Terri Kelly, The “Un-CEO” Of W.L. Gore, On How To Deal With Chaos: Grow Up

Embrace “rainmakers,” says the leader of the company behind Gore-Tex. Her mantra for seeing 10,000 associates in dozens of countries through turbulent times: maturity.

Terri Kelly, The “Un-CEO” Of W.L. Gore, On How To Deal With Chaos: Grow Up
Photo by Adam Fedderly

Terri Kelly is the “un-CEO” of W.L. Gore, the brand best known for consumer products like Gore-Tex fabric and Elixir guitar strings but that also sells a dizzying range of industrial products, from fuel-cell components to specialized plastics. Gore has long been known, and lauded, as an innovative enterprise. But that has not made the company immune from the velocity of change transforming our economy. “We have gone through distinct periods of uncertainty in the past, but now it’s a constant,” Kelly says. “In the past we might have talked about hitting a soft spot. Now so many things are changing, they are out of whack.”


Kelly’s answer to the new challenge of business in Flux: organizational maturity, “so we’re better prepared for ambiguity,” she says. Here’s how the Delaware-Based boss and member of Generation Flux executes her plan for the 10,000-person private company with operations in dozens of countries around the globe.

Share The Struggle

Enhancing the maturity of the organization, Kelly explains, requires getting everyone to embrace the reality of their circumstances. “If ups and downs are not in your control, you have to focus on what you can control,” she says.

Kelly tries to share information–lots of it. “In the middle of so much complexity and so many trade-offs,” she says, “it’s important that the broader population of the company see the stress and appreciate the challenges that their leadership faces. It’s dangerous not to share these tensions and polarities.”

Recently, in the face of a significant dispute around a medical patent, an arcane but adverse legal ruling came out which leadership might have tried to sweep under the rug but instead, “We threw it out to the whole organization,” Kelly says. “Transparency builds trust. Some companies try to keep protected. You end up filtering so much, your people are really disconnected. And the younger generation, especially, is exposed to so much information, they are expecting it not to be filtered. Communities of folks are talking about you. If you try to control it, it will come back to haunt you.”


Take Careers Off-Road

Gore sees a steady stream of highly competent, accomplished job candidates. But if these folks are looking for a clearly marked career path at Gore, Kelly says, they will be sorely disappointed. It’s not that associates, as they call employees at Gore, don’t stay with the company; turnover is actually quite low. It’s just that fixed career tracks don’t enhance that “maturity level” she’s going for. Explains Kelly, “Some people want to see a roadmap. But we’re not going to do that. They have to take control of their own career.”

Gore did a study of its leadership team a while back, asking them what the most important, formative jobs they’d had were. The purpose, from Kelly’s point of view, was to see if she could replicate that training, so she could build more top leaders. What she found, consistently, was that people cited as their most important job the one that was entirely ambiguous, that they struggled with, that was undefined. “That’s where they grew the most,” she says. There was no clear way to replicate that.

“We’d worry about using one rating tool, like Six Sigma, across the whole organization,” Kelly continues. “We look at things as situational. If we have too much structure, that might take you backward–you might not get that facility that comes from ‘Oh my god, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and then figuring it out. You’ve got to get that facility for ambiguity.”


Celebrate The Bold And The Bureaucratic

“We’re getting there,” she says. “We’re growing up in pockets. We’ve had to come up with best ways to teach the whole organization.” Paradoxically, Kelly is in some ways trying to inject bureaucracy into Gore. “People look at me with two heads,” she says. What she really means is that she is trying to spread worthwhile lessons across the organization, so that as the world moves faster, the company can too. “How do we distinguish between opportunities in a common language?” she asks.

“I wouldn’t say we’d drive organizational effectiveness,” Kelly says. “That’s more foreign to us. But I’d rather come at this challenge from the creative side, and then put structures around creativity, than figure out how to build creativity where it didn’t exist. We have constant debates: Is this overstepping the boundary, is there too much rigidity, we don’t want to lose the creativity and energy in the process. But we want to create a broader architecture, a framework.”

Make It Rain

“We have what we call rainmakers and implementers,” Kelly explains. “Rainmakers come up with wild ideas, implementers make them real. The two drive each other crazy. If you’re not careful, control will gravitate to the implementers. So we try to protect the rainmakers. That means we have to be comfortable with more chaos.”


“Our organization is used to dealing with chaos, we have a high tolerance for it. We like to respond to crises. When the ship is under attack, the level of ownership is high, culturally. But you don’t want to run an organization that is constantly under attack.”

[Image: Flickr user Gore-Tex]

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.