Meet the Culture Warriors: 3 Companies Changing the Game

Mar 14, 2017

If you ask Terri Kelly what she does to make W.L. Gore such a great place to work, she’ll say she has it pretty easy: “This is something our founders thought through almost 60 years ago.” Since Kelly took the helm in 2005, Gore has made Fortune’s list of Best Companies to Work For every year—but to be fair, it had already been on every year since we started the ranking in 1998 (see our Legends list for more).

With a track record like that, Gore might seem an odd candidate for a dramatic culture overhaul. But a little over two years ago, Kelly and her executive team began to see some concerning trends. Employees were anxious that slow decision-making and a lack of risk taking might be weighing on Gore’s entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s a problem any company the size and age of W.L. Gore—a 10,000-employee firm founded in 1958—is likely to face at some point. The question was, How much of Gore’s successful infrastructure would Kelly upend to fix it?

The firms on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list are lauded for their carefully cultivated workplace cultures. But often the companies with the longest track records of success have them not because they’re consistent, but because they’re constantly reinventing the way they work. This year, W.L. Gore is far from the only strong company shaking things up. Software maker Workday (wday) is launching a revamp of its process for employee feedback, and business technology giant SAP America is rewriting its playbook on diversity. All three are examples of how, in a fast-moving corporate landscape, even the best companies can’t rely on what worked in the past to keep working in the future.

At Gore, which made its name inventing materials like the waterproof fabric Gore-Tex, the risk of an innovation slowdown was particularly serious. Kelly quickly worked to streamline decision-making and helped create an in-house team called the Innovation Center of Expertise to shepherd promising employee ideas. The company also encouraged the formation of small startup teams that were free to explore new ventures. And because most ideas won’t result in a successful new business, Gore gave team members the ability to return to their old duties if they weren’t enjoying the entrepreneurial world. “That created a ton of enthusiasm for some folks who were frustrated” in the existing structure, Kelly says. “I’m pleased with what’s happened.”

Another company with good reviews that’s convinced it could do more: human resources software company Workday. The company is in the middle of a broader pivot away from what Greg Pryor, vice president of leadership and organizational effectiveness, calls “performance management” (focused on penalizing low performers) and toward “performance enhancement” (focused on boosting employee efforts). “That’s only a one-word difference,” Pryor says, “but it’s an important shift.”

A Ping-Pong tournament at Workday’s Pleasanton, Calif., headquarters last year. Photo: Courtesy of Workday 

As a result of the company’s introspection, Workday recently implemented a pilot program upending its system of employee feedback. In March the company started surveying staff weekly, so management is better attuned to how they are feeling about their goals and performance.

Pryor says the system is particularly well-suited to millennial workers, who crave feedback and dialogue and whose numbers in the company are growing.

And then there’s business software maker SAP America (German tech giant SAP is its parent company). Its cultural challenge is a familiar one: promoting diversity in a fairly homogenous industry. In 2013, SAP promised that women would hold 25% of all leadership positions globally by the end of this year. Impressively, the company says it is currently at 24.6% and is confident it will hit that target.

To get there, SAP changed how it recruits, homing in on the application process and diving into job postings to ensure job descriptions used gender-neutral language. The hope was that recruiters would find more women applying to those roles if SAP removed signs of unconscious bias.

Tweaks to the hiring process happened at all levels, from partnerships with schools to hire new grads to attempts to lure more diverse executive talent. SAP believes those employees will prevent the company from becoming stultified in its thinking. The inclusiveness push “really is a core strategy to be relevant,” says Jewell Parkinson, head of human resources at SAP North America.

Of course, while SAP has made progress in parity, it can’t yet declare mission accomplished. Like almost every company, it still has work to do—but one sign that it’s a great place to work rather than an okay one? It knows it.

A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2017 issue of Fortune as part of the 100 Best Companies to Work For package.

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