Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

‘The infinite game’

WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge speaks about the innovative changes the company has made to its line of products and how continual improvement relates to the organization's mission.

Every day at work, WD-40 Chief Executive Officer Garry Ridge acknowledges the fact that he doesn’t have all the answers. Over the last three decades at the company’s helm, Ridge has focused on creating a culture where employees are encouraged to learn and grow, which he says has led to a fivefold increase in the company’s annual revenue.

“Leadership isn’t about you; it’s about serving the people you lead,” he said during a recent virtual talk he gave to students in the University of Redlands School of Business Master of Business Administration program.

School of Business Adjunct Professor Abraham Khoureis ’04, ’06 invited Ridge to speak to students in his Management and Organizational Behavior course. The course aims to create managers who understand how to regulate the behaviors of their employees, in addition to providing insights on team and intergroup dynamics, human resource management, organizational design, and the management of change. Previous speakers in the class have included best-selling authors John Spence and Carla Johnson and Fulbright researcher and author Maja Zelihic. Next week, School of Business H. Jess and Donna Senecal Endowed Dean Thomas Horan will speak about purposeful leadership.

In his lecture, Ridge explored the values of servant leadership—a philosophy that emphasizes employee growth and service to others. During his time at WD-40, a manufacturer of degreasers, lubricants, and rust removal products, Ridge has reclassified mistakes as “learning moments” and refers to managers as “coaches.” Instead of operating with a mindset that values profits over people, Ridge prioritizes care, candor, accountability, and responsibility and expects employees to do the same.

“It’s a failing of a leader when a company or workers fail,” said Ridge. “Leadership is a balance between being tough-minded and tender-hearted.”  

His leadership style has been successful based on data gathered from the company’s employee satisfaction survey, which has been collected every two years for the past two decades and reveals that employees report a sense of belonging and pride in the company, according to Ridge.

“I was anxious to see if the numbers would change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they actually went up,” he said. “That, to me, shows that people have trust and are eager to get through this together.”

This cultural equity, Ridge said, is the company’s biggest asset. By training employees adequately, treating others with respect, and displaying a dedication to lifelong learning, the company is able to continually innovate and consistently work toward the collective mission—what Ridge refers to as “just cause”—of making life better at work and at home. This goal is extended not only to WD-40 customers, but employees as well.

While Ridge acknowledges that WD-40 is a public company that has to take shareholders’ opinions into account, he says he’s in business for the benefit of the long haul.

“We’re playing the infinite game, not the finite game,” he says. “The infinite game is about having a just cause and a team of people who really respect the fact that learning is important in an organization. That’s what’s most important to me.”

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