Engineering corporate creativity

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am


Terri Kelly, an engineer by training and a chief executive by career, is no ordinary woman.

She runs WL Gore & Associates, a United States-based high-performance chemicals firm famed for its Gore-Tex waterproof and breathable fabric, and she's one of a small number of women who climbed to the top of the corporate ladder in the male-dominated engineering field. It runs in the family. Her father and two of her three sisters also studied mechanical engineering.

Kelly started at WL Gore fresh out of engineering school as a process engineer, progressed to become a product specialist, focusing on military applications for Gore fabrics, and eventually joined the CEO's team of associate advisers. Seven years ago, the tall, soft-spoken now 51-year-old executive took the helm of WL Gore, a closely held firm founded in 1958 by the late Bill Gore, who formerly worked at US chemical maker DuPont, and his wife Genevieve. The couple's descendants are actively involved in the company and are shareholders.

To foster creativity and innovation, WL Gore has no management hierarchy. All the company's staff share the title 'associate', and work in teams with 'leaders', instead of 'bosses', who 'earn' leadership by building up internal 'followers' with their knowledge, skill, enthusiasm and track record. It means there are no chains of command or pre-set channels of communication.

Each employee has shares in the company. To maintain its focus on long-term value creation rather than short-term share price gains, WL Gore intends to remain in private hands. The company has often been picked by various media over the years as one of the 'best companies to work for' in the US and Europe.

Such organisations are relatively easy to manage when they are small. But over the years W L Gore has grown into a company with sales last year exceeding US$3.2 billion, and more than 10,000 'associates' spread over 30 countries, presenting its own set of management challenges.

Still, Kelly expects the average 10 per cent growth in annual sales in the past five years to continue for the next few years. The company has factories in the US, Germany, Britain, Japan and China, which make materials used mainly in medical products, fabrics, electronic devices and filtration systems. It spends about 8 per cent of its annual revenue on research and development.

Kelly spoke to the Post amid the 10th anniversary celebrations of WL Gore's Shenzhen plant in May.

What makes a good leader at WL Gore?

In our environment, the leadership role is very different from that in a hierarchical company. The role is to lead by influencing and empowering others to help them become more successful. Innovation requires collaboration, since innovators need the inputs from the manufacturing, sales and support functions to make their ideas become reality. The role of a leader is to make sure all of them are working well together and are focused on the greatest opportunity.

How can associates be successful at WL Gore?

Our culture is one that requires a lot of self-responsibility. The most successful associates are those who look to themselves on how they can make a difference. Our associates can only be successful if they build their own network of collaboration with other associates, not just locally but also globally.

When you first joined the firm 29 years ago, the founders invited you to their home for a barbecue and pool party and flipped burgers for you as part of your initiation. Do you do the same for some of your associates?

No, not with 10,000 associates. Nowadays, I go to lots of forums with teams around the world. On any given day, there is a Gore meeting going on somewhere and I get asked frequently to talk to groups and attend town hall meetings.

What do you do to ensure the Gore culture works outside the US, especially in China, where hierarchy in the workplace is the norm?

This is by far the greatest challenge in China. When we hire, we look for people who would be comfortable working without rigid boundaries. We ask a lot of behavioural questions in job interviews to gauge how comfortable they are with ambiguity. We also provide each associate with a 'sponsor' who commits time to help and maximise the potential of the associate.

If there is no communication boundary, do you receive tonnes of e-mails and how do you handle them?

If I were the person who had all the knowledge, I would probably receive thousands of e-mails a day. The good news is that a lot of that gets distributed to many leaders and associates. I do get e-mails from associates in situations where they think I'm the only one who has the answer. I do answer them and they are usually really good questions. I don't think people abuse it, as long as they can't get their questions answered elsewhere.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in WL Gore and how did you deal with it?

When I was part of the fabrics division, we had many teams pursuing their dreams, but we were lacking leadership in looking at how we could maximise our success. The difficulty was to get our associates to understand that we had to look for more significant growth themes that we could build upon, and that the innovation stories that we were so proud of may or may not be the products that were required to sustain our growth rate in the future. We were able to put some tools in place that helped teams to have that great conversation. Peer pressure worked really well. Our associates were able to recognise that they have to sell their ideas, and if another idea is better than theirs, they have to accept that as a team they should pursue that one instead of theirs.

You have four children, how do you balance your work and private life?

My philosophy is I try not to make work a 24-hour-a-day thing, and I have to be able to multitask. The more I can empower our associates, the more likely I can have a balanced work life. I'm very fortunate to have tremendous support at home from my husband, who decided to go part-time on his banking career after our second child was born, and subsequently became a full-time dad after I had twins.

Did your father actively encourage you and your three sisters to become engineers? And do you want your children to follow suit?

No, he never pressured us in any way. My interest must be more from watching his passion for his work. There is a challenge nowadays to get kids more excited about engineering science, since it has an image of being boring. I hope that at least one of my children will become an engineer. My eldest son is a sales and marketing business major in college. I'm working on my younger daughters now. But if I push too hard, they will absolutely not want to do it, so I'll learn from my dad's subtle approach.

You are a member of the International Women's Forum. Do you want to see more women get into engineering?

Yes, the women-men ratio in engineering is still 20 per cent versus 80 per cent, so we need more diversity. An exciting trend is that there are new disciplines like biomedical and biomaterial engineering, where 60 per cent of the practitioners are women.


The number of consecutive years WL Gore has been on Fortune's list of the best 100 US companies to work for