Workplace Democracy at W.L. Gore & Associates

Last week, WorkplaceDemocracy.com spoke with Steve Shuster about what it’s like to work at one of the nation’s largest and most successful democratic companies.  Shuster is part of the enterprise communication team at W.L. Gore & Associates, his employer for the past 27 years. 

With more than $2.5 billion in annual sales and 8,000 employees in over 50 facilities worldwide, Gore is a leading manufacturer of thousands of advanced technology products for the electronics, industrial, fabrics and medical markets.  Gore is one of only 12 companies that have been on the Fortune 100 Best Places to Work list since it began.

What is it like to work at Gore?

You feel like you’re part of a family.  I have been working at Gore for 27 years, and I still get excited coming to work each day.  There is a sense of being among family, and this creates a special bond between associates and a connection with the company.  

Everyone is an owner in the company and shares in the good times and in the bad times.  Everyone works in teams, and there is very little hierarchy at Gore. 

How would you describe Gore’s company culture?

The company culture at Gore gives people a sense of belonging and gives us a sense that we are making an impact on society via our products.

There are four principles that are the foundation of Gore’s culture: fairness, freedom, commitment, and waterline.  The waterline principle means that it’s ok to make a decision that might punch a hole in the boat as long as the hole is above the waterline so that it won’t potentially sink the ship.  But, if the decision might create a hole below the waterline which might cause the ship to sink, then associates are encouraged to consult with their team so that a collaborative decision can be made. 
 
Our culture is based on integrity and a high level of ethics.  The organization operates as a flat, or ‘lattice,’ organization, where all employees are referred to as ‘associates.’   There are no bosses, only ‘sponsors’ who are similar to sports team coaches.  Sponsors are responsible for leading the teams and who are mainly focused on their team members’ growth and development.  The process of becoming a sponsor is through followership, and each group chooses their own sponsor.

Do team members have the power to remove or replace their sponsors?

In the event that a sponsor is not doing a good job, the team members speak with the sponsor about the problems.  If they are unable to resolve the problem, then the sponsor or team members might suggest an alternative team member to become the team’s new sponsor  This type of situation happens fairly often at Gore, as the teams are fairly fluid and adapt to the changing environment and market. Often when associates change commitments, they will seek out a new sponsor.

Do team leaders have the power to remove members of their team? 

If a leader doesn’t feel that a certain team member is contributing sufficiently but the other team members disagree, then the team will first meet to decide about how to make the decision.  Most often, the decision will be made collaboratively with all of the team members  being able to voice their opinions and vote on the outcome. Leadership at Gore is defined by followership, not by being given a title.

Gore has been described as having a democratic workplace.  Can you give us a few examples of innovative and unique HR/management policies that Gore has implemented?

Gore’s lattice, team-based organizational structure and the opportunity to provide feedback about other team members are two of our innovative work practices.  Associates get to manage what type of projects they are working on.  Also, associates’ compensation is based in part on their contribution to the enterprise.  All associates rank each of their colleagues according to what they feel their contribution has been to the enterprise.

What is the hiring process at Gore?  How does it differ from the hiring process at other companies?

The main difference is that Gore looks for individuals who fit Gore’s unique culture.  We look for people with an entrepreneurial spirit who are not focused on titles and hierarchy.  We conduct behavioral interview questions to help determine whether candidates fit our culture.  Gore includes several team members and representives from the business in the interview process to ensure the right candidate is selected.  Gore is not for everyone; some people don’t mesh with Gore’s culture because they can’t work without a title, or because they want to be directed.

How does Gore encourage its associates to be more innovative?

The innovative culture, which started with our company founder Bill Gore, helps foster innovation and gets people working towards a common goal.  The company culture makes associates feel that it’s ok to take risks and make mistakes.  For example, Gore asked me early on how many mistakes I’ve made so far.  He then told me that if I’m not making mistakes, then it means that I’m not taking enough risks and trying to innovate as much as I should be.

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2 Comments on “Workplace Democracy at W.L. Gore & Associates”

  1. […] small worker-owned cooperatives such as South Mountain, to large privately-held companies such as W.L. Gore and Associates, to large publicly-traded companies such as […]

  2. […] W.L. Gore is one of the most famous democratic companies in the world. They are 100% owned by employees; there’s very little hierarchy, with leadership occurring organically by people voluntarily choosing who to follow; and a high level of personal freedom for employees to innovate and be autonomous in their roles. It works spectacularly well. They are massively profitable and market leaders in several product areas. […]


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