Former Gore CEO Terri Kelly Discusses Leading Through Paradox in Chaplin Tyler Lecture

When Terri Kelly became CEO of W.L. Gore & Associates in 2005, she faced a dilemma. The company’s founder, Bill Gore, emphasized minimizing bureaucracy and structured the organization on the power of small teams, encouraging employees, referred to as associates, to be innovative.

Kelly, who had already been with Gore for 22 years prior to taking on the CEO title, valued the Gore culture. She understood the power of small teams, but she also knew that this approach would hold Gore back from being a global leader. The company had grown to 10,000 employees in 45 sites around the globe, bringing in over $3 billion in revenues.

“We needed to think globally and act locally,” Kelly said. “So as a leader, I had individual connection points with all of the people on my team, and wanted to allow them the opportunity to give permission to present their points of view in their different areas. And then I took that information to advance our global strategy.”

Kelly honored Bill Gore’s legacy while also overseeing a global company.  Wendy Smith, Dana J. Johnson Professor of Management at the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics explored how Kelly did this in her recently published book, Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems coauthored with Marianne Lewis, dean and professor of management at the University of Cincinnati’s Carl H. Lindner College of Business.

Kelly, who earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at UD in 1983, and Smith participated in a fireside chat about leading through paradox in early November during this year’s Chaplin Tyler Executive Leadership Lecture hosted by the Lerner College.

Smith noted early in that discussion that “it’s not if leaders will face tensions and competing demands, but how they do so. Effective leaders need to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. Those leaders need to feel inauthentic in order to come to a point where they want to be authentic.”

“Every time [facing tensions] is happening, it doesn’t feel good,” said Kelly, a member of the UD Board of Trustees since 2009 who was elected chair on May 19, 2022 and began her term on July 1. “I remember a lot of sleepless nights feeling like I’m letting down the whole company. But learning from that, I think if you were comfortable and safe, you probably weren’t growing and learning to come out the other side.”

In her role as CEO, Kelly figured out how to exert competence while also showing vulnerability. She set the tone for that in terms of being confident and having conviction, but also recognizing when she was wrong.

“Every organization screws up, and people want to jump on that,” she explained. “But if you’re responsible and own up to it, it’s amazing how people will support you and want to help. So I think it’s a powerful learning tool as a leader to show empathy and vulnerability, but at the same time a level of dominance that I’ve got this figured out.”

Smith noted that in her research of large companies, one of the classic characteristics of business failure is success. The more successful a company is, the more it can get stuck reinforcing all the things it has previously done. The more successful businesses get jolted out of that inertia mindset of just reinforcing their existing practices, but also being careful not to overcorrect and getting rid of the good as well as the bad.

Kelly said that to avoid that mindset, she would participate in town halls across the world to engage with different teams at Gore. She had previously utilized PowerPoint slides, until at one point a senior leader asked her to stop relying on the slides as they distracted from a more human interaction and just have a conversation with the employees.

“To quit that presentation and realize the power of the storytelling and engagement with people, that’s what they will remember,” Kelly said. “I had to kind of reset, realizing that the best perspective isn’t about representing the company, it’s about representing your kind of beliefs.

“We had to rediscover that, in most things, it really matters what you do,” she continued. “It reengaged the organization and engaged the spirit of why we’re here together.”

Smith discussed the competing demands of what companies need to do immediately while also keeping the long-term picture in mind. She used the metaphor of being on a boat in choppy waters, noting how we might feel chaos and uncertainty in the moment, but looking out in the distance to the horizon can calm yourself.

Kelly responded with her own boat analogy that Gore used: Everybody is rowing in the same direction, but keeping in mind risk tolerance.

“We had this concept called the waterline,” she explained. “The whole idea was that you can shoot all kinds of holes above the waterline in the boat, because you’re not going to sink anything. But if you start getting below the waterline, you probably want to consult with others. And it was so empowering that you had to try to figure out where that line was. I think those kinds of practices and images really help organizations understand what they’re trying to do.”

Smith noted that leaders have to navigate between competing priorities, as in the tensions between what people need locally versus creating a global, integrated enterprise-wide strategy.

“Gore did a really good job of not just leaving that to the senior leadership, because everyone needed to understand that big picture,” Kelly responded. “Each person played a different role in their own area of responsibility but also needed that broader context, so we didn’t create silos that could lead to animosity. Leaders had to spend a ton of time on just context setting, getting people to understand that complexity.”

Smith asked about Kelly’s early days at Gore when she had a junior role in the organization and had to deal with not just finding a solution but understanding that leaders at that time were navigating competing priorities, and her issue might not be the highest at that moment.

Kelly stated that she had the benefit that Gore was a much smaller company when she started, which allowed her to have a broader view of the company more easily. As the company grew, she found that those who took the opportunity to network with people on different teams were able to enrich their own understanding.

“I think it makes you a more well-rounded person, because you’re getting to see it through the lens of my business or my function but also the broader perspective,” she said.

The final paradox that Smith and Kelly discussed was finding comfort in the discomfort.

“Some organizations say check your personal life at the door and we’re not going to have those conversations, which I think is very unhealthy. Because that’s not realistic, it’s all a continuum,” Kelly explained. “At Gore we would invite those conversations to get people uncomfortable, but we’d allow for different voices to be heard, and it was a safe place for people to speak up. So we’re able to have different perspectives, and we understand each other, and that was one of the strengths of our environment.”

About the Chaplin Tyler Lecture

The Chaplin Tyler Executive Lecture Series in UD’s Lerner College brings leaders from business, nonprofit organizations and government to campus to share their experiences and insights with students, faculty and the business community in an open exchange of ideas and perspectives.

The series, which is supported by the Chaplin Tyler Endowment Fund, is dedicated to the memory of Chap and Elizabeth Tyler, their commitment to education and their determination to help young people achieve success in the business world.

During the introduction to this year’s Tyler Lecture, Lerner College Dean Bruce Weber discussed the various accomplishments of Chaplin Tyler’s 106 year-long life, including writing a book at the age of 99 and a second book at the age of 100.

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