WD-40’s culture: a ‘M.A.P.’ for people & business growth
A recent article on the WD-40 Company’s culture by Whitney Johnson (1) shows how developing, challenging and growing people has driven high employee engagement of three times the US norm (below). This has, in turn, contributed to brand and business growth. Share of multipurpose lubricants remains at 80%+, despite an estimated 200 rival products, 75% of US households have the iconic blue and yellow on hand and market capitalization has grown six fold over 18 years (from $250m to $1.6bn).
I’ve seen the power of what WD-40 call their ‘tribal culture’ up close and personal, having been lucky enough to work with them for five years, at a European, US and now global level.
In this post we explore how WD-4o has tapped into the key drivers of human motivation discussed in a previous post , inspired by Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2). Daniel’s research shows that whereas conventional ‘carrot & stick’ financial rewards work for simple, repetitive tasks, they don’t function as well for work requiring cognitive or creative ability. For this sort of work, people need a decent level of salary compared to market norms, but what really motivates us are three key drivers: mastery, autonomy and purpose, summarised as M.A.P.
Illustration by Prasad
Mastery is the opportunity to get better and better at what matters to you. WD-40 practices a learning-centred approach that Whitney calls ‘personal disruption’ (see below), reflected in 92% of employees saying, “The work they do gives them a sense of personal accomplishment” (3).
Crucially, when people reach the top of a given learning curve, they are invited to seek a new challenge. In this way, employees are encouraged to ‘learn, leap to a new role, learn and leap again’. People have a clear career path, but the company objective is to ‘keep people in the tribe, not chained to their roles.’ As CEO Garry Ridge told Whitney, ‘I get so much joy out of seeing people stepping into new roles. They’re standing on the edge and I say “Jump! Don’t worry. There’s a net.”’
And ‘Because management encourages leaps to new learning curves, many people have been there for ten to twenty-five years and longer,’ Whitney explains. I’ve seen this for myself. WD-40 is unique amongst the clients I’ve worked with over 25 years. The senior team from my first workshop back in 2013 have stayed, grown and will be there again in the global workshop I’m facilitating in October this year.
Autonomy is the ability of people to self-direct their work, and hence their destiny. And autonomy is another central part of the WD-40 way of working. ‘We foster a culture of accountability. This means that tribe members are accountable for their commitments, take initiative, act passionately and excel together,’ explains the company website. ‘An accountable culture eliminates the need for micromanagement and increases our effectiveness.’
I saw this autonomy in action at a global marketing worksop I helped facilitate last year. We had briefed the local marketing teams to prepare a 2-page template to pitch their ideas to senior management. An enterprising marketing manager from Australia went well beyond the brief, preparing a 2 minute video that brought to life her idea and brought the house down with applause.
The final driver is having a clear sense of shared purpose and values. And here again, WD-40 performs strongly, with a whopping 97% of employees saying, ‘Their values align with WD-40 Company values‘. From my personal experience, a couple of key things have helped create this extremely positive outcome.
First, the senior team has crafted a distinctive brand purpose (below), not a bland purpose with the normal guff about ‘delivering for customers and shareholders etc.‘. Rather, the purpose is simple, punchy and to-the-point, in line with the brand personality. It has helped guide and inspire new ideas on how to help people solve problems in workshops and factories, such as the Smart Straw and EZ-Reach pack innovations I posted on here.
We exist to create positive lasting memories in everything we do. We solve problems.
We make things work smoothly. We create opportunities.
Second, and even more importantly, the long-standing CEO, Garry Ridge, is the company’s ‘chief storyteller’ and champion of the purpose & values. He lives the company values himself, in the way he manages the team. He invests time and effort in bringing it life through communication on a daily basis. And he also raises the profile of the WD-40 culture externally by speaking at key events around the world.
In summary, WD-40 Company’s show how mastery, autonomy and purpose are the key drivers to create a MAP for human, brand and business growth.