Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

Knowing When to Leave: A Personal Story

by Robert T. Van Hook, CAE | Oct 01, 2005
Have you ever felt out of sync with your work? Have you felt like your board just doesn’t understand? If you answer “yes” to either of these questions, this personal story about how personal problems bleed over into professional life may just speak to you.

In 1991, I was in my eighth year as executive director of a national association. We had seen amazing growth in membership and public policy influence. I had successfully engineered two mergers with competitors and another organizational restructuring was underway. I was identified as the primary spokesperson for our field.

But all was not well. I was in the midst of a turbulent personal relationship. I had jumped into a rebound marriage that simply was not working for either of us. It was painful.

At work, despite our success and my role in leading it, I was having trouble with my board of directors. They were uniformly pleased with the success of the association, but they were not happy with some of my behavior towards them. In my performance review, for example, they noted I was often irascible and that my "eye-rolling behavior" was unacceptable. I seemed to be taking out my anger and pain from home on my board. At the same time, however, I found myself wanting more from my board than just direction. I wanted love and approval.

I realized, finally, that I needed help. I went to see an extraordinary organization development consultant that we had engaged during one of our mergers. He was also a psychologist. I walked in and said, "Charlie, I have two problems - one with my board and one with my wife. But I really want to get your help with my board issues." I then proceeded to tell him about the board's feedback to me and my feelings about them. Charlie listened politely, and then said, "You don't have two problems, Bob. You have one. It's your life."

What Charlie taught me that day is that I couldn't separate my work life from my personal life. They are inextricably related. At home I was feeling under siege; constantly under scrutiny and attacked. I reacted to criticism at work with the anger I had stored up from home. I looked to my board for the love and support I did not feel at home, and that was not their job.

I left Charlie's office that day I knew that something had to change. The next day I moved out of my home and filed for divorce. I was fortunate to have good friends that supported me during the separation. Meanwhile, I kept working and trying to bring a different energy to the office and the boardroom.

When my divorce was finalized in January, all of my friends and my board breathed a sigh of relief. They were happy to have me back and intact. They were shocked when I announced that I was resigning my position as executive director. "Why did you do that?" they asked. "You seemed to have taken charge and were ready to be effective at work again?"

The answer for me was that when I cleared up some of the problems in my personal life I could see that I had grown stale at work. I had said the same message about my organization's mission a thousand times. My speeches were boring to me, so I assumed that others must be bored, too. I had stayed too long in my job. I'd been through too many organizational transformations and pushed too many changes. It was time for me to go - past time, actually.

So, I learned three lessons from this episode: 

1. My personal and professional lives are really one life; 
2. Getting help is a good thing; and 
3. I get stale from staying too long in a job.

Questions about this article may be addressed to Robert Van Hook at 202-244-3163.