Elizabeth Wood used to work at IBM. She recently resigned from her position as senior content strategist, a job she held for the previous two years. People resign all the time from roles, so that is nothing new. What is different about Ms. Wood’s resignation is a) why we she did it and b) what she did next.
On November 15, 2016, Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President and CEO of IBM, unleashed an open letter that—among other things—offered president-elect Donald Trump suggestions to help America. In her note, Rometty wrote, “I know that you are committed to help America’s economy grow in ways that are good for all its people.”
Given the divisive and at times vitriolic rhetoric that Trump spoke of during his campaign in an attempt to attract voters, Rometty’s letter has surprised some. Perhaps it was due to the neutral tone and matter-of-fact propositions. Others were downright shocked. A few were quite dismayed.
You can add Elizabeth Wood’s name to the column of dismayed.
When I caught up with Elizabeth to ask why she had resigned from IBM, she said, “Ms. Rometty’s letter was the reason entirely.” She first found out about Rometty’s letter via Twitter. “I found it terrifying,” she continued. “Not only was IBM choosing to legitimize the president-elect, they were choosing to be so loud and public about it. No job is perfect, but her letter made me take a look at the work I was doing and say, ‘Why? What am I contributing to?’”
After reading the letter, Elizabeth did some soul-searching. One might argue she was questioning both her personal purpose (what am I here for, who am I, and how am I going to show up every day at work?) as well as her organization’s purpose. She went probing, wondering if IBM’s most senior leader’s alignment with Trump was something she could live with, be it at work or in life. Ultimately, Elizabeth began to question IBM’s purpose.
That very day, after reading Ms. Rometty’s letter in support of Trump, Elizabeth scheduled a meeting with her supervisor and put in her notice.
She quit. Elizabeth had nowhere to go. There was no job waiting for her afterward.
Previous to the letter, she was relatively engaged in her role and with IBM on the whole. “Working for a company as massive as IBM has its challenges,” she suggested, “but also its rewards.” Elizabeth alluded to frustrations, but many benefits as well. She also saw a long-term future.
“I was in talks with my manager to potentially relocate to London, which would have had me with IBM for some time. However, after seeing the letter and what it promised, I knew a paycheck is not a reason to compromise your principles. The threat is too dangerous for too many people to stay silent.”
Elizabeth took action. Not only did she resign from her role, she took it upon herself to write her own open letter. One line stuck out for me, which led me to hunting down Elizabeth for an interview:
“The choice to leave IBM did not come lightly. I am not leaving for another offer, nor do I have a safety net to fall back on.”
There is much to glean from Elizabeth and her actions. Her bravery ought to be commended. With student loans to pay and the living expenses of New York City nipping at her heels, she was resolute that a paycheck was not going to keep her shackled to a role—or an organization—she could no longer support. Elizabeth looked in her personal purpose mirror and asked if she had fallen out of the ‘sweet spot.’
“I think in this country,” she emphasized during our interview, “we feel we have to make choices and concessions often when it comes to work. How else will we feed our families and put a roof over our heads? How else will we have access to healthcare when we’re sick? But that doesn’t mean we are forced to ignore our conscience when we feel we are contributing to something that is dangerous and wrong.”
Elizabeth has become a shining example of what organizations need: employees with purpose. More of them in fact.
Work is not merely a paycheck; it needs to be part of one’s overarching sense of meaning. If the organization we are employed by behaves in ways that run counter to our own personal purpose, we should be taking action, not sitting on the sidelines and pretending everything is fine. Apathy is the path toward disengagement. Put differently, purpose first starts with you.
On the topic of the workplace itself, Elizabeth said, “There is a lot of talk lately about work, especially in tech, about this idea that you should appeal to your people though perks, free food, etc. Nobody truly cares about that and if they do it’s because they’re looking for a distraction from their work. People want to be respected and valued for their worthwhile contributions to a company.”
Are you distracted by the perquisites at work? Are you ignoring the signs that you may be in a “job mindset” at work, one where your role has simply become a paycheck, devoid of any value or higher purpose? Are you sitting around waiting for the pension to kick in or for your stock options to vest?
Has your CEO or direct boss behaved in a way that has left you questioning why you are there in the first place?
“Everyone deserves to work for a place that demonstrates consistent and unflinching respect for human decency,” Elizabeth concluded. “Everyone needs an awareness of their role in society and the world at large, especially when it comes for speaking on behalf of their workforce.”
Imagine what some of the employees at Wells Fargo or Volkswagen are going through these days.
I applaud Elizabeth for taking a stand. She not only has demonstrated courage, Elizabeth will go places in this world based on her “North Star” of purpose.
The underlying lesson via Elizabeth is to look in that mirror every day and ask yourself: “Am I living my life—and working in an organization—that fuels my personal purpose?”
If not, like Elizabeth, be brave and make a change. Don’t wait for it to magically appear.
Originally posted to Forbes.