Everybody’s heard of WD-40.
Unless you never do a home repair—or your own maintenance even—you almost certainly own at least one yellow and blue can of WD-40. If you’re like me, you have several, in various states of can-half-full or can-half-empty; depending on how optimistic you feel.
While WD-40 the product is well and widely known, almost ubiquitous, WD-40 the company flies a little under the radar. You’re not likely to think of it first when making a list of great corporate cultures.
WD-40, created in 1959, dominates its market and is found in 75 percent of American households. Many competitors have tried to dislodge it, yet it remains the top selling multipurpose lubrication product, year after year.
How did this essentially one-product company rise to be the cream of the crop and then stay there for 60 years? It’s a good product. But its stalwart success has been aided by a corporate culture focused on the growth of its people. Our research found that WD-40 has built an A team, practicing a human resources strategy that fosters what I refer to as “personal disruption.” This strategy and the fascinating stories of people who engage in it are the subject of my Disrupt Yourself Live on VoiceAmerica Business Channel. It revolves around learning and the visualization of S shaped learning curves: employees start as beginners at the low end of the curve, embracing the challenges and relatively slow progress associated with being a novice; there is a phase of deep engagement as you learn, grow and gain traction, represented by the steeply ascending back of the curve; and at the top there is the joy of mastery.
Typically, however, mastery is quickly followed by boredom, stagnation and a leveling or even decline in productivity as engagement is replaced by its dreaded opposite. Human brains are wired to learn, and change, not stasis, is our natural state of being. Performing the same tasks again and again as they become increasingly mindless and routine is the recipe for disengagement. The top of the learning curve becomes a plateau and then a precipice unless employees are offered a new challenge to tackle and the cycle starts over. Corporate cultures that emphasize employee development, ongoing training, and have high levels of internal mobility, like WD-40, are proactively addressing a human need that must be met if talented human resources are going to yield a high return on investment within their workplaces.
According to the famous Gallup poll on the subject, only 33 percent of U.S. employees are engaged in their work. Worldwide, those numbers are more abysmal: just 15 percent of employees say they’re engaged. But at WD-40, a whopping 93 percent of employees consider themselves to be engaged in their work, and 97 percent say they are excited about the future of the company. At WD-40, temporary summer interns have become senior executives, and the C-Suite is not beyond the reach of the front desk receptionist.
The enlightening story of WD-40’s successful strategy is just one example of innovative companies that employ similar strategies which I have highlighted in my new book, released May 1st, 2018 Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve. The research demonstrates that workplace cultures focused on learning produce employees with greater motivation, higher morale, better performance, and deeper engagement – leading to greater overall success for the organization.