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Embarking Blog

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When Leaders Emerge - Terri Kelly

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Terri Kelly is the President and CEO of WL Gore and Associates, founders of Gore technology (Gore-Tex).  I've been looking forward to this talk since last year when one of the speakers spoke about the unique leadership culture at Gore which is not built with a traditional hierarchical structure, but organized around communities and teams in which the employees themselves decide who the real leaders are and what projects they want to work on.  Terry calls is a "peer based organization" in which everyone is concerned about the success of others in the organization.  This reminds me of a story I just ready about a similar company in the book Multipliers: how the best leaders make everyone smarter by Liz Wiseman.    Here is what Wiseman says about Hexal (sold in 2005 to Novartis) and the Struengmann brothers on p. 42-43:

Hexal doesn't have jobs, per se, and they don't have an org chart... Jobs were loosely created around people's interests and unique capabilities.  They called their approach the "ameba model."  Here's how it works... At Hexal, you could work wherever there was energy.  Through encouraging their employees to use this heat-seeking approach, they were able to utilize people at their highest point of contribution.  They didn't box people into jobs and limit their contribution.  They let people work where they had ideas and energy and where they could best contribute.  They let talent flow, like an ameba, to the right opportunities.

Terry spoke about "leadership on demand" as opposed to a "fixed hierarchy" where decisions go up and down the ladder.  The lattice organization is an organization in which everyone is connecting with everyone in their network - people being able to go to whoever they need to go to in the organization, rather than having "ladder" organizational structure where you may have 2-3 specific people you work through.  In this system, leaders lead by influence rather than by "direction".  This give the employee commitment and ownership, and the energy transfers to the whole organization rather than only by specific leaders.

The key to not having totally chaos is having alignment around shared, foundational values and beliefs.  Gore's 4 major values are the following:

  1. Everyone can make a difference, give them the tools
  2. Belief in small teams, to feel connected
  3. Same boat, vested collectively together
  4. Long term view, not short term results. First and primary is work environment, driving innovation, reaching out to communities.

Because the organization works by passion, influence, and good ideas rather than by power or position, selling your ideas becomes very important, as does peer review and collaboration to vet ideas as well as to make them better.  In this way, people become more motivated to work in the areas that they will be the most effective and impactful because their review is done by the peers they work with and around on these projects, which creates a built in mechanism for momentum, commitment, and contribution.  Those who make the greatest contribution, then, is paid accordingly.

This also creates an environment where there are more "coaches" than "bosses."  A coach, or personal sponsor, is committed to helping another person make their maximum contribution to the organization.  This person is not a supervisor, but a coach, encourager, "cheerleader".  There is clear separation between leadership roles and coaching in that coaches are not leaders, but those who are committed to the personal contribution of the person they are coaching.

Gore plants rarely get larger than 250.  Terry said,

"One of the core ideas is learning how to divide so that we can multiply."

The idea is that multiplication of small communities with great ideas that are highly productive, with shared values and high productivity, will grow the organization in a faster and more effective manner.

Waterline Concept: if you are considering an investment that could put the organization in jeapordy, don't do that because it could sink the ship.  You can drill holes above the waterline, but anything that could harm reputation, financial success, or the work environment (below the waterline) is too risky.

Leadership is defined by followership in the sense that followers follow the leaders they want to.  This, I suppose, makes John Maxwell's words that "if no one is following, you're just out for a walk."  This creates a culture of real leadership that is based on people who follow because they want to, not because they have to or because of their or someone else's place, position, or power in the organization.   When, in a survey of Gore employees they were asked if they are a leader in the organization, 50% answered yes, which is powerful in terms of distribution of the leadership role, equipping, and empowering of every person in the organization.


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