Q&A with Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40 Company

"Most people think leadership is about being in charge. Leadership is not about being in charge," says Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40. ( Top Producer )

Company: Headquartered in San Diego, WD-40 Company markets maintenance, home care and cleaning products. It was founded in 1953 and recorded net sales of $423.4 million in 2019. The company has 500 employees who work in 15 countries. Its products are available in more than 176 countries and territories

Education: Certificate in modern retailing and wholesale distribution, Sydney Technical College; Master of science in executive leadership, University of San Diego

Favorite leadership quote: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” —Aristotle

Favorite book: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum

How did you arrive at your role with WD-40 Company?  

This is my 33rd year at WD-40. I started with them in Sydney, Australia in 1987. My dad was an engineer. When I got offered to go to work at WD-40, I said, “What do you think about that, dad?” He said, “You can’t go wrong with that stuff, son.” He was right. I moved to the U.S. in 1994, and I got the opportunity to lead the company in 1997. Now the blue and yellow brand with a little red top is in 176 countries around the world — the sun never sets on WD-40. There’s lots of squeaks out there for us.

What is the story behind the WD-40 name? 

In 1953, there was a problem with condensation and corrosion on the outer skin of the Atlas space rocket in San Diego. The chemists at the Rocket Chemical Company started mixing up some stuff in their lab. They tried 39 times to solve the problem. The 40th try worked. So, our name stands for “Water Displacement, 40th formula.”

“Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of the people in your charge.”

What has made the WD-40 brand stand the test of time? 

We’re in the memories business; we exist to create positive, lasting memories. So, we solve problems in factories, homes, farms and workshops around the world. If you’ve got a product that lives up to its promise, you survive as a brand — and you grow. In the past five years, we’ve extended the brand. We spend a lot of time watching and listening to our end users because we want to keep our promise and help them solve problems. 

What is your leadership philosophy? 

Our job as a leader is to be a learner and a teacher. Most people think leadership is about being in charge. Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of the people in your charge. We envision a place where people go to work every day and contribute to something bigger than themselves. They feel safe and they go home happy. Happy people create happy families, happy families create happy communities, and happy communities create a happy life.

What makes a bad boss?

Today, 67% of people hate their jobs, and the main reason people leave organizations is because they don’t like their boss. I developed a guy called “Al,” the soul-sucking CEO. He doesn’t involve his people. His ego eats his empathy, instead of his empathy eating his ego. He doesn’t know how to say please and thank you. He doesn’t help people step into the best version of their personal self. 

How do you overcome business obstacles?

We don’t make mistakes at WD-40. We’ve taken the word “failure” out; we have learning moments. A learning moment is a positive or negative outcome of any situation that needs to be openly and freely shared to benefit all people. We call ourselves a tribe, not a team. One of the great desires people have is to belong. Why do people leave organizations? Because we don’t treat them like they’re special. They are special, and we should treat them like that.  

What is your equation for business success? 

Culture = values + behavior x consistency. We are a values-driven organization. People work at our company because they like our values. At WD-40 Company, 99% of our employees globally say they love to tell people they work at WD-40 Company, and 97% say they believe their values align with the company values. You have to have the values; you encourage the behavior; and you have to do it consistently.

What is your biggest challenge as a leader? 

Leaders must balance being tough- minded and tender-hearted. I can go to either end of that scale quickly. We need to be fantastic listeners. As a CEO, you’ve got to have what I call “bleeding-tongue syndrome,” which means you must bite your tongue a lot. 

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