How do we keep our corporate cultures distinct and alive when everyone’s closest coworker is a screen and a keyboard? Where is the bonfire? Where is the spontaneous reveal of dreams, anxieties, hopes?
Here at WD-40 Company, we have a ritual that is very precious to me. It’s a ritual of bonding, of hope, of release, of vulnerability and trust. And it goes this way:
About three times a year, different senior leadership groups come to San Diego from all over the world for their annual gathering. The ones who were here the year before know what to expect. The newcomers are transformed in ways they could never anticipate. Right before the first dinner, once we’ve all assembled, we make our way to a bonfire and receive our instructions. On small pieces of paper that are passed around, we’re told to write one thing that we want to let go of and throw it into the fire. Those who want to are welcome to declare that thing aloud for the group to hear, for the San Diego night sky to hear, for the universe to hear.
As a tribe, we hear of cancer, of a wide variety of fears, angers, resentments, desires – personal, business, career concerns. We also have personal successes and joys that we want to celebrate by sending bonfire sparks up to the sky. We trust each other enough to reveal our paper’s contents, and then we release that paper to the flames. It’s a tribal ritual of letting go – of both the fears and the successes. And then we make our way to dinner as an entirely different, bonded tribe of hearts and hopes.
That ritual was put on pause March 2020 as one by one we each went home from work and stayed there.
Like just about everyone else on the planet, we turned our faces toward our computer screens and smiled and waved at the familiar faces looking back at us. Meetings went virtual. We observed repeatedly what a break it is to have the world networked the way it is at such a time when work from home was the only way. Business got done – maybe in fits and starts at first. But we figured it out. And as global community we laughed at the mishaps that come with inside looks into everyone’s personal life. Oh well.
But I felt our tribal equity draining away. At WD-40 Company, we’re a tribe based on belonging, shared experiences, safe in collaborating and learning – even safe in failing. Without the day-to-day experience of each other, the void that was left behind became a hollow through which I worried we’d lose the spark that makes us…us.
I know I’m not alone among corporate leaders in worry about this. What about that intangible culture that we as a collection of dedicated leaders have invested years – if not decades – in intentionally developing? How do we keep our corporate cultures distinct and alive when everyone’s closest coworker is a screen and a keyboard? Where is the bonfire? Where is the spontaneous reveal of dreams, anxieties, hopes?
I’m discovering that online video services have a role in this new alchemy of culture nourishment. They’ve become more than scheduled meetings ticking off agenda items. They are opportunities for us to show each other our new babies. To laugh at the shared experience of meeting tight deadlines. To make new friends of colleagues we might have only known before by their company role. To learn new ways of doing life better.
And much to my surprise, we have found out that online video services are a wonderful tool to activate WD-40 Company’s “just cause,” which is “To make life better at work and at home.” We have had, for instance, a lunch-and-learn class where a chef has demonstrated healthy cooking techniques from his kitchen. And even your average business meetings can take on a flair of their own.
I caught wind of how our French team held a business meeting over dinner. But not just any ordinary dinner (but, really, in France, is there ever such a thing?). The members cooked their own dinners in their own kitchens while chatting about business at hand. Then took their plates – and glass of wine, of course – to their respective dinner tables, and turned the meeting into a virtual – and yet very real – dinner party. (I predict that one of these days, these stories will be told in business schools as a dynamic for highest-level collaborative thinking. Let’s give it a name, shall we? How about The Baguette Effect?)
And we are able to include everyone all around the world, all at the same time. A couple of weeks ago we had an all-hands celebration of our 67th birthday. We didn’t bring the company to our headquarters – which we affectionately refer to as our tepee, in homage to our tribal culture. We didn’t have to. We brought the party to the people, the highlight being a world-class (literally) magician in London who live streamed his performance “all the way from my living room” to living rooms all over the world. Some of our tribe members were having breakfast, some lunch, some wine, and some breakfast that was officially the next day. But they were there…everyone who wanted to come.
Some were able to meet my beautiful wife, Maria, for the first time. And we were able to meet their children, perched on laps, as riveted by the performance as their parents were. And, perhaps even more important, their children were able to meet their parents’ colleagues and see what nice people their mommies and daddies work with day in and day out.
I recognize, though, that virtual tribes do have their limitations in terms of keeping the culture alive. Whenever I have the occasion to go to the tepee now, I’m struck by the empty sadness of no people being there. We all need people. And I look forward to the day we can return to a working environment where those who want to – when they want to – can return to the workplace and smile at each other face to face, instead of exclusively monitor camera to monitor camera.
But we’re keeping the virtual meeting format as well. Those days are with us forever. It will be a yes/and scenario. There is so much good to take in.
And yet there’s the matter of those tribal bonfires where we send our fears and successes up into the starry San Diego night sky. We’re still puzzling how we can even approach a virtual version of that. And I’m inclined to believe that it’s too sacred a ritual to compromise. We need the experience of each other standing in the bright warm glow of the fire sending our burdens into the dark sky.
While I’m not the clairvoyant our London magician most certainly is, I can predict with some confidence the single word that will be written on most of those pieces of paper. Covid.
It won’t be long now.
(Click here if you would like to read the full story of the WD-40 tribal culture and how it came to be.)