You’ve probably bought a garment made of W. L. Gore & Associates’ flagship product, Gore-Tex, a fabric that blocks wind and water, yet is highly breathable thanks to Gore’s patented technology. But you might not know that the company offers a host of other products, from heart patches and synthetic blood vessels to air pollution filters and fuel cells. In fact, W. L. Gore & Associates makes more than 1000 products. Though its financial data are not publicly available, a spokesperson for the company said that Gore had double-digit revenue growth the past three years. With this type of performance and extensive product line, you might expect Gore to be structured like big companies such as Westpac, SingTel, Microsoft or Goodman Fielder. But it’s not, and it never was.
Wilbert L. Gore founded W. L. Gore & Associates in 1958. Gore believed that too much hierarchy and bureaucracy stifled creativity and adaptation, a view he formed during his 17-year career as a DuPont engineer. He stated once that “communication really happens in the car park,” meaning informal arenas allowed employees to share their ideas openly without fear of criticism from management. So Gore decided to eliminate the hierarchy found in most organisations. Instead, he instructed everyone to communicate openly, with little regard to status differences. In fact, Gore eliminated status differences altogether. At W. L. Gore & Associates, there are no job titles. Each employee works on projects collaboratively, while at the same time is given the freedom to develop new ideas. Ideas that are deemed worthy of pursuing by team members are then developed.
In addition to the lack of bureaucracy, Gore also kept his facilities staffed with a small number of employees to promote information sharing and foster teamwork. For example, he limited staffing at manufacturing plants to 200 employees, which is smaller than typical manufacturing firms. Gore believed the number was low enough for employees to get to know one another, allowing them to talk freely about their knowledge and ideas. The result of such a corporate structure has been tremendous growth and profit. Gore has also been an industry leader in innovation. Gore’s unique structure does take some getting used to, particularly for new employees. Diane Davidson recalls that the lack of a formal hierarchy was bewildering at first. As a sales executive in the apparel industry, Davidson was hired by Gore to promote its fabrics to designers such as Prada and Hugo Boss. Davidson states, “I came from a very traditional, male-dominated business—the men’s shoe business. When I arrived at Gore, I didn’t know who did what. I wondered how anything got done here. It was driving me crazy.” Instead of a formal supervisor, Davidson was assigned to a “starting sponsor.” As opposed to a traditional supervisor, the sponsor at Gore helps new hires learn the ropes—which primarily consist of getting to know one’s team. “Who’s my boss.” she repeatedly asked her sponsor. Her sponsor would reply, “Stop using the b-word.”
Davidson eventually got used to Gore’s structure. “Your team is your boss, because you don’t want to let them down. Everyone’s your boss, and no one’s your boss,” she explains. Not only are there no formal supervisors at Gore, but employees’ job descriptions are conspicuously absent as well. Employees at Gore perform multiple tasks to create a new product. Davidson, for example, is involved in marketing, sales, and sponsorship—roles that typically are separated in other organizations. As John Morgan, an employee of Gore for more than 20 years, states, “You join a team and you’re an idiot. It takes 18 months to build credibility. Early on, it’s really frustrating. In hindsight, it makes sense. As a sponsor, I tell new hires, ‘Your job for the first 6 months is to get to know the team,’ but they have trouble believing it—and not contributing when other people are
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