May 2012
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TD Magazine

Jim Clifton

Monday, May 7, 2012

CEO and Chairman
Washington, D.C.


Jim Clifton is chairman and CEO of Gallup. Under Clifton's leadership, Gallup has expanded from a predominantly U.S.-based company to a worldwide organization with 40 offices in 30 countries and regions.

Clifton is credited with creating The Gallup Path, a metric-based economic model that establishes the linkages among human nature in the workplace, customer engagement, and business outcomes. This model is used in performance management systems in more than 500 companies worldwide. His most recent innovation, the Gallup World Poll, is designed to give the world's 7 billion citizens a voice in virtually all key global issues.

Clifton has received honorary degrees from Jackson State, Medgar Evers, and Bellevue universities. He serves on several boards and is chairman of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. Clifton also is author of The Coming Jobs War: What Every Leader Must Know About the Future of Job Creation.

How did you become interested in the survey research field or area?

In college, I worked as an in-person interviewer on Interstate 80 outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, on a project for the governor of Nebraska. The governor wanted to know why people would drive through Nebraska without stopping when they'd drive from the West Coast to the East Coast on vacations. I would stand in a rest station and ask people questions like, Where are you going? Where are you going to stop? How much money are you going to spend? At first I thought, "People are never going to answer these questions; they're going to think that I'm going to rob them or something."

But they did talk to me. And I just couldn't believe what people would tell me; it had quite an impact on me. Really important decisions were made in the state of Nebraska based on information from those interviews.

I also was an interviewer at a youth development center, basically a youth prison. I interviewed every inmate to figure out what would motivate them to learn. Again, it just blew me away how people just bared their souls to me and how with that information you could create a curriculum to get them to learn and be successful—all from an interview.

What was the inspiration behind creating the Gallup Path?

The most profound thing that Gallup has found about workplace and customers is that workplace predicts customer growth better than anything else.

If you run a company that has 100,000 employees, there's going to be about 10,000 supervisors and managers managing about 10 people each. Who you choose as manager is everything in every organization in the world. So that's where the Gallup Path came from because it really is algorithmic.

The single best thing managers can do is assign people tasks that they have a capacity to perform, and that's strength science. Strengths develop and weaknesses don't.

If you run a big company, you can grow by either acquiring, which is what most companies do, or you can choose to have organic growth. If you choose organic growth, you can use that Gallup Path because it is designed to maximize the customer by building an operating system that maximizes the role human nature plays in all of it. It's what everybody is calling behavioral economics—the intersection of psychology and economics.

What led you to write your most recent book The Coming Jobs War?

I've been really lucky to be a part of an incredible 30-year bull run here in America where our economy just eclipsed everybody's in such a massive way. And now we're hearing that we're going to lose that to China, and we're going to be overwhelmed and that GDP is not going to grow—that it's going to be real low for 10 years and that the future for the next 30 years doesn't look good. The future can be, and I do think it will be, even better, but leaders have to start thinking very differently.

What do you see as some of the common myths associated with job growth?

Well, one huge myth is that it's all about innovation. Now, innovation is important, but we have the wrong expectation for it. I just saw that we're adding $150 billion into the new budget for innovation, but there's zero for entrepreneurship. The thing that's so important that almost no one understands is that innovation has no value whatsoever until a customer is standing next to it. Not only does the administration not understand that, but [neither do] both sides of the aisle in Congress as well as governors and mayors.

The leading role in all job creation or economic recovery really is the entrepreneur, the business model, and economic energy created from that phenomenon. Six million CEOs woke up this morning, most all of them running tiny companies. Every single one of them, including me, were thinking about how to get a new customer. Jobs follow customers, not the other way around.

Another myth is that as a nation, our whole country is having a slowdown. There is huge variation in workplace performances in this country. Cities are super different. Look at the difference between Albany [New York] and Austin [Texas], both capitals in big states. Albany is just having a hell of a time and Austin is just growing like crazy. Cities are like companies. They have really different stock prices, yet we make policies for the whole country like we're trying to influence the whole place. What we should do is create more independence for states and cities, and enable them to have their own success.

You've noted that the scarcest, rarest energy and talent in this world is entrepreneurship. What are your thoughts on how the United States can foster more of this type of talent?


Well, for one thing, we've got to believe that it's actually a talent and that you can't "train" for it like you train somebody to change oil. We need simple testing for entrepreneurial talent because it's really different than anything else we test for. Tests aren't everything, but they'll give you tendencies.

We need to be able to have someone in the school system say to a young person with that potential, "Hey, you have these entrepreneurship talents. If you develop these, there's no limit to what you can do." But too many leaders think that entrepreneurship is something that you can train. You can develop it, but you don't train it.

What do you believe are qualities of successful entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs have real high optimism. It's almost impossible to depress them. Now, here's the real important thing: buckled to that has to be determination. Optimism on its own doesn't predict success until it's connected to unusual determination. Those two in combination are the big ones.

Another one that we're just finding from these huge samples is an almost unquantifiable need for independence. And we also find they're not motivated as much by money as by the need to have an independent life and the love of something they're doing. So an entrepreneur with three restaurants will be in it more for the independence and serving customers than just the money. I mean, you have some, I think, who are trying to become billionaires, but it's a small, small, small percentage.

Are you or Gallup working on any new projects you'd like to tell us about?

We're digging way down into the science of behavioral economics and finding this phenomenon of well-being. If you have high well-being, and I have low well-being, your life outcomes are going to be much different than mine.

One important area is your career. If you have a career where the mission and purpose of the job is important, and you've got a boss who is interested in your development, and I don't—you have a better life outcome than I do. Other important areas are finances or living within your means; community or involvement with a cause outside of yourself; social or spending enough time with friends; and physical—exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep.

We're trying to dig way down into this area because as important as jobs are to everybody, both psychological and physical fitness (because no one can afford healthcare costs) is going to become more important. If there are two equal candidates and one has higher well-being than the other, that person could have the advantage. No one will admit it, but well-being may become the new prejudice—maybe for the right reason.

What types of things do you do for relaxation or for fun?

Believe it or not, I never get tired of reading polls. Like this morning, I got on email and a bunch of us had a three-hour debate on some polls about unemployment. Polls are a window into what people are thinking. When you look at them, there are always surprises. What we think people are thinking is almost always different in some way from what they are actually thinking. That particular aspect of poll reading I just never get tired of.

About the Author

Phaedra Brotherton is a trained career development facilitator and certified professional resume writer. She is former manager of ATD’s Career Development Community of Practice, and was previously senior writer/editor for ATD.

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