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The Great Resignation or Great Escape? Create the Culture that Invites Great Talent to Run to You

By Garry Ridge
December 1, 2022

(Adapted with the permission of Garry Ridge from an article originally published on LinkedIn on May 31st, 2022)

Open Marshall Goldsmith’s wonderful new book, The Earned Life, and these are the first words you’ll read:

“Presume not that I am the thing that I was.”  William Shakespeare, Henry V

This admonition carries with it two distinctly different emotional impacts. First, there is promise for as-yet unforeseen new possibilities that come as the result of the transformation. But there is also warning: “Come to me on the same terms we were on before our most recent epic experience, and there could be serious negative consequences.”

That one line, written around 1600, provides the best explanation for what has commonly come to be called The Great Resignation of 2022. How could something so old be so relevant and to the moment today?  Transformation – even upheaval – is universal. It’s also timeless. Change is around us all the time. The only open questions are the order of magnitude (not our choice) and the way we respond (our choice). And more to the point of this piece, the ways we choose to lead, support, and nurture our workplace culture and community of cherished relationships, makes the difference between a healthy tribe of engaged, enlivened tribe members and the millions of resumes that are in circulation today.

How closely does this scenario describe your workplace community – or, tribe, as we call our community at WD-40 Company?  After months of isolation and varying degrees of lockdown, you are gradually reopening your workplace. Your people are excited to see their colleagues again in person. (Everyone is so over Zoom, and they want to see each other’s smiling faces in person, across office coffee pots and conference room tables.) Now the time has come to embrace the fresh possibilities of serving the company’s strategy, building a future they can believe in, with a company they are proud to be associated with.

Would your tribe even remotely entertain the idea of resigning? Not a chance.

Your philosophy of servant leadership has been with your people, even in a physically distant context, supporting and celebrating them throughout these terrible last three years. You have always spoken the truth to them about what is happening in the world, and how the company is staying ahead of the vicissitudes that keeps coming at everyone in rolling waves of “what fresh hell is this?”

Your company’s engagement scores reflect a positive return on your earliest investment of making sure your people feel safe, protected inside a defined set of compelling values and inspiring purpose, even celebrated when they report on a “learning moment” that they just had – a hard won piece of insight, knowledge, or wisdom that in any other company might be met with negative feedback.

But let’s also not forget, they are not the same people you said goodbye to in early March 2020. Each person has been enduring a unique personal challenge to their confidence, their faith, their families, their emotional resilience. Even long-term effects on their own physical health. The result? They’re coming back to you and to their workplace looking remarkably similar to the people of March 2020. But there’s something that you can see – just there – around the eyes. Even though you might not be able to put your finger on it, the transformation is there. A deepening. An enriching. A shift in the perspective of how short life really is, and how priorities have reshuffled in response. Those fundamental changes within are bringing new relationship dynamics to the tribe and to the leaders.

The extent to which you are up to the challenge of improving your leadership skills will determine whether they choose to stay. Are you in?

Instead Let’s Call It the Great Escape

Are you tired of hearing the expression the Great Resignation yet? As serious as this trend is at the moment, consequently deserving of a great deal of C-suite attention, the idea of resignation has felt off the mark to me for a while now. Resignation presupposes the departure of people. They’re already gone, if not in fact, certainly in thought. It’s a fait accompli. A done deal. Nothing to do really but throw away that potted plant that perished unnoticed in the departed’s abandoned cubicle, probably around October 2020. Disinfect the desk surface. Take the name plate down. Cancel the keycards and passwords. You want to be efficient about it but not too efficient. You don’t want their coworkers to conclude that they won’t be missed – or mourned – either. That’s what happens in the resignation scenario. Every day. All over the world.

Now let’s look at the expression the Great Escape. Are they escaping from their current careers and workplaces? Or is it possible that we might be escaping to a fresh start, a renewed, even revised, sense of purpose? Maybe even a better, elevated idea of what the next best versions of themselves might be.

In our months of Covid response, I came to realize how much I had underestimated the value of the workplace for many as a refuge from chaos in other aspects of life. If you were a student of transactional analysis, so popular several decades ago, you may remember the quadrant grid that depicted an individual’s relationship with self and the world.

  • I’m okay; you’re okay
  • I’m okay; you’re not okay
  • I’m not okay; you’re okay
  • I’m not okay; you’re not okay

Few of us are permanently stuck in any single box on a sustained basis. We tend to cycle through the quadrants depending on the day, our mood, the circumstances, and, most importantly, our environment. To observe our tribe members functioning beautifully at work, confident and comfortable in their roles and relationships (“I’m okay; you’re okay”), it would be natural to take for granted that they are equally adept in most other areas of their lives. Everything is okay.

But we discovered in our months of isolation that maybe not everything is okay at home. And since we were working from home, that not-okay-ness bled over into our work lives. Many of us discovered that we are not okay, neither are all the “you’s” in our lives, from our children to our parents to our fellow tribe members. I don’t believe that any career or workplace community should be an individual’s sole source of belonging, refuge from the chaotic storms of current events, or peaceful solace from homelife upheavals. That’s unhealthy balance in life. But, because of our most recent experiences of being separated from our workplaces, one escape route to some form of systematic consistency was shut off.

As Joni Mitchell wrote in the song Big Yellow Taxi, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” A simple, memorable sentence that was a catchy tune in 1970 but deeply resonant in all aspects of our lives in 2022 – just like Shakespeare’s timeless words.

We are changed. The old versions of ourselves are gone. Many aspects of our private selves that we once cherished, or at least took for granted – our loves, our sense of predictable, personal, emotional security – are also gone. The time has come to rebuild our sense of who we are and what our purpose in life and work is. And a good place to do that is through our work in the world.

Your reward is a community – a tribe – where your people will be drawn to escape to, not escape from.

Your Leadership Behaviors Create The Staying Culture

I had been in a leadership role at WD-40 Company for 10 years already. But my true journey into discovering what it really takes to be the kind of leader I wanted to be began as the result of an unexpected learning moment. It was in the middle of the night, 35,000 ft. over a blackened, invisible Pacific Ocean. I was the only passenger awake. It was just me, hurtling westward, in a silent, darkened tube, illuminated only by a single column of light shining down onto the pages I was reading.

It was at that moment when I read these words by the Dalai Lama, which changed my life forever:

“Our purpose is to make people happy. If we can’t make them happy, at least don’t hurt them.”

In a world, at a time, when toxic workplace cultures were almost a foregone conclusion, these words struck me like a boomerang. At that moment, I uniquely wanted for the WD-40 Company tribe what we now almost universally want for our companies and our people (and ourselves, for that matter). Not for the purpose of making people stay when they would really prefer to leave. But for the authentic why of creating a workplace where people can do good work contributing to a cause greater than themselves, go home happy where they can contribute to the happiness of their families. Happy families make happy communities, I reasoned. And happy communities make a happier world.

Thus, commenced decades of intense research into what makes an emotionally nourishing leader whose behaviors result in a culture where people want to stay because this is where they belong. Sometimes we discover that it’s easiest to define what something is by describing what it’s not. And from all the research and observations I’ve made over time, what emerged was the ultimate cautionary model, a little character called Al, the Soul-Sucking CEO

Al has very specifically defined behaviors that make people want to make the Great Escape away from their companies, more than willing to jump into the unknown where they might still stand a chance to find a place where they belong. So it stands to reason that the opposite of those behaviors and beliefs will create a culture where people feel welcome, supported, nourished, belonging.

Let’s unpack them, first by considering what the Soul-Sucking CEO behavior is, and then what its opposite might be:

Al has no compelling purpose.

But you and your organization can articulate an inspiring vision for a transformed future that comes as a direct result of your tribe’s collective dedication and efforts. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth writes, “Purpose is the intention to contribute to the well-being of others.”  As much as we are, by nature, driven by self-interest, part of that self-interest is the pleasure that we get when we know our efforts somehow extend beyond our immediate circumstances and help others – even people we don’t know or a future that we can’t quite see in vivid detail. But we know the people are out there and the future is on its way.  To have a purpose that contributes to a mission, cause, community larger than ourselves is an essential expression of what it means to be human.

Al’s company has no compelling values.

But you and your organization have a collection of values that free them up to do the right thing, using their best judgment – within guardrails that ultimately keep them safe as well. Values that everyone in the community can integrate into their own individual ways of decision-making provide freedom within a containment of safety. Al lets his ego override his empathy.

It’s never about you and your ego. Ego drives disconnection. Empathy creates deep resonant connection. It’s about how you can serve the people who are in your care and charge. In her compelling 2016 talk on the subject of empathy, author Brené Brown said, “Empathy is feeling with other people. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling. It’s the ability to say, ‘Hey, I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.’” After having emerged from what could only be called existential uncertainty of the last two years (with no real end in sight, if we can, to be completely candid about it), we may each have our own distinct experiences and memories of dread, confusion, loneliness, grief, and despair. And in healthy cultures where people feel belonging, acceptance and welcome, they know that they are safe to be wounded. Safe to be human. Safe to be unsure. And safe to reveal those things.

Al is short-term and reaction driven.

But you and your organization know that short-term fixes and emotionalized reactions rarely lead to positive outcomes in the long run. In your culture, it’s psychologically safe to take the pause long enough necessarily to fully think through a variety of alternative actions, each one with its own ramifications. It’s not the delay itself that makes your people feel grounded in a culture they can feel secure in. It’s the knowledge that delay is okay; that pause won’t be punished.

Your vision extends beyond the demands of the current quarter, the next quarter, even all immediately foreseeable fiscal years. In fact, you might be serving what Simon Sinek calls a just cause that extends so deeply into the future that the beneficiaries of your dedication might not even be born yet.

As Sinek writes in his book The Infinite Game, “A Just Cause is a specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist; a future state so appealing that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to help advance toward that vision.” This devotion requires everyone to place their bets on an unseen future, on each other, and on their tribe leader.

Al doesn’t keep promises.

Tribe members are psychologically obligated to accept their leaders’ promises and perform their own roles with the expectations that those promises will be kept. Leaders who routinely break promises are sending the signal to their tribes that they’re the ones who are delusional for routinely accepting those promises. You and your people know that promises set up a foundation of expectations on which strategies and deliverables are built. Pull a promise out, like a Jenga piece, and the whole structure might come tumbling down. Leaders who create a culture that makes their people stay keep their promises. And piece by piece, the promises made and kept build the future everyone can see vividly.

Al hoards information.

But you and your organization know that knowledge is power only when it’s shared. The culture that inspires your tribe to choose to stay is one that makes sure all your tribe members have the information they need to make the best choice for their work, themselves, and their families. Even when the information is unpleasant news, tribe members have confidence in knowing that their decisions will be based on facts, rather than stories that others are forced to make up in an environment of uncertainty.

Al creates a culture where people are driven by fear of their managers.

But you and your organization know that all the Soul-Sucking CEO attributes combine to create an environment driven by fear. And when people make decisions fueled by fear, they invariably make regrettable decisions. You and your tribe are committed to creating the day-to-day experience of work as one of psychological safety, where everyone is free to focus on their work, secure in the knowledge that they will be supported and protected by their fellow tribe members. Starting, most importantly, with their leader. A fear-based culture is one that runs on energy-draining sugar highs. Although this sugar isn’t sweet. It’s toxic. The psychologically safe culture is one that sustains healthy energy and focus in a mutually trusting environment. Where everyone not only wants to stay but also want to return tomorrow, the next day, the next quarter, the next year.

Create Your Own Escape to the Future

But what about you? Are you the leader (at WD-40 Company we call ourselves coaches) who struggles mightily to embody all the non-Al attributes? To be supportive of your tribe? To share information freely? To keep your promises? To allow your people to take the time they need to formulate thoughtful, wise responses to emergent situations? To set your ego aside and let empathy create the true connections that will make your tribe feel safe even in the most uncertain circumstances?

As author, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant has written, “It’s not your job to fix a toxic workplace from the bottom. If leaders at the top aren’t committed to change, the best way to stay sane is to shield yourself and support your team. Your responsibility is to protect your well-being, your career, and the people you care about.”

You have changed too, as a result of these past couple of years. You may or may not have noticed it since you’re so close to your own transformations. And maybe some of them took place so gradually over time that maybe only your tribe members noticed that change – just there around your eyes – when everyone returned to work.

Give yourself the grace you give others to walk this path of uncertainty and growth opportunities that truly no one would have signed up for in January 2020. And let your tribe help you as much as you support them.

As Ram Dass once said, “After all, we’re all just walking each other home.”

Garry Ridge

Chairman Emeritus – WD-40 Company The Culture Coach

Garry has 25 years of experience as Chairman and CEO of WD-40 Company, a Nasdaq-listed public Company. Garry has been with WD-40 Company since 1987 in various management positions, including executive vice president, chief operating officer, and vice president of international. He has worked directly with WD-40 Company in more than 60 countries. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego, where he teaches the principles and practices of corporate culture in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership program. Garry’s philosophy on company culture is based on Aristotle’s quote – “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” Turning that into action, he believes that all leaders can create a workplace where you go to work each day, contribute to something bigger than yourself, learn something new, feel safe, are protected, and are provided freedom by a set of values and go home happy! He is passionate about the learning and empowering organizational culture he has helped establish at the WD-40 Company. In 2009, he co-authored a book with Ken Blanchard outlining his effective leadership techniques, titled “Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called ‘Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A.” A native of Australia, Mr. Ridge holds a certificate in Modern Retailing and a Master of Science in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego.

Garry Ridge

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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