Leave it to the CEO of WD-40 to find a way to smooth out any friction in his company’s culture, but that’s exactly what the company’s new boss Steve Brass did on day one of becoming the leader of a brand whose name has become synonymous with making things operate better.
“The first thing I did was go out into the business and conduct a global listening tour,” said Brass, a native of Yorkshire, England, who started with the company in 1991 and became CEO last year. “We also conducted a culture survey of all of our team and asked two basic questions. First, if you were CEO, what are the things you’d change in the business? Second, give me an example of one barrier that’s getting in your way of being more effective.”
As the answers to these two questions came in, Brass and his leadership team didn’t simply record them; they used the feedback to begin implementing change at WD-40, a process that continues to this very day and is receiving high marks from the company’s stakeholders.
The secret, says Brass, was “listening with intention of being influenced,” the hallmark of Brass’s particular take on servant leadership, which hinges on what Brass calls “the co-creation of strategy.” The power of such strategic co-creation, argues Brass, is the often stated but usually underestimated reality that “people will buy into the strategy because they feel they contributed.”
As with many companies, the Covid pandemic challenged WD-40 in ways nothing else had; but unlike many companies, WD-40 emerged stronger because it used the pandemic to strengthen its learning culture. “As a business, we learned to pivot on an almost daily basis and our capacity to learn increased significantly. Once the pandemic subsided, other challenges seemed easy by comparison.” he noted.
In the podcast, Brass explores the discipline of service leadership from the refreshing perspective of one who is still, himself, learning. Insights include:
• Why an inverted leadership pyramid promotes learning more than traditional models.
• The single best way to remove “ego” from important decisions about people.
• Why Brass prefers the “talent management” over the “succession planning” mindset.
A soccer as well as cricket enthusiast, Brass takes a page from legendary Manchester United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson by developing staff early and leaving no one out. “Building talent isn’t just about giving the few who are successful room to grow,” Brass said. “It’s about everybody in the organization.”
Check out the full interview archive for interviews with Condoleezza Rice, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan.