The Leadership Path at WH Gore – The Goretex People – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Gore leaders are comfortable with, and even promote, other members of the team also leading.  They do not need to be the ones who “always” make the decision, have the final call, or even know the right answer.”  – Michael Pacanowsky

At W.L. Gore, the chemical company most famous for Gore-Tex, there are no management layers and there is no organizational chart.  Few people have titles, and no one has a boss.  The Core operating units are small, self-managing teams, all of which share two common goals: “to make money and have fun.”

There are no ranks or titles, some associates have earned the simple appellation “leader.”  Senior leaders do not appoint junior leaders.  Rather, associates become leaders when their peers judge them to be such.  A leader garners influence by demonstrating a capacity to get things done and excelling as a team builder.  At Gore, those who make a disproportionate contribution to team success, and do it more than once, attract followers.  “We vote with our feet,” says Rich Buckingham, a manufacturing leader in Gore’s technical-fabrics group.  “If you call a meeting, and people show up, you’re a leader.”

The correlation between communication, leadership, and team building

The ethos, or corporate culture, at WL Gore Company clearly is in step with the company’s mission and vision.  Moreover, the company thrives as a flat organization. There is no “red tape”, no layers, and no barriers to communication. Teams are built around natural leaders. “Leaders” can’t be convenient political appointees, or “rotated” into a corporate “welfare” job (as in the Dilbert Principle); the leadership style is based around a simple leadership principle: “If you prove you can lead, people will follow”. Teams are created around the simple mission and vision, keeping all employees motivated and engaged at a high level. Proof is in the pudding, as there is no boss to micro-manage or “oversee” work. All employees must be self-starters, self-motivated, and require little supervision. This pre-requisite lays the groundwork for a specific type of employee; no laggards need apply.

Strategies used to become a leader in this type of work environment

In a freewheeling, Darwinian environment such as the WL Gore culture, a leader is faced with “survival of the fittest”. If he/she is aggressive and has a strong track record of success, he/she will attain followers. This is an interesting ethos, because it forces a continuous stream of creativity to flow. It also compels team members to gravitate toward the leader with the most open idea flow. Teams exist as long as the leader consistently produces success; so, a natural symbiosis occurs as well. And because there is no pressure from a debilitating bureaucracy, ideas become reality: If not, a new team leader emerges, and the leadership cycle repeats. It’s also fascinating that “influence” has recently become one of the key criteria of leadership. At WL Gore, influence and leadership are one and the same.

It seems to be a successful leader at WL Gore; you need to be a very assertive, if not aggressive individual. No shy violets need apply. Don’t expect people to do your work for you. Don’t expect people not to notice if you are not up to speed.

That said, a few strategies come to mind. To become a leader in this corporate culture, you would first have to be an expert in your product line. Expertise is highly valued, and without it, no one would follow you. Second, a tone of “no holds barred” would be established on your team. All ideas welcomed; no idea is a dumb idea would be your motto. However, the trick of leadership here is to sort through the ideas quickly to see which ones are going to bring success the fastest: Because every day at WL Gore is a competition and leaders are knocked off their pedestals on a regular basis.

As long as you can handle the Darwinian ethos, the demand for expertise, and the flexibility to understand and harness new ideas, you could be a smashing success at WL Gore.

“We’re more than employees; we’re trusted stewards of our business. Each of us makes commitments that help drive the business, and we work together in our lattice communications structure.” – WH Gore About Page


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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas.

Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society.

Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.