3 Things WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge Taught Me About Leadership

“The number one responsibility of a boss is to be a learner and a teacher.”

Image: learningmoment.net

WD-40 sell cans of oil.

They are not overly innovative, nor glamorous. Their ubiquitous product may have cult-like status in households around the globe, but the San Diego-based company are hardly creating the future like their neighbours from further north in California.

Yet, WD-40’s staff are obsessive about going to work every day. Their share price has tripled since 2009 and they’ve eclipsed $1 billion in market capitalization. Staff call themselves a “tribe” and “learning monsters,” and have recorded a 93% employee engagement.

I invited company CEO Garry Ridge (a fellow Aussie) onto my podcast and I wanted to find out how WD-40 turned oil in a can into one of the must-work-for companies in the United States.

Here is what Garry taught me:

“Our purpose is to create positive lasting memories in everything we do.”

The application of this idea is fascinatingly simple. Rather than just being on your best behaviour when in customer-facing situations, it becomes the duty of every member of the team to create positive lasting memories from every single thing they do — even the mundane.

Most impactful, in my mind, is that the seed is planted for all employees to be intentional with each and every interaction they have, even amongst each other. Creating a positive lasting memory could be the trigger to make you change the tone of an email, or take a deep breath before angrily confronting Marge about her noisy eating habits.

“We took the word ‘fail’ out of our organization. We do not make mistakes…we have a learning moment.”

Words matter. Taking negative phrasing out of your organizational vocabulary not only removes the word, it removes the emotional baggage that comes with it. And fail might be the single most burdonsome word in the English language.

This reminds me of the famous Steve MacLaren quote: “Manchester United never lose, they just run out of time.” It’s a small detail, but an important difference in mindset.

“Our job is not to mark their papers, our job is to help them get A’s.”

Just like a football coach can’t go out and play the game, a corporate leader shouldn’t step in and do the work. This is a substantial challenge because most managers have been promoted due to high performance in the role that they’re now managing.

But, it’s not about reliving former glories, t’s about setting them up for success in every possible way. It’s about downloading your knowledge and expertise onto your individual contributors so that they have the confidence to step up and take the game-winning shot.

As a leader, this change takes self awareness and the ability to catch yourself if you’re trying to step in and play the game.

Taking these 3 learnings into consideration, my challenge to leaders is this:

  1. Consider what your own ‘creating positive lasting memories’ credo is.
  2. Be intentional about eliminating poisonous words from your communication palette.
  3. Develop a system to catch yourself from stepping in to play the game. Help them get A’s.

For more pearls of wisdom from Garry and Fergus Connolly, listen to the full episode here:

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