Terri Kelly is President and CEO of W.L. Gore & Associates, a multi-billion dollar enterprise that employs more than 8,000 associates in 45 plants around the world. Gore specializes in fluoropolymer-based materials that are utilized in a wide array of high- value products, including GORE-TEX® fabric, medical devices, filtration and venting products and many other advanced technology solutions. Gore is as well known for its unique management philosophy and culture, as for its multitude of unique products.
Kelly joined Gore as a process engineer in 1983 after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Delaware with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. In her early years with the company, she gained experience as a product specialist with the military fabrics business—a unit she eventually led—helping it grow from a small start-up venture into a leading producer of protective products for the global armed forces.
In 1998, Kelly became part of the leadership team for the global Fabrics Division. In this role, she helped establish a fabrics manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China—Gore’s first fabrics plant in Asia. Today, there are more than 500 associates in Asia Pacific, and the region is poised to become a significant source of revenue for the enterprise in the coming years. While in the Fabrics Division, Kelly also served on the Enterprise Operations Committee working closely with the CEO and other leaders to help guide the strategic direction of the company.
Kelly’s leadership abilities have driven her success in a company known for its non- hierarchical “lattice” structure. At Gore, associates become leaders based on their ability to gain the respect of their peers and to attract followers. Terri earned the title of president and CEO in 2005—one of the few titles within the enterprise—following a peer-driven selection process.
In addition to her role at Gore, Kelly is a member of the Management Executives’ Society, the Forum of Executive Women of Delaware and the International Women’s Forum. She also is on the board of directors for the Nemours Foundation—one of the nation’s leading children’s health care systems. She resides in Delaware with her husband and four children.
The model of the single powerful leader who operates through command and control is attractive in its simplicity. This model of leadership often gets reinforced in the media, as well as by demanding shareholders. In reality, it is impractical to expect the single leader to have all the answers, and history has shown that relying upon rigid control mechanisms will not prevent catastrophic outcomes.
It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.
And as organizations grow in size and complexity, it becomes even more critical to distribute the leadership load. Conventional structures that rely upon concentrated leadership to drive decisions towards the center run the risk of becoming constrained by their own organization. They also lose the opportunity to empower a much broader base of competent leaders. The capacity of the organization increases when it distributes the leadership load to competent leaders on the ground who can make the best knowledge-based decisions.