Convocation

On Saturday, August 17, 2013, a hundred or so other faculty members of Westminster College and I welcomed the freshman class to their new beginning as members of the Class of 2017.  Some wore the gowns of their alma mater; others of us wore whatever gown the rental provider could find for us.  I was among the latter group, having never attended my own undergraduate, masters, or doctoral graduations.

We faculty gathereConvocationd at the Giovale library, and led by the Utah Pipe Band, marched across campus and into the school gymnasium.  Scotland has given the world many extraordinary achievements—from the invention of street lamps to articulation of the free market society, but few Scottish achievements bring such a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, rousing response as bagpipes and drums playing “Scotland the Brave.”

Convocation.  A call to a new beginning for the students.  And a new beginning for me, as well.  After 17 years in corporate life at W. L. Gore & Associates, I found myself returning to the academy to finish my career, trying to pass on—to these students, to others who might be interested—some of the lessons I have learned from my experiences with the Associates of a truly remarkable company.

At Westminster, I have the honor and very good fortune to be the inaugural Gore-Giovale Chair in Business Innovation.  The chair was endowed by John and Ginger (Gore) Giovale, and is intended to help promote the legacy of Bill and Vieve Gore, the founders of W. L. Gore & Associates.  The “Enterprise” they founded is well known among outdoor enthusiasts for its GORE-TEX laminate.  It is equally well known among management scholars as an innovative engine, creating many new products for the medical, industrial, electronic, and outerwear markets, and crowned by The Fast Company as the “most innovative company (pound for pound) in America.”  W. L. Gore & Associates has been highlighted as one of the company’s that represents the “future of management” by the organizational scholar, Gary Hamel.  In the US, the company has been on every list of “Best Companies in America to Work for” since the very first book by that name by Levering and Moscowitz in 1984.

I had taught at the college level as a professor of organization communication for many years before joining Gore—first at the University of Utah and then at the University of Colorado.  Now, at the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business, I embark on heretofore uncharted waters for me:  a course for seniors on strategic management.  In preparation, I read the textbook that is used in all of the sections of this required class, “Strategic Management” by Hill and Jones.  It proved less foreign than I first expected.  The strategic concepts were all familiar:  return on invested capital, SWOT analysis, Porter’s 5 Forces model, product differentiation, efficiency, globalization, vertical integration, diversification.  Although I had never formally studied management before, my experience working with various Gore teams on their strategic planning processes brought me into real world contact with these concepts.  At some level, strategy for any organization is built around the same nouns and verbs as elsewhere.  Gore may put more emphasis on “product differentiation” than most.  It may put less emphasis on “merger and acquisition” than most.  But regardless, the fundamental vocabulary and grammar for strategy at Gore is largely the same as it is anywhere else. For the students I work with, I hope I can complement the book’s explanations with some examples from Gore and elsewhere, and give a sense of how the vocabulary and grammar of strategy, when used well, become part of an interesting and constructive organizational conversation.

Although the concept itself was hardly unfamiliar, the only part of the book that really seemed foreign to me was the assertion that, once a leadership team has decided on a strategy, it then becomes their responsibility to put into place a culture and a reward system that will motivate employees to act in alignment with that strategy.  Here was a point of view that went against the grain of what I believed and experienced.  At one level, I’m not sure that culture is so malleable that it can be designed and created by management fiat.  Managers might be able to emphasize certain aspects of an organization’s culture that align with the strategy.  Or managers might be able to leverage certain aspects of the culture.  They might even be able to tweak certain aspects, bringing in a new value or practice so long as it isn’t contrary to currently held values of the culture.  But “creating” a culture to support a strategy seems massively difficult if not entirely beyond what’s possible for most organizations.

At another level, I chaffed against the idea that management had to put into place a reward system that would “motivate employees” to act in concert with the strategy.  I understand that, in many organizations, this arrangement goes without saying.  And surely, no one would think that rewarding behavior that went against the strategy was anything but foolish.  But my experience at Gore suggested that there could be another way—one that could tap into the intrinsic motivation of satisfying work well done, in collaboration with respected colleagues, and allow self-motivation to drive responsible behavior, rather than management having to put into place the right carrots and the right sticks.  Is that too idealistic?  Too impractical in the large organizations that dominate our understanding of corporate life?  I am not so much an idealist that I think every company should be like Gore.  Nor am I so impractical that I don’t understand the rationality behind the dominant ways of organizing.  Nevertheless, the fact of my own experience remains unchanged.  At least for some, things can be different.

I do not hold Gore up as an example of a perfect organization.  It is not perfect. Like all organizations, it is made up of people with the full spectrum of human strength and frailty.  Bill and Vieve Gore were not so much idealistic as they were pragmatic.  They took the human condition as it was, and sought, not perfection, but improvement.  The Gore’s culture begins with a very positive view of the potential of frail human beings to be thoughtful, to be creative, to be competent, to want to make a contribution through their work.  Not that all people will be that way.  But that, in the right environment, they have that potential.  Not all organizations can, nor possibly should, try to “be” Gore.  But I do believe that many organizations can create more productive environments by reflecting on how some Gore values and practices might mesh with or extend their current cultures. That, at least, is the orientation I plan to take in my work with the students.

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