that?
Be an ally for the right reason. Make sure you’re coming from a place of authenticity. Do you really want to help someone? Also, please make sure the individual needs help. Please don’t go, “Oh my gosh, you’re a Black woman?! You must need a mentor! Come be my project!” Don’t do that. I mean, obviously, but… you’d be surprised. And then open your mind and eyes to see what’s happening to the Black women in your office. If you see a microaggression or [a bigger instance of racism], call it out for what it is! But don’t make it about you. Don’t make it a big, indignant scene. Instead, you can tell someone privately, “Hey, what you said in the meeting really upset me. If I were the person you were talking to, I would have felt really minimized.” You can and should also talk to the person who was hurt by the incident, and say, “Hey, I don’t want to catch you off guard, but when X said this in the meeting, I thought it was really out of line. I mentioned to them that it wasn’t right.” You can be an ally without trying to be anyone’s best friend.
Well, if you’re going to use your voice for change and allyship—and you should—you’re going to need to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, because it’s the only way things will change. But don’t be that person who says, “Man, our boss treats people badly! Our company doesn’t care about Black women!” and then do nothing about it. It’s privilege to pretend workplace discrimination only affects certain people. It makes all of us worse. So speak up, because it’s the right thing to do.
You’re a breast cancer survivor. What do you wish you’d known about your health, or your interactions with doctors, in your 20s?
I wish I had been more comfortable talking about my sex life, or lack of it! And the importance of caring for myself as a woman, and my reproductive system, and what my risks were. We tend to kind of gloss over those things until there’s a problem. I think if you can learn to advocate for your health, then you can advocate for yourself in any environment.
You talked before about how business is always personal. But does that mean your personal life always has to be open to business?
How do you unplug?
What I’ve learned for me is the importance of the commute. We complain about it, but even 20 minutes is a reset. I’m taking my work hat off and I’m putting my home hat on, if you will. I use that commute to reset. I’ll pick up something totally non-work related, like a sermon or a trashy romance novel. Either can help you flip the switch from a stressful day! And you have to draw lines for yourself when you come home. It’s okay to tell your partner, or your kids, or your friends, “I need 15 minutes to myself and then I’ll be right there for you.” A dead battery can’t jump a dead battery, right? Also, dogs.
I mean, always dogs.
I have two small, incredibly needy dogs who think I am the most important person in the world. And so I come home and I sit on the floor and let them jump all over me, even if I’m wearing an expensive suit. For me, it’s pure joy.