If you've nicknamed your boss the Walking Plague, Terri Kelly is a woman you will envy: she's never had a boss. After graduating from the University of Delaware in 1983 with a BS in engineering, Kelly went to work for W.L. Gore and Associates, a $1.1 billion company best known as a developer of high-tech fabric. If you've worn a Gore-Tex jacket, you've had a close encounter with a Gore product.
A visionary corporation, Gore is built from a blueprint that its founder refers to as a "lattice" (as opposed to a "ladder"). There is no visible hierarchy at Gore — and no job titles. In fact, there are no bosses. Instead, there are leaders who achieve their positions by gaining followers. Business goals are established by consensus.
Gore's internal "structure" was put into place in 1958 by cofounder Bill Gore, an ex-DuPont exec who believed that leaders should be chosen by the people who follow them. Working as a business leader in Gore's military-fabrics division, Kelly often finds herself disabusing outsiders of the notion that life in a world without authority figures is Utopia.
Fantasy: You're responsible to no one.
Reality: You're responsible to everyone.
"Although I'm a business leader for military fabric, I'm a leader only if there are people who are willing to follow me," says Kelly. "A project doesn't move forward unless people buy into it. You cultivate followership by selling yourself, articulating your ideas, and developing a reputation for seeing things through." Here is Kelly's three-point plan for convincing fellow Goreans to buy in on her projects.
Resolve the potentially fatal flaw.
After conceiving an idea, Kelly scrutinizes the plan to find its weakest link and takes it to the person who oversees that part of the business. "Let's say I've come up with a design for a winter sleeping bag for the military," she says. "I'd go to the person responsible for marketing the bag and find out whether there's demand for it. If there isn't, I'd go back and try to reposition the plan. If he's excited by the idea and thinks it's viable, I'd bring him in on the project to help me develop it."
Give away ownership.
Once Kelly is convinced there's a market for the sleeping bag, she starts casting about for people from other divisions — manufacturing, design, fabric, sales — to form a core team and develop the product. "It's a process of giving away ownership of the idea to people who want to contribute and be a part of it. The project won't go anywhere if you don't let people run with it."
Connect the project with the Big Picture.
Unlike people in hierarchical companies, Kelly cannot simply draft the members of her team. She's got to win them over. Her most reliable tactic is to show how the project will improve Gore's bottom line.
"People here understand that the growth of our business with the military is absolutely critical to our overall success. If I paint a convincing argument that we aren't giving the soldier our best product, then Gore employees need to think about that. And I have to show them that through their lack of action, they are opting out of the company's future."
Fantasy: There's no boss standing between you and a raise.
Reality: Everyone stands between you and a raise.
"Salary raises depend on the written reviews of your peers, not on a boss's recommendation," says Kelly, who adds that the reviews include a numerical ranking for each person within a particular department. "The idea is that employees are not accountable to the president of the company; they're accountable to their colleagues." Achieving a high ranking, Kelly explains, depends in part on your ability to work on high-profile projects. Follow these steps.
Establish your credibility.
"You won't get invited to join the hot teams until you've already contributed to projects that weren't so attractive," says Kelly. "To get ahead, you must first demonstrate that you can take ownership of a project and stick with it. Anyone can talk about going the extra mile. First you've got to prove to everyone else that you can do it."
Pursue the team of your dreams.
"When it's not immediately clear who will be a good fit on a particular team, you hope that somebody will step up and express excitement about being a part of it. People here should never wait around to be asked to join a team. They've got to be proactive. They have to volunteer."
Coordinates: Terri Kelly, firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.