How did you end up working for WD-40 in the US?
I originally worked for the Australian distributor, Hawker Pacific, and in 1987 the company decided to open a subsidiary in Australia, mainly to develop the Asia Pacific market – with more of a focus on Asia than Australia. I ran the Australian operation from 1987 to 1994, when I was asked if I would like to move to the US and head up the international expansion of WD-40, where there was a lot of opportunity but not a lot of revenue.
If engagement scores correlate with high profitability and growth, why does it seem so hard for other companies and why don’t they get it?
Because leaders let ego get in the way. They haven’t realised that micromanagement isn’t scaleable. In a lot of cases they let short-term focus on results drive their behaviour instead of being in it for the long haul. When we get up every morning and put on our badge of leadership, we take on the responsibility for other people and we have no right to use that badge of leadership to mess with their lives. If you want to be a true servant leader, you’ve got to walk the long road and put behaviours in place that will give you the results in the long run. Sometimes the market doesn’t allow this but we’ve been lucky to do that. It’s encouraging that I’ve seen more and more companies starting to get it.
You speak of personal and organisational values needing to be in alignment, and yet that often over simplifies the ethical dilemmas some people get into with their work life. Which set should prevail when they are in conflict?
Organisational values should be clearly identified, not just plaques on the wall. Reasonable people who share the same values and absorb the same information will have a similar point of view. If you have a star performer who is operating against the values of the organisation, you should not keep this person; that’s cancer in an organisation. For me, leadership values must always come first, it must be a case of doing it right and then taking the revenue.
Can you describe how performance objectives are developed at your company and how you judge the success of that?
You must have a clear corporate vision of where you want to go. Our vision at WD-40 as a company is that ‘we are going to create positive lasting memories solving problems in homes and businesses of the world’. From that we have a number of financial metrics that we need to meet to ensure that we can protect and grow the company. That will give us what we need in order to reward and develop our people and satisfy our shareholders. The first review paper that everyone sees each year is mine, which shows how our board is judging me. Then we have our people look at their job specifications and make sure that it reflects their jobs. We pull out of that the important measurable performance criteria that will help them achieve their goals. That then creates an opportunity for people to have regular conversations around meeting their goals. That’s also how we build the belonging of the employee. The most valuable gift you can give anybody is time – you can’t take it back. If I go to any of our employees and sit down for an hour or so and talk about how they might meet their goals better, they feel treasured and valued.
You speak of having a ‘fortress’ brand. That’s an interesting metaphor – while indicating great strength, it perhaps gives a sense of super defensiveness. Yet as we know from history, even the great fortresses like Troy can get knocked over in simple ways.
The reason fortresses crumble is that they fail to provide protection. If we were to be arrogant and say we have a fortress brand and then fail to deliver what we promise to our end users, our fortress wouldn’t last too long. Leadership or fortresses are all about the balance between the tough-minded and tender hearted. Our fortress is something that we built and we need to protect and maintain to ensure it delivers the perfection it’s supposed to. On our 50th birthday ten years ago, I was the crazy Australian who got dressed in a suit of armour and rode a horse into Times Square to NASDAQ to show that I was the knight with the responsibility of protecting our fortress.