WL Gore: a leaderless success

by 19 Aug 2008

Manufacturing company WL Gore, which consistently tops the lists of best places to work in the UK, boasts a hierarchy-free structure. So whats it like to work in its HR team? Jo Faragher met HR leader Ann Gillies

Imagine working in an organisation where there are no job titles, no managers and no job descriptions, just associates and leaders. Ann Gillies has done so for almost 33 years – except for a brief break in the 1980s when her husband relocated, but she soon returned.

Gillies is an HR leader at WL Gore in the UK,part of the global manufacturing company that makes a range of products from guitar strings to filtration systems, but is best known for the protective fabric Gore-Tex. Gore has also been lauded in management texts for years for its innovative “lattice”management model (see box, How WL Gore works) and came top in the Sunday Times list of 100 best places to work for four consecutive years between 2004 and 2007.

Not surprisingly, HR in a business with no hierarchy – no senior executive egos to massage or line managers to police – runs very differently to how it might in a more “traditional” organisation.

“We don’t fit into the standard HR mould,”explains Gillies. “We don’t do many disciplinaries,for example. People feel they have a voice.” Associates, as the staff are known at Gore, clearly feel they are treated fairly.

Unusually, for a manufacturing company, there is no union representation. Nor are there set HR policies and procedures.

According to Gillies, HR has its own record of best practice guidelines for any situations that might arise, but this is not made public to the rest of the organisation.

Business partners

A positive outcome of this is that the HR team at Gore probably deals with considerably less paperwork than the average HR department.

“I’ve never worked anywhere else so I can’t compare, but my colleagues seem to think [we have less paper trails],” says Gillies. “If we give someone a pay rise, we don’t send them a letter in triplicate to confirm.” Consequently, the HR team is relatively small.

Gillies and her team – three HR generalists (including Gillies), a recruiter (who works across European sites as well) and 2.5 support staff – look after 500 employees in the UK.

And while Gore’s management structure, or lack of it, is celebrated for its uniqueness, the way HR works at the company owes much, says Gillies, to the HR business partner model of Dave Ulrich – HR guru and founder of RBL Group. She spends three-quarters of her time at the company’s cable assembly plant at Dundee,Scotland, so is heavily ensconced in the manufacturing process.

And while the HR team members may not have technical backgrounds, they are able to ensure they are aware of where the business is going.

“To operate properly as a business partner you have to understand the vision for the organisation – its constraints and what your competitors are doing,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you have to know how many gigahertz a cable can support.”

A key HR initiative at Gore is its cultural awareness programme, which helps new recruits understand how the company works, its values and how their work will be rewarded.

Building on the best

When new associates start at Gore they receive a first-day induction much as they would at any company, but that’s followed up with a three-day workshop known as “Building on the Best”, which takes them through 15 to 20 intensive modules on the culture at Gore. Crucially, each associate is assigned a sponsor when they join the company “to help them identify quick wins and create their own network”, according to Gillies.

Teams “adopt” associates and associates can seek out new sponsors if they wish, but the general feeling is one of feeling part of a huge corporate family.

But this might not suit everyone, and Gillies has no delusions about this.

“We know pretty quickly if it’s not working. And the individual knows it, too. We tend to either lose people in the first 18 months or keep them for a long time,” she says. Bringing on new associates who have held senior positions in other businesses is difficult, however.

“You get good and bad baggage from their previous employers. Also, if they’re going to be influencing people, they may think they’re good influencers because they’re used to saying “do this”. That’s not how we work here. People like to challenge your way of doing things and ask why. This isn’t done in a negative way. So we work on that with them.”

Reaping rewards

Gore’s reward structure, in contrast to the rest of the organisation, is anything but flat. To ensure everyone is paid fairly, the company asks all associates to rank their team members once a year in order of contribution to the enterprise. But unlike companies that base an employee’s pay on the evaluations of one or two people – or supervisors’opinions alone – Gore involves multiple “inputters” in the process. The goal is “internal fairness and external competitiveness”.

An associate’s contribution to the success of the enterprise might include their impact and effectiveness, as well as past, present, and future contributions. In addition to the numerical ranking,leaders discuss the rationale behind the ranking,looking at particular strengths or potential areas of improvement. Salaries are competitive – but not bank-busting – but the overall package is what makes the company an attractive culture.

“We don’t pay at the top end [of the industry],but we ensure the higher contributors are rewarded,”says Gillies.

Gore also offers free private healthcare, profit-related pay and associates receive about 10 per cent of their salary in stock after they have worked there a year.

Gore is fiercely privately owned, the philosophy being that with no external shareholders to be accountable to, associates can get on with the job of developing innovative products. But that doesn’t mean the company is closed off from the wider commercial world.

Every month, associates can access a recorded message highlighting the successes and challenges in different divisions so they know how the overall business is performing and where their contribution sits within that. And Gillies and her team make an effort to catch up with friends and acquaintances who work in HR in other businesses “so we can calibrate how we’re doing”.

No hippy commune

In theory, the Gore model seems to be as near to an ideal way of working as possible, attracting business leaders from around the world to scrutinise how it works in practice, but its critics might suggest the company is too internal-facing.

According to business guru Gary Hamel, in his book The Future of Management, the Gore model is “still more studied than emulated”. So could the non-hierarchical, lattice structure work anywhere else?

“Absolutely,” insists Gillies. “I can imagine that in the military or in law enforcement you need some sort of control-and-command structure, but elsewhere, if you trust people, they will do a good job.

“In a bank, for example, you may not be developing new products, but you still have to refresh what’s on offer, and be creative in how you deal with people.”

And Gillies is quick to dismiss any suggestion that the company’s family feel stops it being truly competitive.

“We do need to make decisions here – we’re not a hippy commune,” she insists. “It’s about making sure something is happening, but not taking control – you’re not managing people, you’re letting the team work out the how and then get on with it.”

Ultimately, career advancement in the traditional sense is not important to Gillies, so she has no plans to change employer.

“I wouldn’t work anywhere else,” she says. “I’m so proud of the people here. At Gore, your opinion counts, so there’s a real sense of involvement. You don’t need power when you’re part of a team.”

Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com

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