When you look at Michelle Tenzyk, you see a very well-put-together, well-packaged individual. She’s a confident and successful business woman and feels comfortable talking about it. But like many high achieving professional individuals, there is a truth behind the woman that remains hidden. A truth that – up until now – has not been a topic of conversation in the business realm. Tenzyk aims to change all that. After a fulfilling career as a Human Resources Executive for 20 years, her second act is to help others realize their unique potential. “I want to address misperceptions. I want to take it down to the granular level and open up the conversation as to who really is the person behind the title.”
Tenzyk could have been a professional pianist. Discovering the keys at the age of eight, she played competitively throughout her school years and graduated from the College of St. Rose, New York, with a Bachelor of Science in Music Education. Knowing that pursuing a music career would be a difficult path to follow, she opted for business instead and headed to the University of Albany to get an MBA in Human Resource (HR) Management and Systems. “I miss music terribly, it was a big part of my life and enormously fulfilling but I didn’t see a future in it.”
Tenzyk held a coveted position at the infamous blue-box jeweler, Tiffany’s, where she spent five years as Director of Worldwide Training and Development. For the next ten years, she held senior HR positions in various industries until she landed a prestigious job with Condé Nast Publishing as the Senior Executive Director of Human Resources in 2005. Speaking frankly, Tenzyk says it was not a good fit from the get-go.
After parting ways, she went through a tough year, but equally used the time to consider going out on her own. With the support of her colleagues and confidantes she decided to move forward with the idea and in 2007 opened a full boutique consulting firm in Manhattan: East Tenth Group. “I wanted it to be a firm, not just a one-woman show. Seven years later, the business is going well. We offer strategic HR consulting, leadership development programs, and executive coaching services and I couldn’t be prouder.”
While Tenzyk is happy with the direction the business has taken, in recent months she’s been working on building up to something infinitely bigger, something she hopes will send waves through the corporate and business community and change forever the way we interact with each other in professional settings.
On October 1st, joined by a panel of women from a variety of industries, Tenzyk will launch “The Truth Behind Our Titles™”. This movement is dedicated to shifting the belief that in order to be professionally successful, we need to hide or disguise our inner struggles and difficulties. Tenzyk firmly believes the opposite to be true … our greatest challenges are often the key, and the door, to our greatest successes. The event will address the difficulties many executives face, personal challenges – such as depression, illness, burnout, domestic violence and more – which people tend to shy away from discussing or even acknowledging in a corporate setting.
“The Truth Behind Our Titles™ has been a ten-year dream. The concept is born out of a deep belief I have that, especially in the professional setting, there is a need to talk more openly about some of the struggles we face as very high achieving women and men: doing it in a way so that there is no fear of ruin of reputation or that this is somehow seen as a sign of weakness,” Tenzyk explains.
This not just pie in the sky and HR fluff. Tenzyk is speaking from experience …
“My own story is one of a deep adversity after being diagnosed in 1994 with clinical depression. I’ve been hospitalized many times and have had this illness as the undercurrent of my career for the last 20 years as a successful business woman. Depression can be misunderstood and carries a stigma especially when it falls into the category of major depression, which is what I have and live with. The illness is not always physically noticeable yet we suffer very deeply. And it’s not something people are as comfortable talking about in the corporate world. It is often treated as a weakness or something we should get over quickly and certainly not something to speak freely about.”
Yet, Tenzyk confidently states her depression has not prevented her from achieving great success because she was able to employ strategies and solutions to show up at work living a more balanced and integrated life. “I’ve had to find ways to cope, to keep a balance and be mindful of when there is too much stress on me. My depression definitely has a genetic component but can also be influenced by multiple life stressors. I tend to throw myself into everything I do. I can be very intense sometimes.”
Tenzyk’s story is a powerful one, but she is not the only woman courageous enough to share her story. She will be joined by a collection of powerful women with inspiring stories about their personal struggles in the workplace and their ability to overcome. Among others, Nikki Johnson-Huston will talk about her experience growing up homeless and Wendy Samuelson will share how she copes with Usher’s Syndrome, a debilitating hearing and sight condition. “We will speak to issues the corporate and professional world doesn’t like to get into, the messy bits, and how we have contended with these challenges in our careers. We want others to understand how we live our lives today, more integrated, well and wholly in the professional world and give those who need it hope that they can do the same. In other words, empowering others with strength and resilience through our common experiences.”
The launch event will perhaps be a personal challenge for Tenzyk as it is the first time she will speak so publicly about her experience. “It’s important for me to bring down the curtain of shame. To show it’s okay to talk about what I have gone through and speak proudly about what I have achieved over my career in spite of my illness. I want to inspire and make it possible for others to feel as capable themselves.”
The goal is not just to help individuals who might feel isolated in their working life but also to change how HR manages these issues and how we deal with each other more broadly in working life. A positive reflection of the HR community’s belief in Tenzyk’ s vision, CHRO of Global Business Travel at American Express, JoAnne Kruse, will make the opening remarks of the evening. Some prominent HR executives will be in the audience, along with CEOs, while other companies are bringing staff members using the event as a learning opportunity. “The turnout speaks for itself. People want to have this conversation. This is resonating. The idea of the truth. To know your truth and feel empowered, building a sense of community to know you are not alone.”
People can be inspired after events like this and many want something afterward. In anticipation of this, a LinkedIn Group will be available and other resources and support are in the works. There are plans to bring the event to Philadelphia in 2015 and other cities shortly thereafter.
Tenzyk’s timing couldn’t be better. Considering the growing debate around how to manage mental health in the US, there seems to be a momentum and sense of urgency to get these issues on the table. But regardless of the broad appeal an event like this might have, for this woman at least, the journey is personal.
“The Truth Behind Our Titles™ is my life’s work. My view is go big or go home. I’m going for it. I am acting in faith that this will gain traction and we will tour the country, possibly the world. If that doesn’t happen, I know I will have given it my all. And you know, what is most important is having one person that next day [the day after the event] to put down their shoulders and say ‘I am not alone.’ In all my years in business, I have yet to hear my story. I am not aware that we have looked behind the corporate door before in this way, but now it’s time to go there.”
Michelle is often asked what women can do to support themselves more wholly in the workplace. She identifies some common traps women should avoid:
- Not asking for help. As high-achieving women, we often “go at it alone,” as if making our own way demonstrates strength. This has many truths to it – but the real truth is, strength comes from asking for help – and regularly. We have many different sources – from those who have expertise you don’t, the same expertise that I do have for better insights, from people with different POVs, and those more junior to my experience, more senior – you get the picture. In doing so it makes us more efficient, productive and happier. Often, our strength stems from support.
- Not confiding in anyone. This pattern must be broken. Whether it is someone internal to your company or external, but someone who is not only a good listener, but a great listener. Someone who is willing to give you input and objective guidance. Someone who is genuinely empathetic and compassionate. As Brene Brown says, “someone who really has your back, no – really has your back”. Hope, once found, is one of the most powerful tools.
- Not utilizing support systems. Whether you go to HR, your EAP (employee assistance program) or an external group; find a group of like-minded, kindred spirits where you can share your struggles and challenges openly and honestly. This could be just 2 of you or 10 of you. But a group with whom you can share the truth without fear of repercussions or stigmatization. Resilience is born from the realization that you are not alone.
Tickets are on sale now for the October 1 event in New York City at the 3 West Club. You can register here: http://thetruthbehindtitles.com.