Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, servant leadership in action: The most powerful three words are “I don’t know.”

Garry Ridge on servant leadership

Value through Vulnerability (boosted by HumansFirst) Host Garry Turner, Sponsored by Aequip

VtV Coalition 1

I’m very grateful to have Garry with me as probably one of the best practitioners of servant leadership that I’ve come across in the last number of years. It’s like woken up in this space, and he’s CEO of the WD 40. company. So Garry, so anything else you’d like to expand on that to my listeners as to sort of who you are?

What are you passionate about, maybe in a bit more detail?

Garry Ridge 0:42
Oh, yeah. Well, I know what I’m passionate about. I’m really passionate about creating a place where people go to work every day, they make a contribution to something bigger than themselves. They learn something new, they feel safe, and they go home happy. And the reason I’m passionate about it is that, you know, I think it’s a sin that 65 percent of people go to work every day and they hate their jobs. And that’s the fault of leadership because we create that toxic culture. So that’s why I’m delighted to be here with you today to share some of the learnings that we’ve had over time as we’ve built this wonderful culture at WD-40 Company, which is not about me. It’s about the the wonderful tribe members who come here and play every day.

You mentioned it’s been a journey. So you’ve been with WD-40 now just over 30 years?

Garry Ridge 1:32
I believe this is my 32nd year. And so it’s been it seems like just yesterday.

What has shifted for you? What are some of those key pivot points do you think between where you were and where you are now with the WD 40 tribe?

Garry Ridge 1:56
Well, I know one that’s very, very good. In a dominant in my thinking, I joined in 87 down in Australia to open our subsidiary there, I work from 87 to 94. In Australia in 94, I moved to the US and in 97, I got to be be given the opportunity to lead this tribe, and are a few things that became very clear to me at that time. The first one was that micro management wasn’t scalable. And at that time, about 90% of our business was in the United States. And we believed that we could take out blue and yellow can with a little red top to the world. And we weren’t going to do that by being micromanagement.

So we had to create a culture that set people free but also gave them guardrails to keep them safe. So that pivot was a big pivot in my mind, I went back to school, and I really needed to get an understanding of what this servant leadership thing was because I believe that if we weren’t going to be able to micromanage freedom was very important servant leadership to me sounded like freedom. So I went back to school, I went to the University of San Diego, I started my master’s degree there in leadership.

“We had to create a culture that set people free but also gave them guardrails to keep them safe.”

Garry Ridge

And that’s where I met my now dear friend, Ken Blanchard. And Ken has definitely been a huge influence on my thinking over time. He is probably THE servant leader, Master of the world. And Ken and I, as you probably know, later on, wrote a book together called Helping People Win at Work, but it was, you know, that learning that was very, very important. And what it did do was give me confidence to be able to try this thing called servant leadership.

What was it for you back then? You know, that realization for you that micromanagement wasn’t scalable. Was that just from sort of just experience was it?

Was there a lack of expansion? Was there just people thinking what what’s going on for you at that point?

Garry Ridge 3:59
Well, we needed to grow outside of the United States. And you know, we were primarily a US based company, and I was consciously incompetent like I am now. And I wasn’t able to do this on my own. So if I couldn’t gather people around me that were, you know, much better than I was able to be, then there was no way and, you know, I didn’t speak German or Chinese or French or Italian. And, you know, how are we going to build this infrastructure to be able to do that? So it was really an understanding that, you know, we had to create a culture that empowered people.

I think for you in back then to have suddenly gone, hang on, I can’t do this on my own.

I think that’s part of the challenge, isn’t it for leadership even today, is to be able to say I don’t have all the answers?

Garry Ridge 4:48
Well, I think Garry, you’ve heard me say, and I’ve written about this a lot. The three most powerful words I’ve ever learned in my life, “I don’t know” and getting comfortable with that, and you know, we’ve talked about vulnerability a little bit in the past and I know, you asked me, you know, what, what is vulnerability and I know what it doesn’t mean. Vulnerability doesn’t mean weakness. It’s getting comfortable with I don’t know. And people have this fear, negative fear of people not really believing that they are competent or or believing that they’re inadequate because they, they show their vulnerability and vulnerability really is I don’t know. And, and that’s driven by ego. And if you think about ego, you know, it’s self if you say someone is full of ego, they’re full of self. So, you know, we’ve got to get ego out. We’ve got to get vulnerability in and we’ve got to remove the fear. That is within people that vulnerability means that someone is accusing them of being inadequate or not able to deliver, which is completely, I found out completely wrong.

Garry Turner 6:10
Resonates so much to me. And I think if I look at my experience, so I mentioned to you before we came on Garry that, you know, took me to the age of 39 to suddenly go, actually, it’s okay to talk about emotion. But also the workplace and it’s really recent that for me.

“At the end of the day, we’re just, you know, simple human beings bumbling our way down the path of life bumping into stuff and we we try to, you know, really camouflage issues with confusion to make out how smart we are.”

Garry Ridge

Garry Ridge 6:24
And yeah, and it is, you know, we’re at the end of the day, we’re just, you know, simple human beings bumbling our way down the path of life bumping into stuff and we we try to, you know, really camouflage issues with confusion to make out how smart we are and you know, as Simon Sinek and I talked about a lot in building culture is simple, not easy and time is not your friend. And if you adopt some simple simple practices like you know, we talked about care, candor, accountability and responsibility, you know, if you care for people, care is about number one, having a servant leadership philosophy, which means that you are going to both serve and be a leader. Servant leadership, you know doesn’t mean the prisoners are running the prison. Servant leadership is serve and lead and the leadership part of that is you’ve got to ensure that you have, you know, a robust business plan that you’re that you’re sensible about the way you allocate time, talent treasure technology, because you have to build an economic engine to enable you to serve your people.

Helping People Win at Work By Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge Servant Leadership

So you know, servant leadership around care is very important, then candor is pretty simple. No lying, no faking no hiding. Most people don’t lie. A lot of people fake and hide. Why? Because they’re afraid. You know, our dear friend Tracy Fenton talks about what would you do if you weren’t afraid? Or what what people do do when they’re afraid is they lie and they fake they lie and they fake themselves. They lie and they fake to the people. The next one is out of accountability. What do you expect of me? And what may I expect from you? And is there clarity around that? Do we have a clear understanding, and are we brave.

“So there’s four simple pillars that you can use to build a culture that creates an environment where people actually like to go to work every day.”

Garry Ridge

So there’s four simple pillars that you can use to build a culture that creates an environment where people actually like to go to work every day.e enough to be able to talk about that together? Not because we want to in any way, you know, not be supportive of each other, because we want to support each other. And then finally is responsibility, you know, are we going to do what we say we’re going to do? We’re going to build trust by being you know, someone who does what they say they’re going to do.

Garry Turner 8:42
It’s lovely, I’m really intrigued because anyone listening to us now maybe that there’s organizations I know quite close to me, Garry, that I think are starting on this journey. You know, they’re starting to wake up to actually wow, we can get even better performance. If we start with our people, rather than just the metric at the end. What would you say to someone that might be listening to us now talk. Okay, that’s nice for other people. But I don’t think it’s for me.

Is there any case of servant leadership that’s been a negative in your experience today?

Garry Ridge 9:10
I think the negative of servant leadership is where you get out of balance between being tough minded and tender hearted. You know, when people think that servant leadership is 100%, being tender hearted, that’s wrong. It’s like when we bring up our kids, we love our kids. But you know, sometimes we’ve got to be a little tough. So the the genius is getting a balance between being tough minded and tender hearted. And I think a lot of people when they hear the word servant leadership, they think of soft and mushy and, you know, you know, no results and it’s all about Kumbaya and hugging and stuff.

No, it’s about creating an environment where you create an enormously successful economic outcome that supports the business structure. So you can support that, as we call them the tribe. Now 20 some years ago, I didn’t know this was gonna work. But I can tell you today, it worked. We’ve gone from a employee engagement number that was as ugly as most people’s are today to an employee engagement number of 93%, which is, you know, world class 99% of our tribe members globally, say they love to tell people, they work at WD 40 Company. Oh, and by the way, we’re a public company. So we are judged by our investors. Over that period of time, we’ve had a compounded annual growth rate of total shareholder return in excess of 10%. And in the last 10 years, it’s been 20%. In the last five years, it’s been 27%. So I have a absolute case to say that if you build employee engagement through a servant leadership culture, you will produce a result much better than those that don’t do that.

Garry Turner 11:07
It gets these little hairs on and Garry and I’ve got many of them left. Because you know, we spoke before when I’ve been over with you and Tracy in the past. I think the thing that blows me away, I needed to hear what you just said, as a publicly traded company, you can make these results. I think so often with a short term of the market and everything’s the next quarter.

How do you manage those relationships with your investors?

And how do you sort of make sure that you keep your investors in, because ultimately, you’re bucking you’re bucking the trend of the market on it, in essence?

Garry Ridge 11:40
Well, you know, one of the things we talked about too, is what’s inspiring me most right now, and I’ll tell you what’s inspiring me most, is that finally, the market is starting to talk about purpose driven organizations. You know, BlackRock probably owns more company’s stock than any investment house in the world, their CEO Larry Fink has been writing now for two years about, we are looking at companies that have a purpose driven culture. So suddenly they’re starting to talk about it. But I jokingly talk about to people when I do some public speaking, they are Al, the soul sucking CEO, and Sam, his cousin, and it’s short sighted Sam. So when you’re short sided Sam, actually works in Wall Street. And Al is the CEO who sucks up to short sided Sam all the time? So if you have Al the soul sucking CEO and short sighted Sam, you’re never going to build an organization that has high employee engagement.

Garry Turner 12:42
That’s a new one on me, Garry there. So I love this. I love that I love the cohorts are brilliant. Love it.

Garry Turner 12:51
If you’re looking at your people, you know I love engagement scores like as I’ve seen firsthand the stuff you’re doing which is which is incredible. If someone is falling out of sort of congruence with themselves. You know, they know the culture, they know the tribe, but maybe they’re thinking actually listening, maybe I need time for a new tribe. What? How is that managed internally? What sort of opportunities are there for people to sort of shift teams to shift in parts of the business? Or even it’s just their time to move on? How does the tribe manage that out of interest?

Garry Ridge

Well, our number one goal is we want people to be happy in life. And you know, hopefully, they can be happy here. But you know, nothing gives us more joy than to see someone either move up in the organization, or if they have to move out of the organization to do to make a bigger difference somewhere else. You know, we’ve got a wonderful example, or number of wonderful examples about how people have moved through the organization.

“Nothing gives us more joy than to see someone either move up in the organization, or if they have to move out of the organization to do to make a bigger difference somewhere else.”

Garry Ridge

One that was just recent was Grace, who was just appointed the general manager of China operation, now Grace was our first employee in China 15 years ago, she joined as an administrative assistant. And in that time, she’s worked through a number of roles in the company. We helped her, she’s went into human resources. She then went into supply chain management. We sponsored her to do a master’s degree in supply chain at the University of Shanghai. She moved from that to sales. And now 15 years later, she is the general manager of our fastest growing subsidiary in the world.

Now, there are a number of stories I can tell you like that. But it also means that it plays into what we’re about is, we wanted to develop our people weren’t. We’re in a learning organization. The number one responsibility of a tribal leader is to be a learner and a teacher. That’s what our job is. So if you look at our tribe, and you look at the model we use or our tribal leadership, the number one thing that’s on the top of the list is we are committed as leaders to be learners and teachers.

Garry Turner 14:57
Just beautiful, just absolutely beautiful. I love this It always gets me when I talk to you, Garry to the point that I’ve shared it with people when I’ve come back from your San Diego site before that it’s quite moving. It’s a very moving facility that you have in San Diego because the way it’s designed and how intentionally is around your people, how important for you, is it a curiosity out of interest in terms of a human trait to help you evolve over them and evolve as individuals, but also for us a wider organization?

Garry Ridge 15:25
You know, it’s thanks for that question, Garry. I just finished we’re actually when I was on holiday this year in Fiji, I, I just finished reading a book. Do you remember Spencer Johnson, who wrote Who Moved My Cheese? There was a follow on to that Spencer passed away these children wrote a book called The Way Out of the Maze. And they they talk about, notice your beliefs and they say a belief is a thought that that you trust to be true. So I I believe that curiosity is about questioning yourself, Why do I believe this to be true? Because sometimes facts are just how you see things. So our curiosity, particularly in the way that business continues to change today, our curiosity has to be on high alert, because business is changing. And I think with that you have to be brave and brave to me is consider carefully and act boldly. So I think it’s curiosity, which is why do I believe what I believe? And then consider carefully and act boldly?

Garry Turner 16:36
And sort of following on from that, Garry, and for you personally, where do you get the most joy for you as CEO? You know, where do you get your where’s the most learning for you personally, cuz I can imagine you continue to grow every day within the role you do as well.

Where do you get the most joy as a CEO?

Garry Ridge 16:48
Well, you ask two questions. The first one is where do I get the most joy from my people coming to work and just getting to play with these brilliant tribe members. Every day is something that I am so grateful for. People often say you’re busy Garry, I say I’m not busy. I’m rejoicing in abundance of worthwhile work. And that’s how I see the work we do every day so that the joy comes from me– what was the second half of the question?

Garry Turner 17:16
Yes, in terms of how do you get your growth as well? So how do you feel your own growth and maybe give us an example of what you’ve learned something new, some new insight you’ve gained? In the last…

Garry Ridge 17:26
Well, there’s a number of areas. You know, one of the ways I get a lot of learning is I teach and I teach at the University of San Diego, I teach at the University of Pennsylvania, I teach at San Diego State University and there’s nothing like being in a room full of very inquisitive learners, you learn a lot from them. And then just being aware, I mean, you know, picking on there’s so many new things we can learn from today, look at the digital landscape and e commerce and I think learning is a choice. You either choose to be open to it or you adopt the fact that you’ve no at all and remember the most powerful words I’ve ever learned in my life “I don’t know.” And every day I get up and say I’m consciously incompetent.

Garry Turner 18:06
When did you first realize when was that first moment for you? And you suddenly when actually it’s okay to not know, was that certain point in your life, Garry, out of interest?

“Am I going to be ignorant to this not knowing or am I just going to admit it? And interestingly enough, when I admitted it, all the knowledge surrounded me, and that is very powerful.”

Garry Ridge

Garry Ridge 18:15
I think it was, I got very comfortable with it when back in 1997 when I got to lead the company when it was very clear to me that I didn’t know. And I thought, okay, so am I going to be ignorant to this not knowing or am I just going to admit it? And interestingly enough, when I admitted it, all the knowledge surrounded me, and that is very powerful.

Garry Turner 18:40
That’s amazing. As we like to wrap up, Garry, would you mind sharing? Is there anything in particular you’d like to leave my listeners with? Is there a particular sort of reflection of yours of your journey today? So maybe just a bit of advice from you that you could give to my listeners very bearing in mind the context of the podcast around it being very, very human centered?

Garry Ridge 18:56
Well, I think we as leaders have the opportunity more than ever before to change the world, because we get up every day and create environments where we can either have people go home happy, or not go home happy. And you know, a happy person creates a happy family. a happy family creates a happy community. A happy community creates a happy world and more than ever, we need a Happy World.

Garry Turner 19:25
And do you see that as every single one of our responsibility, Garry, as well as the upside of leadership?

Garry Ridge 19:32
You know, life’s a gift. Don’t send it back unwrapped.

Garry Turner 19:35
Beautiful love that. I will look you’ve been an absolute joy, Garry, as always, where can people contact you they want to follow up or just for a bit more of your work.

Garry Ridge 19:43
I have a website I also publish on LinkedIn. So if anybody wants to follow me on LinkedIn, they can find me on LinkedIn. So they’re probably the two best places.

Garry Turner 19:58
Fantastic. And thank you so much for taking the time.

Garry Ridge 20:01

Garry Turner 20:03
All the best for now take care.

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Garry Turner

With over 20 years of international sales, business development and relationship-building experience combined with a deep understanding of people, team and culture dynamics, Garry Turner serves individuals, teams and leaders as a strategic advisor and interpersonal catalyst.