Terri Kelly is a firm believer that the titles of president and chief executive officer apply to her only when she is outside the walls of the headquarters of W. L. Gore & Associates in Newark, Del.
“Inside of Gore, I’m an associate like everyone else,” said Kelly, a 22-year Gore veteran who was tapped to take the reins of the $1.8 billion company last April. “You might say, ‘What’s the big deal?’ The big deal for us is when you have a title you feel you’ve arrived and sometimes it can make you believe that you have an authoritative position, that you are the knowledge center of everything. The fact is, you’re probably not tapping into the full knowledge of the organization.”
As Kelly explained, traditional models of corporate management have no place at Gore and are viewed as an impediment to the company’s lifeblood — innovation.
Creating a company whose corporate culture would fuel innovation was the goal of Wilbert L. Gore, a former DuPont scientist, and his wife, Genevieve, when they started the company in 1958. The result is a company with no formal in-house titles, no bosses and a free flow of ideas that has been responsible for the development of more than 1,000 products used in everything from guitar strings to NASA space suits. It also has landed the company on Fortune magazine’s list of the top 100 companies to work for eight consecutive years.
Kelly admits that a company without strict leadership definitions is a difficult concept for even her husband to comprehend. “I have to say that some days it does feel like we’re herding cats,” said Kelly. “It takes a lot of energy…but we believe if you really want to harness the energy in the organization, you’ve got to allow it to be free.”
Having employees, or associates, work in small teams is a key element to the company’s success. Leaders tend to emerge rather than be appointed in small team environments, according to Kelly. The ability to consult with others in the organization regardless of whether they work in the company’s textile or automotive segments is another element Gore prides itself on. It’s a free flow of ideas that Kelly said is crucial to allow the company to succeed in bringing new products to market.
“Innovation is a key part of what we do,” said Kelly. “About 95 percent of our products actually incorporate a unique material that finds its way into many industries.”
On top of selling fibers used in NASA space suits, the company sells industrial filtration products, cable applications that help improve signal integrity, and is involved in work on hydrogen fuel cells.
“A common theme you’ll find is that our products are typically very innovative, very high-performing, very reliable and find themselves in unique applications, very extreme conditions.”
Kelly pointed out that the human body is the most extreme and aggressive environment Gore products are being used in, with the company providing a range of cardiovascular products.
How success is achieved can be as important as the success itself, according to Kelly. The willingness of other associates to follow a leader is regarded as one of the best benchmarks of a leader within the organization. “We pay attention to how they got those results. Did they explain their actions through our core values? Did they empower people and get them to commit versus directing people to do things?” said Kelly. “When you have to go that extra mile and not just tell people what to do but explain it so they truly embrace the culture, it puts a tremendous burden on our leaders.”
Feedback also comes directly from colleagues through a ranking system. It’s part of a checks and balances process that doesn’t even exempt Kelly. “It’s a great way to really see where the support is in the organization,” she said. “All of our leaders are ranked by their colleagues. It’s not based on seniority. It’s not based on role or title. It’s based on who’s making the biggest impact to this organization.”