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Spraying the message: The Garry Ridge interview


OIL CANLeader extraordinaire Garry Ridge, president and CEO of WD-40 Company, shares his thoughts about learning organisations, his leadership model, and companies as tribes - and offers to answer your leadership questions!

Based in California, Garry Ridge is a leader of a global company with a difference. With his colleague Ken Blanchard, he is an original thinker on leadership and presents his own company (which besides the famous WD-40 spray also produces cleaning products such as 1001) as a role model of a lean, mean, people-focused and - above all – a learning organisation. As an Australian, he looks to the tribal organisation of native Aboriginals for inspiration in his own leadership.

Learning is the final outcome..
Apart from leading a global multi-million pound company, he is a passionate teacher, thinker and writer. He is the author of the eponymous, 'Ridge model leadership cycle' (see, which lays out his personal vision that a successful business is one that has clear vision and values. It is one, he says, in which management has to be more than a mantra of 'plan and execute, plan and execute'. Into this leadership cycle must come review and - crucially - learning.

Says Ridge: "Learning is the final outcome. A learning organisation is one that is renewing itself on a daily basis. We beat the competition and make ourselves more competent by embracing the learning moment, which creates the learning culture. With the right products, the right people that are passionate, and The Leadership cycle (which creates a culture where passion is enhanced), you have a magnificent organisation that is applauded by profits." Clearly he is a leader with a difference.

Photo of GARRY RIDGE"Learning is the final outcome. A learning organisation is one that is renewing itself on a daily basis"

Lean & mean
After leaving school Ridge started in retail management with a large department store in Australia. He moved from there to wholesale distribution and on to marketing. He really thrived in an international career in 1987 by working for a subsidiary of WD-40 in Australia and setting up new business in Asia. He moved to the USA in 1994 and later assumed responsibility for a WD-40 Company subsidiary in Milton Keynes, where they are still located. They have 110 subsidiaries in Europe. If that sounds small for a worldwide company, it is salutary to learn that the company only has a total of around 350 employees on its books. This is lean and mean to the nth degree.

"We are primarily a sales and marketing organisation, we outsource all our manufacturing. We have a revenue per employee of over $1m."

In 1997, Ridge took over as CEO. It was then a $100m company – that value has tripled in the last 10 years. A lot of this rapid growth has come from expansion in economies such as continental Europe, Russia and China (where only 35 run the whole operation).

Tribal culture
Does this small number of employees so widely spread provide unique challenges for a leader like Ridge? "This could be a problem if we didn't all have a respect for national cultures. We call ourselves a 'tribe' not a team. Tribes have attributes – one is a strong sense of belonging. We care about our people, we are candid with them, we hold them accountable and expect them to be responsible. Our values are very clearly defined and communicated and lived. Our talent management is based around the Ken Blanchard concept: 'don't mark my paper, help me get an A'".

Coaching forms a central plank in Ridge's leadership model: "We make sure that everyone has a coach and that there is freedom to have a continuous conversation about expectations."

The key to great coaching, says Ridge, is that the coach understands that their central role is to do everything possible to help their coachee succeed: "The coach's job is to help our people get 'A'. We are very focused on this goal," says Ridge.

Who are these coaches? "They are all internal people. Instead of calling them 'bosses' we call them 'coaches'. Says Ridge: "As CEO, I am a coach to all my direct reports."

Goal orientated
This of course, redefines the hierarchical relationship of the organisation. This is not a command and control organisation. It is a goal-orientated, tribe or team-focused organisation: "We value succeeding in a team while excelling as an individual. It is not one or the other. The good of all is the most important feature."

"A team is only focused on performance and winning whereas in a tribe, the most important value is learning and teaching. The tribal elder's role is to share his life's experiences."

The idea of the organisation as a tribe came from Ridge's own experience: "In my life I have come to realise that you don't get anywhere unless you have the support of your
people. To get this support they have to know you are there in their best interests as long as they are there in your best interests. A team is only focused on performance and winning whereas in a tribe, the most important value is learning and teaching. The tribal elder's role is to share his life's experiences."

Working on this model, Ridge went on to see what other attributes of the typical tribe could be shared in a modern business organisation apart from identity and belonging, learning and teaching.

"The role of tradition is really important, especially in a global business. One of the 'ah ah' moments was the realisation how different sales people can be within their tribes: the Germans are there on time, with a tie, dressed and ready to go. The French as still enjoying the fine things of life, others are always late and the Pommies come in after being at the bar and talking about football. You have to adapt your leadership style to different cultures. We could never have been a successful global company if we said there is only one way to do things – the American way."

You can, he says, have a core set of values, but customs, culture and ceremony have to be respected. How does all this get enforced at ground level? Ridge insists on quarterly conversations with everyone in the company. An annual review, he says, is too infrequent and unfair on the sales team: "We don't want them saying, 'oh, why didn't you tell me that 324 days ago.' We are about sharing and transparency on where we are, sharing the successes, and sometimes, the brutal facts."

Memories are made of this..
How does he lead a business with a product that is perhaps not the most glamorous? He fundamentally disagrees with the premise: "WD-40 is pretty glamorous – people love it because it creates positive memories – everyone remembers when it got them out of a fix.

"I think our business is about memory. I would like to leave a legacy such that our company is known as a leading leadership laboratory. We don't make mistakes, we produce, have 'learning moments'. We give people permission to have a conversation about things that go wrong. If you go through any of our businesses, you will hear people saying 'I have just had a learning moment.'"

Ridge sums up his business philosophy in a few brief but eye-opening words: "There are three golden words in my life: 'I don't know'. This is a deep learning organisation. If you don’t learn, you're dead."

Got a burning question that you'd like to ask Garry Ridge after reading this feature? Are you facing a tricky leadership situation that you don't know how to approach? Write to us and we'll pick the best questions to put to Garry on your behalf. You can either post a comment below or email [email protected] putting Garry Ridge into the subject line. Closing date for this incredible chance to gain some Garry Ridge insight is Friday 10 April.

Garry Ridge's latest book, 'Helping People Win At Work', co-authored with Ken Blanchard, will be on sale this summer


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