The Elephant in the (Conference) Room

One woman’s tale of depression at the top — and what she’s doing to help others

by Caroline McMillan Portillo, Bizwomen reporter

Michelle Tenzyk’s message isn’t about leaning in. It’s about opening up.

Tenzyk was Tiffany & Co.’s global director of training and development when she was hospitalized for a crippling depression.

It was 1994 when the doctors forced her to leave her job — which “began for me a 20-year period where (depression) has been the undercurrent of my corporate and business life,” Tenzyk said.

It also became a motivation. And she’s now an advocate for airing out the secrets that so often cripple us.

That’s the thought behind her upcoming “Truth Behind Our Titles” event Oct. 1 in New York City. (Tickets cost $125.) At the event — the first of its kind, she believes — six women will bravely reveal, many for the first time, the personal challenges that have greatly impacted their careers. The issues range from domestic abuse to complete burnout to grappling with a childhood spent homeless. Tenzyk hopes the event will inspire other women to feel more comfortable discussing their own struggles — if not with a group, with a professional.

“We are executive women. We are leaders. So the audience can feel they could see themselves in us,” she said. “They can walk out feeling empowered.”

After leaving Tiffany’s, Tenzyk spent years running HR divisions at some of the world’s largest media companies. Now the 51-year-old is an executive coach and founder of East Tenth Group, where she has been a strategic leadership adviser to top executives at companies such as Standard & Poor’s (financial services company known for its U.S. stock market index) and BNP Paribas Investment Partners (which has more than $672 billion in assets under management).

The concept of a corporate event focused on airing personal struggles may seem like an anomaly, but Tenzyk has hit on a topic medical professionals have been familiar with for years: the prevalence of mental health conditions in the workplace.

Nearly one in five Americans had a diagnosable mental health condition last year, according to advocacy group Mental Health America, and every year mental illness and abuse lead to an estimated $80 to $100 million in direct costs to employers.

Not to mention how other personal issues may be impacting people’s ability to function at their highest level at work.

But Tenzyk is quick to clarify what this movement is not about: forcing women to share their darkest secrets.

For one, Tenzyk said, successful career women don’t want another list of what they should and shouldn’t do. And sometimes it’s not about sharing the secret, she adds. It’s about letting people into your lives.

Even after her 20-year struggle with depression, Tenzyk doesn’t start a conversation with “Hi, I’m Michelle and I struggle with clinical depression.” But by recognizing the struggle and seeking help, she’s been willing to let down other walls that have helped her build stronger relationships.

“I’m much more comfortable letting people in my professional life know more fully who I am,” she said. “They know me, they know my humor, that I got remarried two years ago. They know about my husband, that I just moved. Years ago I would keep these kinds of details to myself.”

And, in turn, it’s helped her be a better leader, entrepreneur and adviser.

“I’m more compassionate. I’m more empathetic. I understand the human condition,” Tensyk said. “I’m strengthened by the struggle I went through.”

But without help, her life could have turned out very differently.

“I’m not sure I would have been able to have any kind of corporate career at all,” Tenzyk said. “It would have been quite a sad story.”

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