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1999 Innovation Optimas Award Profile W.L. Gore and Associates Inc.

March 1, 1999
At W. L. Gore & Associates Inc., associates (not employees) don’t have bosses, they have sponsors. They also don’t have titles. Instead, they make commitments.

So what? As Gertrude Stein once said, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." And lots of companies today come up with euphemisms for titles, departments and functions. It has become so trendy that Fast Company magazine dedicates space each month to highlight "Job Titles of the Future."

The difference is that at Gore, the manufacturer of Gore-Tex® fabric and other materials, the words they use really do mean something different than the words they’re replacing. And they haven’t been conjured up in the face of current trends, either. Rather, they’ve been a part of Gore’s history since its beginning more than 40 years ago.

Gore’s unique, flat, "lattice" culture stems from the four core values put in place by founder Bill Gore that were meant to foster a creative and energizing work environment. It’s a culture that, without HR’s commitment to those values, would be doomed for failure.

Innovation is the foundation of Gore.
In 1958, Bill Gore left DuPont after 17 years as a research chemist to pursue market opportunities for PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), one of the most versatile polymers known to man. Bill and his wife, Vieve, began this new business venture in the basement of their home. Their son, Bob, then a chemical engineering student (and today the president and CEO), suggested the idea that resulted in Gore’s first patent for a new PTFE insulated wire and cable product. Within two years, W. L. Gore & Associates moved into its first plant in Newark, Delaware, the company’s headquarters.

Today, nearly 6,500 associates in 45 locations around the world continue to expand PTFE’s applications in four product areas: electronic products, fabrics, industrial products and medical products. Growth has come to the company because of continual innovation by Gore associates. And innovation has come as a result of Gore’s culture.

Because there are no bosses, there are no hierarchies that push decision making through the organization. Because there are no hierarchies, there are no pre-determined channels of communication, thus prompting associates to communicate with each other. And because associates don’t have titles, they aren’t locked into particular tasks, which encourages them to take on new and challenging assignments.

Sound like chaos? It could be, if it weren’t for HR’s deep integration in the company and its complete commitment to the company’s values:

  1. Fairness to each other and everyone with whom we come in contact.
  2. Freedom to encourage, help and allow other associates to grow in knowledge, skill and scope of responsibility.
  3. The ability to make one’s own commitments and keep them.
  4. Consultation with other associates before undertaking actions that could impact the reputation of the company by hitting it "below the waterline."

Says HR leader Sally Gore of the people with HR commitments: "Day in and day out, we’re champions of the culture, guaranteeing that consideration for people plays into business decisions." HR’s structure facilitates this task.

HR is integrated into the business.
Gore has a small plant approach, meaning it limits each facility to approximately 200 people. Most plants are self-sufficient, with manufacturing, finance, research and development contained within the facility. That means there’s also at least one HR generalist at each plant.

Those generalists are part of the plant leadership team. "They understand the business needs so they can help support them," says Terri Kelly, a business leader in the fabrics division of Gore. (By the way, the philosophy at Gore is that you’re only a leader if you have followers. In annual surveys HR conducts, more than 50 percent of associates answer yes to the question, "Are you a leader?")

The generalists coordinate the plant’s people issues, which include hiring, conflict resolution, associate development, strategic planning and associate resource allocation. But they also contribute as members of the businesses’ leadership teams, keeping everyone focused on the values, the people issues and how they translate to the bottom line. Says Kelly: "In many ways, they’re the ones who make sure we’re being fair (value #1) and are creating an environment that people want to work in, which is critical to getting business results."

The plant generalists are supported by specialists in corporate headquarters. These include people who specialize in recruiting, training and development, compensation, benefits, relocation and communication. However, that isn’t to say that any of these HR people—specialists or generalists—are limited by their location or specialty.

For example, Jackie Brinton, who has been with Gore for 22 years in areas related to HR, has a current specialty focus on corporate recruitment. But right now, she’s also serving on a broader HR team, on a divisional HR team and on multiple teams that are putting together different programs within the corporation. A recent project she worked on, for example, was developing a Myers-Briggs module for a training and development team she’s part of.

The HR structure has developed over time, changing as the company grows to facilitate maintaining the culture. Likewise, the innovative HR practices the company has in place have developed over time to ensure continual adherence to the values and culture.

It’s not business as usual at Gore.
Take a look at recruitment. Because of the unique culture at Gore, the interviewing process becomes even more vital. Brinton says the company views hiring as one of its "waterline" decisions—decisions of such critical importance to the company that one person can’t make them without consulting others (value #4). Therefore, Gore involves numerous people in the interviewing process. For an HR generalist position at a plant, for example, members of the leadership team at the plant as well as HR specialists who know what competencies are needed would participate.

But HR recruiters like Brinton own the process. "The business defines the business need. I work with the business team to define what the expectations are, and what the skills required to accomplish those expectations are," says Brinton. She also sources candidates and is part of the interviewing and decision-making team.

Interview questions to candidates target not just technical skills but other skills that lead to success in the culture—such as team skills ("Give me an example of a time when you had a conflict with a team member"), communication skills and problem-solving skills ("Tell me how you solved a problem that was impeding your project").

Once a candidate has been identified, recruiters conduct a minimum of two and oftentimes many more reference checks, inquiring not just about title, time and grade but about the traits the company needs. Gore has learned that people who want to just come to work and do the same job day in and day out don’t last long. "The needs of the business are changing and we need people who are agile, who can increase their skills," says Brinton. "Continuous learning is an expectation of all our associates" (value #2).

When a person is hired, it’s for a particular commitment, not a job (value #3). That commitment might be to run a particular machine, do recruiting or crunch numbers in finance. "We don’t have narrowly defined job titles that limit people, but instead, we have general expectations within functional areas," says Brinton. The reason, she says, is because people take greater ownership of something they’ve volunteered for and committed to than something they are told to do.

The new hire is assigned a sponsor—an associate who has made a commitment to help the newcomer get to what Brinton refers to as "the quick win" (value #2). That is, a sponsor gives the person a basic understanding of his or her commitments and what it will take to be successful in those commitments. As associates’ commitments and needs change, they and their sponsors may decide they need something different from a sponsor, and that role may also change.

One of the primary responsibilities of a sponsor is to be a positive advocate. As such, the sponsors collect information and feedback regarding personal development from peers and leaders. That information is then shared with a compensation committee. Currently, there are approximately 15 compensation committees within the organization, serving the numerous functional areas of the business. For example, there’s a compensation committee for human resources, one for manufacturing, one for engineers, and so on.

The committees are comprised of leaders within the company that understand the value someone in that functional area has, and what technical excellence looks like. HR’s role is to ensure the process is fair, and plant generalists are on most of the local committees.

The committees take the feedback they get on associates and come up with a ranking of the people doing that function. The ranking is based on associates’ contribution to the success of the business, not just their personal skills. For example, when evaluating an HR professional, a compensation committee would take all the input from other HR associates and plant and corporate leaders, and rank the individual with the other HR associates from highest contributor to lower ones. Then using guidelines based on external salary data, the top of the list will be paid more than the bottom. The objective is to be internally fair and externally competitive. To aid in this goal, compensation specialists at Gore compare the company’s compensation levels and benefits periodically to companies such as IBM, 3M, DuPont and Hewlett-Packard.

"Our compensation practice is a good example of our principles in action day to day," says Brinton. "It’s our goal to pay people based on the success of the business, and that’s fair (value #1). People make their own commitments (value #3), and that affects their level of contribution." Also in fairness, Gore takes into consideration that it’s possible that an associate can make a significant contribution to the corporation in a business that is not successful.

Part of Gore’s compensation practice is to offer associates stock ownership and profit sharing plans (there’s #1 again). In fact, associates own 25 percent of this privately held company—the Gore family owns the rest.

It works for Gore.
There’s no doubt that Gore’s organizational structure and lattice culture wouldn’t succeed without the support of these HR practices. And the structure and culture have worked well for Gore, which currently reports worldwide sales of $1.4 billion. However, the picture isn’t all rosy. "People have a misconception that this is a soft corporate culture," says Brinton, "but this is a pretty tough environment for people to be in. We put a lot of responsibility on individuals to be personally successful and to work toward business success."

Sally Gore agrees. "I often compare our organizational structure to a democracy to explain the tradeoffs in a structure like ours," she says. "When you look at it from a purely objective standpoint, a democratic government may not be the most time- or cost-effective way to run a country. In the end, however, the quality of life is far better than what you’ll find in a dictatorship. We believe the associate satisfaction and spirit of innovation that result from our culture more than compensate for its challenges."

Sometimes a rose is just a rose. But as W. L. Gore demonstrates, sometimes, it’s much, much more.

Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 48-53.