Create a Culture: Belong to a Tribe (Not a Team) with Garry Ridge [Podcast]
Dr. Nathan Regier is proud to speak with Garry Ridge on the latest episode of On Compassion with Dr. Nate. Garry is chairman and CEO of WD-40 Company. Garry joined WD-40 in 1987 and has held various management positions in the company, including executive vice president and chief operating officer, and vice president of international. He has worked directly with WD-40 Company in over 50 countries. In 1997, he was appointed president and chief executive officer of WD-40 company. He has worked directly with WD-40 Company in over 70 countries. As chairman and CEO of WD-40 Company, Garry Ridge is responsible for developing and implementing high-level strategies, all operations and the oversight of all relationships and partnerships for the company. Garry is passionate about learning and empowering the organizational culture he has helped establish at WD-40 Company. His vision and leadership have positively impacted the WD-40 Company in both measurable and immeasurable ways.
Today, Garry shares the principles of his newest book The Unexpected Learning Moment: Lessons in Leading a Thriving Culture Through Lockdown 2020.
- A team is not the same as a tribe. A team is something you play on, while a tribe is somewhere you belong. Tribes outperform teams in the long-term.
- Culture is a competitive advantage. Performance is based on the will of the people, combined with strategy. Improving culture can improve performance.
- Leadership is about staying curious. It’s welcomed to say “I don’t know.”
VOICEOVER: Are you tired of the negativity and drama? Are you trying to make a difference only to be drained by people problems? The world needs more compassion, not just more civility and empathy. We need in the trenches compassion that struggles alongside people, instead of against them. We need a radically different way to engage for breakthrough results. Now, here’s your host, Dr. Nate Regier.
NATE REGIER: Imagine a global company that has over 90% engagement. Imagine a work culture where compassion is at the center and where people are part of a tribe that looks out for each other. Imagine a company that has thrived and grown stronger through the pandemic because of its core values. Today, we’re going to meet the leader of one such company picked by Inc Magazine as one of the world’s top 10 CEOs. My guest is Garry Ridge, the chairman and CEO of WD-40 company. Who hasn’t heard of WD-40? Garry is a native of Australia and joined the company in 1987. He has held various management positions in the company, including executive vice president and chief operating officer and vice president of international. He’s worked directly with the company in over 70 countries. As chairman and CEO, Garry Ridge is responsible for and implementing high level strategies, all operations, and the oversight of all relationships and partners for the company.
Garry is passionate about the learning and empowering organizational culture he helped establish at WD-40, and his vision and leadership have positively impacted the company in measurable and immeasurable ways. Garry is also an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego, where he teaches principles and practices of corporate culture in the master of science in executive leadership program. In 2009, he co-authored a book with Ken Blanchard outlining his effective leadership techniques. I love the title of this book, Helping People Win At Work, A Business Philosophy Called Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get An A. I think that gives you a little bit of insight into his philosophy. Today, we’re going to learn about principles from his newest book, The Unexpected Learning Moment, Lessons In Leading A Thriving Culture Through Lockdown 2020. Garry, welcome to On Compassion.
GARRY RIDGE: Good day. It’s great to be with you. That’s such a huge intro. I’ve got a more simple one for you. Hi, I’m Garry Rich. I’m the consciously incompetent, probably right, and roughly wrong CEO of WD-40 Company.
NATE REGIER: Oh, wonderful. Well, I’m sure you probably hear this a lot, but I have to tell you, I have so many great memories associated with WD-40, starting way back in my childhood. Currently, I probably have five cans of it in my house, probably one inside, one in the garage, two in the shop, and I know at least one in my camper. I want to start with the intro line to your new book. The first line says “The surefire way to make God laugh is to make plans.” If that doesn’t sum up what organizational leaders have been through in the last two years, I don’t know what does.
GARRY RIDGE: Yeah, absolutely. This has been a really interesting time. It really did show one thing to me is that in times of great and real need, a strong culture can pivot around fear. I think that’s what was really out there was fear of the unknown.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you have been with the company for a long time. I’d love to just briefly hear your origin story. How did you end up in the company and where you are today?
GARRY RIDGE: Well, I was in Sydney, Australia. I was working for the distributor of WD-40 down there, a company called Hawker Pacific back in the eighties. Because of that relationship, I got to know the folks here at WD-40 Company. I’d come over one to year to attend their sales meeting or whatever. In 1987, the licensing arrangement for that distributor was coming to an end. The company really believed that there was a bigger global world for the blue and yellow can with a little red top. They’d opened a subsidiary in Canada. They had something up in the UK and they wanted to look at the Asia Pacific region with a little more focus. I got a call one day from the president of the company and I was in my office at the Hawker Pacific.
They said, “This is a confidential conversation. As you know, the licensing agreement we’ve already agreed with Hawker, it’s not going to be renewed. Would you like to join the company?” And I said, “Oh wow. That’s interesting.” My dad was an engineer. He worked for the same company for 50 years. I said to dad, “Hey dad, I’ve been asked to join WD-40 Company. What do you think?” He said, “You can’t go wrong with that stuff, son.” He was right. On July 4th, 1987 with a fax machine under my bed, I opened the Australian subsidiary. For six months, we worked at setting up the company and I was working in Asia and Australia.
In 1994, I was having another discussion with the president of the company. I said, “Is there anything more you’d like me to do?” He said, “Funny you should ask, do you want to move to the US?” I said “To do what?” He said, “To lead up our international expansion, you’ve got a passion for taking the blue and yellow can to the world. Why don’t you come over here and help us do it?” I said, “Okay, why don’t we do that?” We packed up our toys and moved from Sydney to San Diego. Then three years later, he retired and I was given the honor and the responsibility to lead the tribe. That’s what we’ve done.
NATE REGIER: Wow. Well, I thank you for that. I really want to get to the nitty gritty of your leadership philosophy and how this is manifested at WD-40 Company. I’ve read both of your books. They’re fantastic and just give such insights into your philosophy. We’re not going to talk as much about the first book that you co-authored with Kim Blanchard, but for those, I just really want to encourage my listeners, go get this book, because it’s just such a wonderful, if you want to really rethink how you look at performance and how you look at helping people thrive, this really is a wonderful template for doing that. I want to focus on your newest work, your newest book, The Unexpected Learning Moment. This was published here this year about how your company has navigated COVID. Why did you write this book?
GARRY RIDGE: There were lots of learning moments going through COVID, and I truly believe that COVID for leadership can be a wake up call, and I’ve always been a big advocate for one thing, it’s all about the people. If you can create a culture where people really like going to work, they do great work. There was so many opportunities during COVID to prove that to be correct. I wanted to share them out because I think business today has a bigger opportunity to positively influence the world than it ever has before. I think we need to do that.
NATE REGIER: It sounds like the main thrust of this book is what leadership, what is possible. I’m curious if you, if there’s any main thrust of this book or what you really want to accomplish by putting it together and putting it out there.
GARRY RIDGE: Well, again, I think I want to show leaders out there that if you have a, I have an algorithm for culture, which I adapted from some of Simon Sinek’s work. It’s culture equals values plus behavior times consistency. What we proved at our company during the COVID times that having a very strong culture, one where people actually know they belong and they’re respected, and they’re treated with respect and dignity, you get this will of the people. Will of the people times strategy gives you an outcome. I think that’s what’s really important.
NATE REGIER: Well, you’ve mentioned the word tribe a couple times already. One of the things you’re very, very vocal about is that your company is a tribe, not a team. I’d love to hear the difference. Will you share a little bit about the difference between a tribe and a team?
GARRY RIDGE: Sure. Team is something you play on, in a game normally, and the game has a certain set of rules. It has a starting time, finishing time, probably has a referee. The players may either change and it has a finite outcome. A tribe is something that thrives over time. A tribe is a group of people who come together to protect and feed each other. The tribe is there. That was one of the things that was really, really our tribal promise during COVID was this group of people come together to protect and feed each other. Importantly, when I started to think about tribes as a place where you could belong like a family, then I looked at some of the attributes of tribal behaviors over thousands of years.
I looked at the indigenous Australians and the Fiji and Islanders. One of the things that came out really strong was the number one responsibility of a tribal leader is to be a learner and a teacher. That’s what I think the number one responsibility of a leader is, is to be a learner and a teacher, to help his people or her people step into the best version of their personal self. That’s why we call our managers here coaches, not managers, because a coach’s job is not to run on the field and play in the team on the game, it’s to stand in the locker room and on the sidelines and to be observing the game, looking for plays, and coaching them into their best plays.
NATE REGIER: Leaders are coaches. Wow. This concept that the number one purpose of a leader is a learner and a teacher, to help the people step into the best versions of themselves. In your book, you talk about four pillars of a fearless tribe. Is this one of them?
GARRY RIDGE: Well care, candor, accountability, and responsibility. Certainly, those are the four pillars. If you think about care, care is when your empathy eats your ego, instead of your ego eating your empathy. I think caring is really about helping people succeed. It’s what we wrote in the book with Ken Blanchard. We’re not here to mark your paper, we’re here to help you get an A, because life’s not about some normal distribution curve. It’s about helping people get As. Then candor is pretty simple. No lying, no faking, no hiding. I believe most people don’t lie. I believe they fake and hide.
The reason they fake and hide is because of fear, because leaders, a lot leaders create this fear based leadership. I invented a person called Al, the soul sucking CEO, and his behaviors are the ones that create toxic cultures. Al is corporate royalty. He must always be right. It’s not about his people. He’s a micromanager. He doesn’t keep his word, all of these terrible things that aren’t right. Then, accountability is what do you expect from me and what do I expect from you? Is there a clear understanding of that? Then responsibility is we are responsible for our own actions. Those four pillars sit underneath the framework of our tribe as being the supports to help us do what we need to do.
NATE REGIER: Man, those are so powerful. You’ve said so much there and so rich. I get the first two. I understand care. I understand candor. Accountability and responsibility are two words that a lot of leaders throw around interchangeably. You seem to really distinguish between the two. Could you say a little bit more about how they’re different?
GARRY RIDGE: Well, accountability is a clear definition of what we expect from each other. Accountability, to me, is what do I expect from you and what do you expect from me? Responsibility is reflected in what we call our maniac pledge at WD-40 Company. Let me read it to you. I am responsible for taking action, asking questions, getting answers, and making decisions. I won’t wait for someone to tell me. If I need to know, I am responsible for asking. I have right to be offended that I didn’t get this sooner. If I’m doing something others should know about, I am responsible for telling them. That’s our definition of responsibility.
Nate Regier: Okay. It really has to do around my individual choices for how I’m going to be part of this solution. You mentioned about behaviors, is there any responsibility for thoughts and feelings as well in your maniac pledge? Is there room for that?
GARRY RIDGE: Well, I think thoughts and feelings, one of the things around behavior as I describe it is leadership behavior is not only being brave enough to redirect those that you lead, but to love them enough to be able to do it with care. One of the reasons that people within organizations feel uncomfortable is the leader is not brave enough to have those caring conversations. If you think about the times when you’ve wanted to redirect someone’s behavior because it’s fallen outside of your values, you are normally the one that’s more afraid of the conversation. I’ve not talked a lot about our values, but our values help us there. I’ll give you a beautiful example of that. Our number two value in the company is we value creating positive lasting memories in all of our relationships. Let me give you a real life example of how caring comes into play with that.
Some time ago, I was in a meeting here at the company and it was an early morning meeting. One of our leaders, a fine person, was having a very bad morning. They were not creating positive lasting memories in this meeting. They were, you could feel the toxic fumes of leadership coming out of them. At the end of the meeting, I said to this person, let’s call him Nate for want of a better word. “Hey, Nate, if you got a minute, let’s go for a walk.” We walked outside of our building and I was looking behind a car and under a tree and in a trash can. He said, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “Nate, the you I know and love was not in that room today. What’s on your mind? How are you?”
We started to chat. Because I could use that value as a reason to have that conversation that put us into a coaching moment and he’d had a bad morning, certain things that happened to him and nothing to do with the business. It was just he was off-center. We agreed that that’s not living one of our values. We had a really good coaching session and anyhow, he went back inside and he went to a couple of people that were at that meeting and apologized and said “You know that’s not me.” They all said, “Yeah, are you okay? Are you okay?” The next day, I observed people going to him and asking him, “Are you okay today?”
NATE REGIER: Wow.
GARRY RIDGE: More than ever during COVID, we need to be asking people are they okay. Because people have gone through their own personal heroes journey and some people aren’t okay. Don’t wait, be brave enough. Just go, “Hey, are you okay? Is everything all right?” They may just need that emotional support.
NATE REGIER: Well, that story, great illustration of balancing care and candor. We call it compassionate accountability. In your example, you didn’t shy away from the hard conversation. You talked about the behavior, you talked about the gap between what you wanted and what you had seen, or between the values and what you had seen, but you did it in a creative kind way that takes some skill. How do people in your company learn how to do this?
GARRY RIDGE: Well, I think we, as leaders have to model the behaviors, and again we do live our promise, which is a group of people that come together to protect and feed each other. One of the things that really got me thinking many years ago was something I read from the Dali Lama, and it is “Our purpose in life is to make people happy. If we can’t make them happy, at least don’t hurt them.” I think my ah-ha moment with that was so many people in leadership positions were hurting people and they didn’t have to. They could be a caring leader and a lot of people call it the soft skills, these skills aren’t soft, these are damn hard. It’s important for us to be able to do that, but our values talk about that and what we do in the organization talks about.
NATE REGIER: Again, the unexpected learning moment is the name of the book. All of the values are in there. All of these things you’re referencing, the rest of the story and the rest of the list are in there. If I didn’t know your title, I would think you were the chief human resource officer in your company. From what I’ve read, I know that you really value the relationship between HR and that you elevate that as a much more important role maybe than some organizations. Will you say a little bit about that?
GARRY RIDGE: Oh, we know that our most valued asset is our people. We say here it’s all about the people. From nearly day one, when I was given the opportunity to lead, I had human resources report directly to me. They needed a seat at the leadership table. They needed to understand our business strategy. They needed to understand what we needed from our people, because it’s not, HR is not an administrative function. It’s a people development opportunity. Again, we call them our vice president of global organizational development is an officer of the company because that’s how important it is. The administrative part of HR is the small piece of it. The big piece is career planning, leadership development, leadership training. We have a program in the company called Leadership Lab. We actually teach leadership in the company, because leadership skills need to be understood.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for that. Yes. I think that’s a wonderful message for HR folks out there and they have had, wow, what they’ve been through and what they’re dealing with and their role is so important now. In conversations with you, in reading your work and listening to you, I really pick up on how important gratitude is for you. You’ve listed that as being a really important asset and discipline for how you’ve gotten through this. Will you say a little bit more about the power of gratitude and its role in your life?
GARRY RIDGE: One of my dear friends is Chester Elton. He wrote the book Leading With Gratitude and a new book, The Anxiety At Work. I think gratitude is the reflection of the positive side of your life. I ask myself many questions each day, but one of the ones I ask myself is, “Am I being the person I want to be right now?” Then I look at who do I want to be? I want to be someone who throws sunshine, not shade. I want to be someone who’s caring, empathetic, a reasonable person, a listener, fact-based, balance, a curious learner, and someone who respects the power of gratitude. Gratitude is that enabler of our soul, which is so important.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. What are you most grateful for right now? What is something-
GARRY RIDGE: Waking up this morning.
NATE REGIER: Oh, yes.
GARRY RIDGE: I got to play.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. Oh, that’s wonderful.
GARRY RIDGE: Yeah. I mean, without waking up, there’s nothing else. I’m grateful for our tribe. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to help create a place where people go to work every day and make a contribution to something bigger than themselves and learn new things and have values to protect them and set them free and hopefully go home happy, with a 93% employee engagement and 98% of our people say they love to tell people they work at the company. Aristotle was right when he said pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.
NATE REGIER: Wow. Well, you have been part of building an incredible culture, a culture that has gotten you through, helping you thrive, positions you for the future. I know you say in the book that culture is a competitive advantage. It’s not just a nice thing to have. You’ve also said soft skills are not easy. These are not soft at all. Give us a couple of your arguments for why culture is a competitive advantage. Why should we invest in this?
GARRY RIDGE: Well, I think there’s one major one. I talked about it earlier. It’s called the will of the people. Now, let’s call that employee engagement, because a great culture will be a place where people really want to go to work. During COVID, 86% of people who went to work every day were disengaged. If you think about the people who were disengaged, they’re not, number one, doing their best work. Number two, they’re not enjoying themselves. Culture is a competitive advantage really means that if we can have a high will of the people and you have a reasonable strategy, then your deliverable is much bigger than if you had a low will of the people. Let me put it in math for you. Will of the people 10, strategy 50, 10 times 50, 500 will of the people, 80 strategy, 50, 80 times 50, 4,000. Simple as that.
NATE REGIER: Yeah.
GARRY RIDGE: Because then any strategy is not a hundred percent right. It’s probably 50% right at the best of times. You can have to best strategy in the world but if you’ve got low employee engagement or low will of the people, because of the culture that’s toxic and Al is everywhere, the soul sucking leader, then you’re not going to have the best outcome.
NATE REGIER: Yeah. In the book you talk about, well that’s just so powerful and thank you for breaking it down. I mean, it’s not that complicated. When you look at it that way, you can see how focusing on culture can exponentially magnify your deliverable, all things being equal. I’ve heard it said, a friend of mine Bobby Herrera said that culture is a lagging indicator, or sorry, brand is a lagging indicator of the quality of your culture. You can’t create brand, you don’t just manufacture it. Culture is what drives it. Culture is all these interactions between people. When the will of the people is going in that direction, it’s amazing what can happen. You have a lot of great tips, great chapters in the book about leadership lessons, strategies. Is there any one maybe top most significant lesson that you’ve learned in the last two years that you want to pass on?
GARRY RIDGE: Well, the one that’s been reinforced for me was one that I learned a long time ago. That’s the power of the three most powerful words I ever learned. I don’t know. Getting comfortable with the being able to be vulnerable, admitting you don’t know, particularly going into COVID. There was so much we didn’t know. We said, “Okay, let’s agree we don’t know it. Let’s see what we need to do to understand the situation as it is today.” The definition of uncertainty, a series of future events that may or may not occur. In COVID, there was so many of those. I think getting comfortable with ambiguity a long time ago was a big benefit as we went through and continue to go through COVID.
NATE REGIER: That’s an interesting definition. I think about when that is occurring, there’s bound to be anxiety. There’s bound to be fear. There’s bound to be these things. Does vulnerability for you include the willingness and safety to also say, “Maybe I’m anxious. Not only I don’t know, but I might be anxious about the future. I might be afraid of the future.” Is there a place for that? There’s the intellectual vulnerability you’re talking about, which is I don’t have the answers. I don’t know. What about the emotional vulnerability?
GARRY RIDGE: Yeah. During COVID, we went out and we did a midterm employee opinion survey check-in because I wanted to see whether we were draining our cultural equity because we were far apart and we had to learn new skills and communicate in different ways. The numbers came back as strong. There’s one that actually increased. It went to 98% and it was, “I am excited about our future.” I went, “Wait a minute, we’re in the middle of this uncertainty. What’s making people say that?” Digging a little deeper and the clear message came back with this, “If we can get through this together, we can get through anything together.”
The two words that repeated themselves were together. I think anxiety is amplified if you are on your own, but if you’re together in a group and we are saying every day, we can get through this together. We not only tell people what we’re going to do, but why we’re doing it and we communicate and it’s going to be okay, we’re going to be safe. As soon as COVID hit, the first thing we said, the number one priority was the safety and the wellbeing of our people, number one. That’s it. We lived that.
NATE REGIER: That’s so important. That was the very first focus. You lived that value of we have to have a safe place around here so we can be in it together. I’ve been struck lately about this way we talk about empathy. We often talk about empathy as, well, my heart is stirred by your suffering and I want alleviate it. I want to make it better for you. I want to support your cause on Facebook or whatever. What you’re talking about is a kind of empathy that doesn’t say, “I’m here to take your pain away.” It’s to say, “Let’s walk through it together.” Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone already makes it better.
GARRY RIDGE: Yeah. A lot of people get sympathy and empathy mixed up.
NATE REGIER: Yeah.
GARRY RIDGE: I heard a great definition of empathy. We’re out on a boat, we’re sailing in the ocean, I come down and you are seasick, you’re throwing up over the side of the boat. I put my arm around you and I give you a napkin and I say, “Nate, everything’s going to be okay.” That’s sympathy. I start throwing up next to you, that’s empathy.
NATE REGIER: Exactly. We’re in this together for real.
GARRY RIDGE: We’re this together. Yeah.
NATE REGIER: Oh, well, as we kind of look towards kind of wrapping this up, there’s so many different angles we could go. I so appreciate you for sharing today. Is there anything that you are particularly passionate about these days? What’s on your heart on the horizon for you?
GARRY RIDGE: Don’t let the lessons of COVID not create the learning moments that are going to make the world a better place? And that we as leaders, if we haven’t up the message now that it’s really time to really care for and create environments where people can thrive, we’re going to lose the game. I really believe we have the opportunity and we’ve proven it. I mean, over 20 years, we’ve proven that you can do this. It’s not about me. It’s about the tribe and the culture. As I said earlier, I’m consciously incompetent probably wrong and roughly right is where I am.
NATE REGIER: Ah, that’s wonderful. Don’t let the lessons of COVID not create the learning moments that are going to make the world a better place. You did exactly that with your book. You led through COVID and you put it down there and shared it. Again, the book is called the unexpected learning moment. It is full of practical tips, practical strategies that are not just about WD-40, but any leader can apply these and look for these. I’ve already put a lot of these into practice. Garry, I wanted to let you know that I have assigned this book as the reading and preparation for our strategic retreat for our company this year.
GARRY RIDGE: Oh, wow.
NATE REGIER: We’re going to use this as the foundation, the groundwork to start asking ourselves, who do we want to be? Where do we want to be going forward? We’re going to take your lesson to heart and use that. If people want to learn more about your work, about your books, about what you’re doing these days, where would you direct them?
GARRY RIDGE: Well, I post on LinkedIn a bit. You can find me on LinkedIn. Then, I have a website www.thelearningmoment.net, which has a link to blogs and a list of books that I’m finding to be of value at this time. Either of those places are good ones.
NATE REGIER: Thank you. What a wonderful, and we will put all of these resources in the show notes so you can go connect with Garry, read what’s going on, learn from him. Garry, thank you again for sharing your wisdom for being who you are and for helping so many people around the world make incredible memories.
GARRY RIDGE: My pleasure. It’s an honor, one that I don’t take lightly.
NATE REGIER: Here are my top three takeaways from an inspiring and so down to earth conversation with Garry Ridge. First of all, a team is not the same as a tribe. A team is something you play on, a tribe is something you belong to like family. Tribes feed and protect each other. Teams come and go, but tribes thrive over the long term. My second key takeaway is that culture is a competitive advantage. Garry said that performance is based on the will of the people coupled with a strategy. Culture is how you activate the will of the people. It stands to reason that improving culture can exponentially increase performance, even without changing the strategy. Furthermore, in times of great need, a strong culture can pivot around fear and thrive. Garry finished by saying the three most powerful words he has learned to use are, I don’t know. This third key takeaway is that leadership is about staying curious, getting comfortable with ambiguity, and being a lifelong learner.
VOICEOVER: I hope you enjoyed this episode of On Compassion with Dr. Nate, if you found new hope or guidance for your life, will you share it with your tribe? If you know someone who could be a great guest, please let us know. Are you ready for a practical way to bring more compassion to your organization? We have a solution. Visit www.thecompassionmindset.com. Check out the show notes for links and contact information, and remember to subscribe, rate, and give a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Until next time, keep your compassionate mindset engaged.
Enjoy this podcast? Check out Nate’s interview with Meredith Bell to learn about compassion and communication in practice!
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