W L Gore: the company others try and fail to imitate
The group behind the Gore-Tex fabric thrives on its unconventional corporate structure
In these days of near-instant unicorns and listings that net a fortune for founders, selling an innovative small business in order to join a large established company might seem counter intuitive.
When Jason Field did just this, joining WL Gore & Associates in 2005, it could have been seen as an indication of burnout, or at the very least a tacit declaration of desire for a more routine, less pressured existence. But you do not join the US materials science group, known to most for the Gore-Tex waterproofing of their hiking apparel, for a quiet life and sedate progress through the ranks of a conventional company. For a start, there are not any ranks.
Prior to joining Gore, Mr Field, then in his thirties, had owned a horse veterinary practice in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he had pioneered the idea of a new kind of stent. By the time he joined Gore, he had picked up enough about the unique culture of the “enterprise” (its preferred identifier) through his customers, some of whom worked at Gore’s nearby medical business headquarters, to be intrigued.
Mr Field says that the scientific expertise of his customers that worked at Gore had pushed him to be a better vet, while also helping him identify an opportunity “to apply my technological background in a new setting”. This initially led to him taking a research and development role in the company. First product: his stent. It was a natural fit.
Other aspects of Gore’s unusual working culture – including quite different reporting structures – took more adjusting to. Although roles and responsibilities at Gore are clearly defined, they are not captured in neat organisational charts, and the only concession to hierarchy is the word “leader” on a select number of business cards.
In Gore’s “lattice organisation”, anyone can talk to anyone, and no one tells another what to do. Instead new employees – all of whom become shareholders if they stay – are encouraged to navigate their own way through the business.
The self-propelled culture suited Mr Field. So much so, that somewhat to his surprise, he maintains, he emerged last year from Gore’s selection process as the fifth chief executive in six decades of history. A successful career at Gore and a close fit with the board and founding family over values and future direction were obviously important in his appointment. But those alone would not have been enough: no one gets to the top leadership role at Gore unless they have the strong support of colleagues, known internally as “associates”.
“We extend a lot of freedoms to associates,” says Mr Field. “For individuals who are strongly personally motivated and self-driven, that usually works well from the outset. For those who are used to being directed and told how to do things, it’s a challenge.” Not everyone is able to adapt, he notes.
Gore has a disarmingly simple working definition of leadership: a capability to attract followers, for which no other qualifications are a substitute. Mr Field quickly discovered that his previous business record counted for little. “That can be challenging for someone joining later with career experience, and I certainly went through it looking for my opportunity to build credibility and followership,” he says. “You really do have to demonstrate those capabilities, not just talk about them.”
As Mr Field describes it, to lead Gore is to steward a company that prides itself on innovating. It has a constantly expanding portfolio of more than 1,000 products, that range from Gore-Tex and guitar strings to heart patches and cable wiring assemblies used in aerospace.
But Gore’s most significant innovation may not be a particular product, but rather the unique non-hierarchical management model that enables the new products to emerge. “We do see companies trying to replicate some of what we do,” says Mr Field. “But it’s hard to take bits of it and apply them piecemeal, because it’s an ecosystem – a truly holistic way of working.”
When Bill and Vieve Gore founded the company in 1958, in Newark, Delaware, the aim was to build an organisation where inventive people could “have fun and make money”. But they did it seriously. Bill Gore was greatly influenced by human relations school theorists Douglas (Theory X, Theory Y) McGregor and Abraham (“hierarchy of needs”) Maslow, and emphasised the importance of purpose. In the case of Gore, this meant applying technology to have a meaningful impact on society. He also wanted to support human fulfilment, embodied in a set of principles and management practices designed to foster trust, initiative and enable the emergence of natural leaders.
“We talk about the sweet spot where personal interest, skills and experience and business needs intersect,” says Mr Field. “Where that happens, we really encourage associates to chase those experiences.” This, he believes, supplies the fun, the energy for forward momentum and the fuel for Gore’s creativity.
Nurturing this all-important culture absorbs much of Mr Field’s attention. And as the company has grown – in 2018 revenues were $3.5bn with a headcount of 9,500 – being so atypical a company has cut both ways.
There have been no shortage of growth opportunities in healthcare, aviation, electric vehicles and telecoms, for instance, but the company has learnt the hard way that it cannot expand faster than it can scale the culture – one person at a time.
It helps that Gore is privately held, so it does not need to react to every spike in the news cycle or short-term demands from Wall Street. But inventing your own rules means there are no conventional management short-cuts to fall back on. It has had to define decision-making roles and attribute accountability more clearly. There have also been uncomfortable moments when the company has struggled to reconcile the founding principles with the need for more structure to support growth. “Gore isn’t perfect,” Mr Field says.
“But we’re a human organisation, a learning organisation, and we think about our organisation and practices in the same way as we think about our technology… the more we can find proof points that we’re going in the right direction and allocate resources against those practices, the better off we shall be.”
Words matter at Gore, and they do not always mean what they do elsewhere.
To those who work there, Gore is the enterprise, not the company. It has leaders, never bosses.
Associates (included in the corporate identity) is not a euphemism for staff – it reflects the fact that they are shareholders who play an active part in upholding the four founding principles of freedom, fairness, commitment and waterline. The latter means avoiding actions that risk holing the boat without first consulting others.
Freedom is as much about helping others grow as oneself, and is bound by further obligations to fairness and accountability to personal commitments.
Gore encourages knowledge-based decision making, based on relationship building (so you know where the knowledge resides) and face-to-face communication, on the basis of which teams self-organise around the best ideas for new products or market opportunities.
Associates emerge as leaders by virtue of attracting followership, the only way of demonstrating leadership credentials – your business record is not sufficient. “If you call a meeting and people turn up, you’re a leader,” as one associate puts it.