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Exit Interview: WD-40’s Garry Ridge On Why ‘A High Will of the People’ Is Everything

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After 25 years in the corner office, Ridge talks about what he's learned about leading and why being an empathetic CEO is anything but soft. "We have to be brave enough, not only to applaud and reward our people for doing great work but to redirect their behavior when the behavior is actually putting toxins into the Petri dish."

After 25 years as CEO of WD-40 Company, Garry Ridge is stepping down in August. But he won’t be retiring.

Instead, Ridge, who has become as well known in the CEO community for the culture of loyalty and passion he developed at WD-40 as for the company’s financial performance, will be refocusing on bringing his leadership ideas and techniques to others, a “culture coach,” as he puts it. “How do I help people in organizations and leaders identify that culture is a competitive advantage, and what do we need to do to understand how we can build cultures where people actually love to go to work.”

This July 19, Ridge will join bestselling author and leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith as part of an exclusive Chief Executive Group summertime event for CEOs and their teams—“Live Better, Lead Better.” They’ll share their practical frameworks for becoming far more fulfilled, far more connected and far more successful in both your work and personal life.

I recently talked with Ridge about what he’s learned from his time in the corner office about motivating people, building lasting loyalty and becoming, in essence, the kind of person that other people want to follow. “At the end of the day,” he says, “the two things that you need are a good strategy and high will of the people.” What follows was edited for length and clarity.

One of the things that you talk about is that the job of leaders is to help people live better. To a lot of us who were trained over the last 25 years, that sounds “soft.” So what do you mean? Why isn’t that soft?

When I went to school many years ago in Australia, I had a science teacher, and the science teacher gave me a Petri dish. They said, “We’re going to grow culture in this Petri dish, so what do we need to know? First, we need to know what the ingredients are that we need to put in this Petri dish to grow a healthy culture.” If you think about leadership in an organization, they’re things like purpose, values, strategy, all of these things that have to go into this dish.

Then what do we need to do? We need to watch that dish very, very carefully all the time. Here’s the rub: as leaders, we have to be brave enough, not only to applaud and reward our people for doing great work but to redirect their behavior when the behavior is actually putting toxins into the Petri dish that are going to send that culture south very quickly.

It’s that side of the behavior, it’s that side of the bravery of leadership that is no way soft. That’s where you have to have a heart of gold, but you have to have a backbone of steel, and it’s not easy. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

Why is it so tough? Why is it so difficult? We know these things, or we should, so why is it so difficult for us to act on them in the preservation of our culture after all this time?

Because we’re more focused on the short-term than the long-term of the organization. Our role is to build, as Simon Sinek would talk about, an organization using the infinite game.

Often we are so focused on that short-term result that we’re going to preserve the bad behavior of an individual to get the results we want now, where, really, what that individual is doing, he is sending a very clear message to everybody in the organization. “I can be the biggest a-hole in the world. As long as I bring in these results, it doesn’t matter how I treat people. It doesn’t matter, how I behave.”

What will happen, eventually, is everybody else will decide, “I want to escape this toxic culture because I don’t want to be in the presence of that a-hole.”

You mentioned that you’re not seeing a Great Resignation—you’re seeing a Great Escape. What do you mean by that? And how does that tie into what we were just talking about with culture?

Before Covid, a percentage of people went to work and it was okay, and a percentage of people went to work and it was absolutely not okay, then people went home and life was okay. So, two okays are okay. When Covid hit, [work was not okay and] life at home became very uncertain and not necessarily okay. people said, “I can’t put up with two I’m not okays.”

So this escape that a lot of people are calling the Great Resignation, it’s been brewing for a long time. What happened with Covid is we got a slap upside the head, and people said, “You know what, I can’t deal with this anymore.” So, my question is, are you creating a culture that people escape to or escape from?

At the end of the day, the two things that you need are a good strategy and high will of the people. If only 20 percent of your people are going to work every day and enthusiastically performing against meeting your plan, then you’re not going to maximize the outcome.

Give us some tips. How do we become a leader that creates that kind of culture and how do we become a leader that’s the kind of person people want to follow?

Number one, make sure that your empathy eats your ego, your ego doesn’t eat your empathy. It’s not about you. It’s about what are you there to do, which is to help those you lead step into the best version of their personal self so they can feel accomplished, and they can feel the benefit of the work that they do.

Number two, don’t be a micromanager, be a coach, be someone who’s helping these people to succeed.

And number three is pretty simple: Open yourself to feedback. The three most important words I ever learned were, “I don’t know,” and the words around feedback are, “Thank you.” So, have the listening tool, listen to your people, they’ll have the answers.

You have two questions tacked on your computer monitor. You have, “Am I being the person I want to be today?” And then you have, “Who do I want to be today?” Tell us a little bit about why that’s so important, and why you think other CEOs would benefit from doing something similar.

In life, we’re just this kind of normal person bumbling down our pathway right? During Covid, things were trying to pull us off our pathway because the world was so topsy turvy.

I had to keep reminding myself around the tension of what was going on around us because of the uncertainty, and uncertainty as a series of future events that may or may not occur, and that we were just full of uncertainty. I had to keep reminding myself who I wanted to be.

So I have this little thing on my computer—I learned this from Marshall Goldsmith: “Am I being the person I want to be right now?” Now, who is that person that I really want to be? I want to be grateful. I want to be caring. I want to be empathetic. I want to be reasonable. I want to be a listener. I want to be fact-based. I want to have a balanced opinion. I want to be curious. I want to be a learner, and I want to throw sunshine, not a shadow.

That’s who I really want to be. That’s my best self. In Covid, I was getting pulled out of that environment because of the forces around us at that time. So, it was really important I kept centering myself on that path.

You’ve been a CEO for a very long time, you created a legendary culture and some incredible results at WD-40. What would your present self tell 30-year-old you as you were ramping up in your career?

It’s not about you. It’s about what you can do to be a servant to others.



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