The Un-CEO

Terri Kelly, the recently appointed head of W.L. Gore Associates, on running a low-key company with high expectations.

Terri Kelly

CEO, W.L. Gore & Associates

The maker of Gore-Tex fabrics has such a low-key culture that even its corporate Web site has no indication that a new CEO started there in April. Kelly, 42, is the mother of four children, ages 5 to 13. She has spent her entire 22-year career at Gore since receiving her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering a few miles away at the University of Delaware. She talks about being the CEO of a company that's famous for having no hierarchy or bosses.

My father is a mechanical engineer and I have three sisters, no brothers. Ironically, not only did he get one engineer -- three of us are mechanical engineers. It has to be my father's influence.

The idea of me as CEO managing the company is a misperception. My goal is to provide the overall direction. I spend a lot of time making sure we have the right people in the right roles. You know the joke, "I'm from corporate, and I'm here to help." We don't need unuseful, unvaluable corporate help. We empower divisions and push out responsibility. We're so diversified that it's impossible for a CEO to have that depth of knowledge -- and not even practical.

It's never about the CEO. You're an associate, and you just happen to be the CEO. We don't like anyone to be the center of attention. Certainly it was big news internally that our last CEO decided to retire, but not as big news as at a public company where the top spot has the command-and-control roles and takes the center of attention.

I travel in coach like anyone else. The only benefit as CEO is you get a lot of frequent-flier miles and you might get upgraded.

Leaders need to be approachable and real. They can't only fly at 50,000 feet. They have to come down to 5 feet. Early in my career, when I was hired as a new engineer, [founders] Bill and Vieve Gore invited me to their house for a cookout and pool party. Bill was the one flipping the burgers.

I didn't know my job was just to show up. Coming into any new role, you want to make an impact. You want to prove you can do it. But people just want you to show up, they want to know a name and a face, and they're tickled that you've taken the time to go to a plant and walk the factory floor.

Leaders have to be very self-aware. They have to understand their flaws, their own behavior, and the impact they have on others.

We're committed to how we get things done. That puts a tremendous burden on leaders because it's easier to say, "Just do it" than to explain the rationale. But in the long run, you'll get much better results because people are making a commitment.

We've tried to put the attention on the products and company values and minimize attention to individuals.

I admire Michael Dell. It's impressive when someone defies what normal behavior should be in the marketplace. Combine that with sharp focus and clarity about what really makes him successful.

I'm inundated with email. Drives me crazy. You just get bombarded with information. Nuggets of information are valuable, but sorting through that maze is a waste of time. I'm much more a person who wants to have a conversation with someone.

The biggest change for us is global connectivity. Five years from now, the businesses will be truly integrated -- people and information will flow back and forth seamlessly across continents.

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