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
“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
“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
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
“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
The overwhelmingly positive picture: WD-40 Company employees love
working there, are engaged, and are optimistic about their futures with the
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
Ridge attributes these consistently high engagement levels—and
the organization’s subsequent business results—to a culture that fosters
“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
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
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
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.”