In a Sept. 16 article in Harvard Business Review, Fast Company cofounder Bill Taylor writes about the determination of Garry Ridge, CEO of the iconic WD-40 Co., to champion a learning culture. The future of the company, best known for its trademark lubricating oil, depends on it.
Ridge, who took over the company in 1997, demands that he and his colleagues be curious and learning-obsessed. It’s the only way to beat what Taylor calls the “paradox of expertise,” or, the bind that people and well-established businesses like WD-40 often find themselves in — so committed to doing things one way they ultimately falter due to a lack of innovation.
Taylor wrote that Ridge conquered that paradox by overhauling the company culture to prioritize learning, “transforming a stale, insular business into something agile and open-minded.”
Among other things, Ridge insists that everyone in the company take a vow to become a “learning maniac.” In the “WD-40 Maniac Pledge,” employees take responsibility for taking action, asking questions, getting answers and making decisions. This type of mindset is essential for a company that historically existed off the strength of its flagship blue-and-yellow can. But that reality was a blessing and a curse, Ridge told Taylor: “We had such huge growth opportunities, but people were afraid to step out of their roles. The fear of failure is the biggest fear in the world. We had to go from failure to freedom.”
So, he’s encouraged the company to cherish learning, those moments of inquiry, discovery, even frustration and failure that are neither good nor bad, but inarguably have value. Further, the culture he’s fostered has proved to be effective: The company has expanded its suite of products, is selling them in 176 countries, and has nearly tripled its share price since 2009.
“I want people to be inquisitive, I want people to ask questions and take chances,” Ridge told Taylor. “My job is to create a company of learners. I like to ask my people and myself, When’s the last time you did something for the first time?”
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.