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Defying the Odds

A conversation with Reuben Cohen and Luella Chavez D’Angelo: How your most challenging experiences can reveal a new way forward.
JAN 24, 2024
Luella Chavez D’Angelo

Luella Chavez D’Angelo knows just how quickly everything can change. She witnessed firsthand how volatility and disruption can impact not just your role but also those closest to you.

 

In 2019, Luella landed her dream job. She took a role as the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer for the US Olympics and Paralympics Committee (USOPC), the non-profit organization responsible for supporting US sports teams.

 

In early 2020, Luella was preparing for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But that would all come to a halt, because of not one, but two events that would turn her world upside down.

 

“On March 24th, the International Olympic Committee announced that the Summer Games were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On that same day, my husband and I received the call that our son was in critical condition and heading for surgery.”

 

Before that week, Luella had a clear picture of her future. But the call about their son instantly changed her plans, setting into motion the events that have led her to where she is now.

 

The impact of the unexpected

 

Everyone in leadership positions felt the impact of the pandemic. Most executives would have just closed out the previous financial year and been working hard to make their 2020 aspirations a reality.

 

But it is worth reflecting on how significant this was to the athletes and professionals in the USOPC. This organization exists solely to support the success of US teams and individuals across the games. Athletes spend years working and training for the games and the entire USOPC organization was focused on supporting Team USA in Tokyo. With the games postponed, the committee stood to lose millions in sponsorships. More than this, years of hard work were erased in an instant.

 

“When I joined the USOPC, I thought it would be the last job of my career. Words can’t describe the pride of serving Team USA and how devastated I was when the games were canceled.”

 

Luella collaborated with her executive colleagues to determine the next steps, but the canceled Olympics were quickly put into perspective when she learned about the accident.

 

Lucky to have survived

 

In the weeks after the lockdowns were announced, all non-essential businesses shut down, including parks and ski resorts. This led seasoned skiers and snowboarders to look for terrain outside of resorts.

 

When Luella’s oldest son decided to go off-resort snowboarding during the lockdown, he didn't realize how unsafe the conditions were. His motion on the mountain caused an avalanche, and that avalanche left him in critical condition.

 

“It was a disarray of emotion. He was lucky to be alive… but we also knew he would have a long and difficult road to recovery.”

 

The summer Olympics were eventually rescheduled for 2021, but Luella didn’t get to play a part. Shortly after the events with her son, she resigned from the USOPC to focus on her family’s recovery.

 

Reassessing what she wanted from work

 

Before joining the USOPC, Luella was the Global Chief Communications Officer at Western Union. She had risen to that position through her leadership of their ESG and Corporate Social Responsibility efforts and knew the company's important role in promoting social equality in developing nations.

 

“Western Union helps move money for unbanked, uncredited people who don't have access to the financial spectrum—individuals who may be displaced from their homes due to political, social unrest or natural disasters have an immense need to give and receive support from their families in other countries.”

 

After her son's accident, she found herself thinking of those experiences at Western Union and what it means to have the support you need. Whatever the next chapter of her life was, she knew she wanted to help people.

 

As she considered her options, Luella spent time as the fractional CEO of a non-profit looking to increase workforce diversity in Colorado by 20%. She was also introduced to LHH and learned about ICEO’s focus on guiding senior executives through career inflection points. Having simultaneously endured both personal and professional upheaval, Luella knew her experience would be an asset to executives using ICEO.

 

“Executives have immense responsibilities, and their identity is often entwined in the job they do. When they undergo career inflection points, it doesn’t just impact their role—it impacts who they are as people.”

 

When working with her clients, Luella carefully listens to their career histories and passions and helps them reconnect with what they really love. Together, she and her clients identify what makes them feel engaged and how they can do more of this at work—either in their current role or in finding their next opportunity.

 

The power of reframing

 

Talking to Luella, she emanates hope and positivity for the future. She is thankful for her family and the journey they've been on together. And she is thankful for the progress her son has made. After many surgeries and lots of rehabilitation, he defied the odds. He regained the ability to walk, raise his family, and live his life.

 

“The thing I’ve learned through this… unimaginable changes can happen out of nowhere. In the moment, they might feel like the end of the world, but it’s worth remembering all the things you still have that you should be grateful for.”

 

Luella never predicted that she would end up here, but she knows it is exactly where she's supposed to be. She has the support of her family and a role in helping other executives navigate their futures. With her help, they build new chapters for themselves.

 

Reuben Cohen

Reuben Cohen is the North American Managing Director for LHH's International Center for Executive Options (ICEO). He and his team work as trusted advisors to CEOs and other top-of-the-house leaders, guiding them through career inflection points to a variety of new paths.

 

 

Learn more about ICEO’s portfolio of support for executives and senior leaders at www.lhh.com/iceo.