IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE: A CONVERSATION WITH WD-40 CEO GARRY RIDGE

How do we take the distinct blue and yellow can with the red top (and cool wand) around the world? 

That was the question Garry Ridge faced when he took over as CEO of WD-40 Company in 1997.  

“We wanted to move from a U.S.-focused business to a growing global business,” says Ridge.  

First as a managing director and then as an international vice president, Ridge had already spent a decade with the San Diego-based manufacturer when he took the reins as chief executive officer.  

In that time, he had gained a good feel for the company’s culture. But to expand the company’s global footprint, he knew he needed to revamp that culture.  

“We needed a culture that had values that safeguarded our tribe [WD-40 Company’s term for its talent] while giving them freedom. What became clear to me was that micromanagement would not work. Micromanagement is not scalable. We had to create a culture that gave people freedom & direction.” 

As Ridge embarked on a mission to create this type of environment, he leaned on his experience earning his master’s degree in leadership at the University of San Diego, where he studied under author and leadership guru Dr.Ken Blanchard.  

“That’s where I really started to understand the power of servant leadership, of leading with candor, of being both tender-hearted and tough-minded,” says Ridge. “We wanted to create a place where people go to work and know they are part of something bigger than themselves. That was the catalyst for creating this type of empowered culture.” 

At the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s i4cp 2020 Next Practices Now Conference, March 23 – 26 in Scottsdale, Ariz., Ridge will share some of the learning moments from his 23-year journey to transform WD-40 Company’s culture, and how your organization can undertake a similarly successful culture renovation.  

The numbers tell the story

In the major i4cp study, Culture Renovation: A Blueprint for Action, Ford Motor Company CEO and President Jim Hackett underscores the need for a company to periodically refresh its culture.  

“Every organization, no matter how storied or successful, must regularly recharge and renovate its culture if it is to survive and win in the future,” says Hackett.  

There are certainly signs that Ridge has succeeded in creating the type of culture Hackett references at WD-40 Company —one he envisioned 23 years ago, and that has positioned the company for winning results.  

For example, consider that employee engagement scores consistently remain above 90% among the WD-40 Company’s workforce. Nearly all of the company’s people (98%) say they “love to tell people they work at WD-40,” while 99% believe their “opinions and values are a good fit” for the organization, and 93% report that the organization “encourages employees to continually improve in their jobs.”  

Need more numbers? Another 97% indicate they’re “clear on the company’s goals,” with 93% saying they’re “excited about” the direction that WD-40 is headed in.  

The overwhelmingly positive picture: WD-40 Company employees love working there, are engaged, and are optimistic about their futures with the company.  

And when you put all these numbers together, it’s no coincidence that the company has experienced phenomenal growth. WD-40 Company’s revenues have doubled in the last decade and are projected to double again over the next 10 years.  

Ridge attributes these consistently high engagement levelsand the organization’s subsequent business results—to a culture that fosters fearless employees.  

“We want to reduce the fear of failure among our people. We say that we don’t make mistakes, we have learning moments,” Ridge says.  

Another recent i4cp study, The Three A’s of Organizational Agility: Reinvention Through Disruption, highlights this type of culture—one in which experimentation is encouraged and “failing” is not frowned upon—as one of the defining traits of both a truly agile organization and a driver of innovation.  

For example, the study found that high-performance organizations—defined by i4cp as those that consistently outperform their counterparts in the marketplace—are 2.8X more effective than low performers at allowing employees to take risks. These same high-performance companies are 2.5X to 3.5X more likely to have leaders at all levels who are highly or very highly effective at encouraging intelligent risk-taking.  

“Creating an environment in which it’s safe to take risks, e.g., freely communicating a contrarian point of view or taking on a stretch assignment that is outside one’s comfort zone, is very important [to a successful culture renovation], and starts at the top,” i4cp notes in the report.  

Set an example at the top

Indeed, Ridge and the rest of the WD-40 Company’s  leadership team takes pride in having built a culture where employees are safe with expressing opinions and ideas as well as receiving criticism. The importance of being comfortable with criticism and constructive feedback is outlined in WD-40’s company values

Soon after Ridge settled in as CEO, he and the C-suite team took about nine months to come up with this set of guiding principles that would help steer the organization through its culture overhaul and beyond.  

For example, the organization values succeeding as a collective while exceling as individuals.  

“Everything we do is toward the success of the entire company,” according to WD-40’s values. “We believe the individual can’t win at the expense of, or apart from, the team or tribe. But individual excellence is the means by which our organization succeeds.” 

Ridge and other C-suite leaders must embody these values, which also include “sustaining the WD-40 Company economy.”  

“We knew when we defined our values that they had to be hierarchical, and we had to start to socialize them among the leaders of the company,” says Ridge. “Our values had to be inclusive, and we’ve tried to live by those values ever since.”  

Employees at all levels throughout WD-40 Company must also represent the company’s values, which are embedded in the WD-40 Company employee review system.  

As part of their quarterly and annual reviews, for example, every single WD-40 Company employee must assess how they’ve embodied the company’s values in the time since their last evaluation.  

“We have people share how they’re living values, and the idea is that doing so embeds these values in their behavior,” says Ridge. “If you don’t have those values consistently reflected in your behavior, then they don’t get embedded, and you end up having a rotting culture.”