The WD-40 Company - A case study on the power of a "tribal culture"

Garry Ridge strives to create a workplace where employees have a sense of contributing to something greater than themselves — one that allows them to go home feeling happy and fulfilled. It’s a simple concept, he says, but it makes all the difference for employees at the WD-40 Company, where Ridge serves as Chief Executive Officer.

Ridge says his employees are part of a corporate culture that he describes as a “tribe,” rather than a team. Given the fact that employee engagement at the WD-40 Company is over 90% (almost three times the national average) it seems Ridge might be onto something.

In a recent interview, I asked Ridge how he managed to create a “tribal” culture. What I learned was not a story of unlimited holiday, catered lunches, or office ping-pong tables, but one of belonging, purpose, and value. While these may seem like the usual elements of corporate culture, the WD-40 Company has made a conscious effort to weave them into the very fabric of the organization.


Know your purpose. Is there clarity on why you get up everyday? This was a recurrent theme from Ridge. If a company’s purpose is not crystal clear, he said, there is little to connect people to why they exist within it. While some may believe that purpose-driven companies are limited to charities and social enterprises, the fact that a corporation that sells “oil in a can” has built purpose into the core of its being indicates the same potential for any company.

We are about creating lasting, positive memories by solving problems in factories, homes, and workshops around the world. We create opportunities and we solve problems.
- Garry Ridge on the mission of the WD-40 Company

While most organizations clearly state their mission and purpose, it takes conscious effort to take them from a thin veneer to an embedded attribute of business. In Ridge’s words, it is their company’s commitment to their purpose that creates a rich sense of belonging among the staff.  Ridge knows that people crave a sense of belonging, he said, and it was this belief that led him to create a “Tribal Culture”.

What is a Tribal Culture? This was one of my main curiosities. According to Ridge, he and his colleagues at the WD-40 Company wanted to create something that people can own. A team, he said, wasn’t enough. This began a search for alternatives, and what came to mind was a tribe. To Ridge, a team is something that you play on in brief situations to win an event or to solve a problem. A tribe, in contrast, creates a circle of safety — a group of warriors willing to fight for each other and their organization.

Tribal Values

Another facet of tribal culture, Ridge said, was a clear set of values. This goes far beyond a few words posted prominently on the wall — they are the lifeblood of the organization. In Ridge’s words, “Our tribal leaders talk about our values every day, that’s the only way we make decisions”. This is a significant distinction that separates companies with lived values as opposed to stated values. Values should be alive, spoken about frequently, and used as guidepost. This perspective of values not only informs decisions at the WD-40 Company, but it also “sets people free, as it gives them an area to play in that they are comfortable,” Ridge said.

In addition to being embedded into daily conversations, values are also a part of the WD-40 Company’s extensive employee-development program. A key tool in this effort is the company’s “leadership lab,” a global program that teaches concepts ranging from conflict resolution to strategic planning and problem solving. The WD-40 Company has also sponsored over 25 of its employees through a Masters in Executive Leadership at the University of San Diego over the past two decades.

Ridge is committed to improving leadership beyond his role as CEO by teaching leadership development at the University of San Diego. In his view, it is the job of leaders to make work enjoyable. Ridge quotes Aristotle, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work,” which was written two thousand years ago. Though Ridge also adds, “We are pretty slow learners.” This point was driven home by his notion that employees who find more satisfaction in their work produce at a higher quality and are more likely to protect the company.

Learning Moments

When it comes to tribal leadership, the WD-40 Company’s leaders have two core responsibilities: learning and teaching.  At some level, we all have the desire to learn and teach, and the WD-40 Company has taken this to heart. “We don’t make mistakes, we have learning moments,” Ridge said — his philosophy when it comes to addressing situations that don’t go as planned. Importantly, the culture at the WD-40 Company freely supports sharing both positive and negative outcomes so that all can benefit from learning. This concept is reinforced by constantly inquiring what the potential for learning is in any given situation.

Imagine a place where you go to work everyday, you make a contribution to something greater than yourself, and you go home happy.

This is the basic goal that Ridge aims for. While he acknowledges the simplicity of the statement, he also realizes that it is not necessarily easy. At the same time, he laments the fact that almost 70% of the American population is disengaged at what they do. They don’t go home happy and they don’t feel fulfilled. According to Ridge, it is up to leaders to change that. The fact that the WD-40 Company’s financial returns have steadily increased, in tandem with their tribal culture, suggests that this strategy goes far beyond making employees happy. It may be the key element in building resiliency into any business.