WD-40’s secret formula might surprise you, Garry Ridge says

BY: Susan Fowler

PUBLISHED: May 24, 2023

Initially posted on SmartBrief, May 24, 2023

Warren Buffet regards WD-40 Co. as a brand with one of the best competitive moats on the planet — meaning it can fend off competition and maintain profitability into the future. Most people assume that WD-40’s success is the product’s secret formula. And they are right. 

But Chairman Emeritus Garry Ridge believes it’s the company’s other secret formula that guided them to a market cap that’s grown from $300 million to $2.5 billion and exceeded the performance of the Russell 2000 Index and S&P by a long shot.

Garry reveals that secret in the foreword to my new book, writing: “WD-40 is fueled by an optimally motivated workforce demonstrated through our people’s spirit, morale, inspiration, commitment and desire to use their discretionary effort on behalf of our company.”

Business success is a by-product of an optimally motivated workplace

Our job as leaders, Garry reminds us, is to “make sure we create an environment where our tribe members wake up each day inspired to go to work, feel safe while they are there, and return home at the end of the day fulfilled by the work that they do, feeling that they have learned something new and contributed to something bigger than themselves.”

That sounds great. But my question to Garry in a recent webinar conversation was: 

How do you create a culture of well-being while delivering a shareholder return of 1,369% without laying off a single person in hard economic times or during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

He aligned his answer to the three foundational psychological needs required for people to achieve their goals, sustain high performance and thrive, all at the same time. I think every leader can find value through his wisdom and experience.

We encourage choice

We promote autonomy by helping people move from fear to freedom. We eliminated one of the greatest fears — the fear of failure. People do not fail at WD-40 Co.; they have learning moments. We define a learning moment as a positive or negative outcome of any situation that needs to be openly and freely shared among the tribe. We celebrate learning moments. 

We deepen connection

I’m convinced that the heart of our success is built on a culture of belonging. Our culture reflects a self-sustaining and interdependent tribe where members share common attributes such as values, knowledge, celebration, ceremony and a strong sense of belonging.

Belonging is not all “kumbaya.” It is a balance between being tough-minded and tenderhearted — where people feel safe and able to do their best work. When other companies were experiencing the Great Resignation starting in 2020 (I really think it was the Great Escape from toxic cultures), our employee engagement average remained at 93%, including 98 % reporting excitement about the company’s future. 

If we had employee engagement like most companies have, we would need twice as many people to do the same job, which means that we would not have the financial results we have today.

We build competence

Our company focuses on learning moments, encouraging tribe members to try something new, ask for help and learn from their experiences. But we also proactively build people’s competence through peer coaching. Every leader is also a coach, responsible for promoting people’s growth.

[I can attest to the veracity of Garry’s answer. My son-in-law, Ryan, worked at WD-40 and gave me the inside scoop. Ryan related being in a meeting when an executive arrived looking angry and agitated. The exhausted leader started to complain about what had happened but caught himself. Instead of launching into his frustration over a major mistake, he shook his head, smiled and declared, “Boy, did we have a significant learning moment this morning.” 

According to Ryan, the executive’s energy shifted as he described what he and his team would do differently in the future. That’s what I call a mojo moment—an epiphany of optimal motivation when low-quality energy shifts into sustainable vitality.]

We know motivating people doesn’t work

But we’ve figured out what does. By encouraging choice, deepening connection and building competence, you can create a space where people flourish. 

As Garry says, “It takes dedication to create that safe playing field where people experience choice by moving from fear to freedom, connection through relationships protected by values and inspired by vision, and competence gained from learning moments. But it also takes skill based on a framework capturing the truth about human motivation and proven strategies leaders can apply daily so people can be the next version of their best selves.”

Thanks, Garry. I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

If you’re curious, you can watch our robust conversation here.

(Image credit: Alex Kondratiev/Unsplash Images)

Susan Fowler, CEO of Mojo Moments, is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing” Her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals” presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard.

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