The venerable Water Displacement, Formula #40, more generally known as the WD-40 that comes in a distinctive blue and yellow spray can, is much more than just a chemical that we spray on squeaky things. The WD-40 Company is renown for achieving incredibly high levels of employee engagement and professional satisfaction in their work. Chief Executive Officer Garry Ridge presented an overview of WD-40’s Tribal Culture and I learned quite a bit.
To begin, and perhaps most surprisingly, the WD-40 Company is not necessarily a chemical or technology company, rather, it is a marketing company. The WD-40 Company contracts out all production for the items that it sells. Ridge offers this clarification at the beginning of his presentation and he follows up by stating that the WD-40 Company is in the business of “making memories.” He asks our group to think back to some time that we used WD-40. Immediately, I think of WD-40 and of my grandparents.
My grandparents operated a 4-wheel drive repair shop throughout my childhood. As a 5-year old I got to visit and sweep some floors. They even paid me by check for my time (probably the highest hourly rate I will ever command!). During my teenage years, I was able to work there over the summer. While floor sweeping was still in the job description, one the fun new tasks was to disassemble transmissions so that my Grandfather could rebuild them. That included the units picked up from surplus or junk yards, and many of those were beat up or rusty (only need a few good components inside for it to be worth the buy).
The ease with which I was able to disassemble a unit depended on what the other people in the shop were doing. If they were using the air tools, e.g., a compressed air-powered ratchet, then I had to use the non-powered tools (what, like some kind of animal?!). If a part was rusted and I could not break it loose, then I would dump appropriate amounts of WD-40 on it until I was able to make progress. There you have it; WD-40 created memories of me taking things apart and passing them to my Grandfather.
The WD-40 Company is not just a marketing company, they are an excellent marketing company. Who would think to approach selling a chemical, not by what it literally does, but by what it allows you to do? That very concept is motivated by one of the most popular TED Talks, Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action.” The idea is that people in general, but customers in particular, are more likely to make purchase decisions based on the philosophies and vision of the company than on the particular specification of any individual product. WD-40 advertises that they exist to solve our daily problems, and we understand and buy into that as a philosophy that benefits us… and the blue and yellow can is now in our carts. If, however, WD-40 focused on some technical aspect such as “our new formula improves water displacement by 4.5%,” then you might be tempted to see whether some other option has a smidgen better water displacement.
With such a good opening, Ridge obtained the full attention of our group. For the rest of the discussion, he described the company’s concept of Tribal Culture and value-based decision making. I hope my memories of this advice on how to be a good leader remain as strong as those other ones involving WD-40.