Behind the Desk

'Mom, you look really exhausted': How this CEO got her dream job, and then burned out on it

Michele C. Meyer-Shipp is the CEO of Dress for Success, a global nonprofit that helps women prepare for the job search and interviews.
Alice Prenat for Portrait Madame Studio

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

In August 2020, Michele C. Meyer-Shipp started her dream job — becoming the first woman of color to be named Major League Baseball's chief people and culture officer.

Barely a year later, in September 2021, she announced she was stepping away. The reality was that the stress of being a diversity, equity and inclusion leader during the Covid-19 pandemic had led her to a breaking point.

The burnout had little to do with MLB, Meyer-Shipp says: Her peers at other organizations felt the same relentless exhaustion. First came figuring out how to make work happen during a global health crisis. Then, nationwide racial reckonings following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more.

"I was going through that as a Black woman myself, worried about my own children, worried about my own safety, worried about all of that," Meyer-Shipp, 55, told CNBC Make It. "I was completely tapped out."

A few months after leaving MLB, she got a call about Dress for Success. The 25-year-old nonprofit, which helps women through the job search and interview process, was looking for a new CEO.

The role came with a significant pay cut, and Meyer-Shipp was still focused on recovering from burnout. But she was drawn to its mission: Women lost more jobs than men during Covid, have stayed out of the workforce for longer and are being rehired at lower rates.

In January, she took the job. Engaging with those big issues with the limited resources of a nonprofit could stretch her thin again, but she says she doesn't know any other way: "Every personality assessment I've ever taken pulls out my top quality as caring."

Here, she discusses burnout, the country's gender pay gap and why you should make risky career decisions like she did.

On realizing she was burned out: 'It was firefighting every single day'

About a year into the pandemic, I remember coming home one night. One of my sons said to me repeatedly, "Mom, you look really exhausted. You just look so tired. You have dark circles under your eyes."

I kept thinking, "God, do I look that bad?"

For 20-something years, I'd been on a hamster wheel. During Covid, I'd been in a 150% crisis management mode, unable to do the normal things I'd do as a people leader and a diversity leader. It was firefighting every single day.

I started to have health issues. I wasn't sleeping. One of my colleagues said to me, "Michele, you're not going to be any good to us if you're not good to yourself."

That's when I knew it was time. I was physically and mentally exhausted, totally tapped out. So I stepped away, with no plan other than to take a sabbatical.

I didn't realize until after I stopped working how tired I actually was.

On being a Black woman in a room of white men: 'Trust me, nobody wants to assimilate'

In law school, I was the only woman, sometimes the only person of color, and definitely the only Black person in the classroom. My difference was actually my superpower.

I was able, through my lived experiences, to see things that the majority of the folks in that room did not appreciate. And when I spoke up on whatever that might be, you would see people go, "Oh wow, I never thought of that."

People around the table, in a classroom, in a conference room, could come from different backgrounds and experiences. Everybody's going to see something that the other person can't see.

It doesn't make me nervous. It doesn't make me feel like I don't belong, or that I have to assimilate. Look up the word "assimilate." Trust me, nobody wants to assimilate.

I want to show up and be able to use my difference as my superpower to contribute in a meaningful way.

On taking career risks: 'If you get too complacent, you're not growing'

Take risks. Get comfortable being uncomfortable in your career. Volunteer for stretch assignments, join a committee or lead a project. If you get too complacent, you're not growing.

My biggest career risk was leaving employment law. I'm the first person in my family to go to grad school, and I'm the first lawyer in my family. My parents were so incredibly proud of me.

I practiced law for 10 years, and everybody assumed that I was going to be a partner in a law firm or run a legal department somewhere. My husband was, at the time, working as a lawyer. This was our space.

Over time, I recognized that I didn't enjoy the litigation aspects of practicing employment law. I preferred the counseling, training and advice aspects of the work. This drove me to pursue other ways to use my skill sets, and landed me a role as an Equal Employment Opportunity Officer for the New Jersey Department of Labor.

Stepping into a new role, doing something I've never done before, was really, really scary. I was afraid I might let my family down. I was getting into a whole new arena with a different set of colleagues to build relationships with.

But I'll tell you, I've never looked back. Your best-made plans for your career may not be your endgame.

On women's economic advancement: 'I don't know if the wage gap is going to be fixed in our lifetime'

The wage gap has always been an issue. I'll be honest with you, I don't know if it's going to be fixed in our lifetime. I really don't. If I hung my hat on that, I'd probably be depressed every single day.

I just tell everyone to do their best to negotiate and make sure they know the value of their work when they go in for interviews. I hope people in my former role of chief human resources officer are doing everything in their power to ensure pay equity.

The number of women who have returned to the workforce is actually back to pre-pandemic numbers. Now the issue is: Will they remain in the workforce? Will working conditions be conducive to meeting us where we're at, and be flexible around our needs with family, and all of that?

I am cautiously optimistic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Want to earn more and work less? Register for the free CNBC Make It: Your Money virtual event on Dec. 13 at 12 p.m. ET to learn from money masters like Kevin O'Leary how you can increase your earning power.

Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter

How a 29-year-old bringing in $245,000/year in Anaheim, CA spends his money
How a 29-year-old bringing in $245,000/year in Anaheim, CA spends his money