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Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton: “Great leaders have a higher purpose than just profit.” with Phil Laboon

Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce. Build a culture for them where purpose trumps paycheck. They need meaning in their job that baby boomers like me didn’t. This is a good thing. Great leaders have a higher purpose than just profit. Increasing profit should be assumed, but it is not the mission. I […]


Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce. Build a culture for them where purpose trumps paycheck. They need meaning in their job that baby boomers like me didn’t. This is a good thing. Great leaders have a higher purpose than just profit. Increasing profit should be assumed, but it is not the mission.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup and bestselling author of Born to Build and The Coming Jobs War and It’s The Manager. 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. 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 currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor and Senior Fellow of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Not so much a story, but I have always had an insatiable curiosity to know what all people are thinking. This drives me and inspires me. Amazingly, I get paid to lead an organization that finds out what millions of people are thinking on almost all subjects.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Gallup has always been known for our U.S. polling, but in 2005, we built a World Poll that covers 160 countries.

Our big breakthrough — one of Gallup’s biggest ever — is that what the whole world wants is a good job. Our World Poll discovered the great global dream.

That has always blown me away. People all over the world want a good job with mission, purpose — and one that they’re really good at — with a living wage. This finding gets you pretty close to the meaning of life in the new millennium.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Americans have stopped building. Entrepreneurship has stalled. Americans are not making and selling stuff to each other like they used to. And productivity (GDP per person) has been in decline for decades.

My teams and I are working on ways to establish cultures that create organic growth for organizations. American organizations aren’t as entrepreneurial as they were 20 years ago, and millennials aren’t starting enough new businesses. This is causing economic dynamism to slow and driving growing disparity in income. The best jobs with a living wage rise up out of growing startups and existing companies that have real organic growth instead of growth through acquisitions.

Gallup created an assessment called the Builder Profile 10, which we’re having college and high school students take to discover their talent to build. We have found students with extraordinary builder talent in unlikely places, like low-income neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City, as well as middle-income communities in Nebraska. You can find builder talent anywhere.

I think we can fix the builder problem.

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

It’s the manager. Period. Leaders everywhere in the world have a tendency to name the wrong person manager and then train them on administrative things — not how to maximize human potential.

The practice of management has not evolved with the changing workplace.

Gallup has discovered that a staggering 70% of the variation between great workplace engagement and lousy workplace engagement can be explained just by the quality of the manager or team leader.

This is a serious problem for the whole world. Globally, only 15% of employees are engaged at work. This means that 85% of employees either aren’t engaged, or worse, they are actively disengaged — ruining workplaces, societies and general world productivity. It doesn’t need to be that way. This problem is very fixable. It is most directly influenced by great front-line managers, who are the ones most responsible for engaging teams. And it is also about the people who manage the managers.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Miserable employees ruin customer relationships. Miserable employees have significantly worse health. Their miserable life at work goes home with them and is the single biggest contributor to overall low life satisfaction and all the other things that go wrong.

Lousy managers create miserable employees who create negative business outcomes.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

1. Tattoo this research finding on the forearm of every member of your executive committee: It’s the manager. Nothing works in the absence of great managers. Your leadership doesn’t work in the absence of great managers.

2. Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce. Build a culture for them where purpose trumps paycheck. They need meaning in their job that baby boomers like me didn’t. This is a good thing. Great leaders have a higher purpose than just profit. Increasing profit should be assumed, but it is not the mission.

3. Don’t listen to the hype from tech companies about what makes a “great place to work.” Today’s employees don’t really want free lunch, toys in the office, volleyball courts or Bring Your Pet to Work Day. What they really want is career development. They want the same thing their team leader wants from them — they want to improve. They want someone to take a real interest in their development. They don’t really care about pingpong tables.

4. Maximizing an individual’s potential begins with knowing their strengths and building their work and careers around those strengths. Organizations need to make a plan to develop the strengths versus fixing the weaknesses of every employee. If you wanted to tattoo another slogan on your management committee’s other forearm, do this one: Know me by my strengths. That will transform your culture.

5. Change your management and leadership culture from being bosses to being coaches.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

The biggest thing is to understand that work and life have blurred because of the internet, as well as the increase of women and millennials in the workforce. There’s no going back to the way things used to be: 9 to 5, go home, leave work behind.

Maybe the biggest change is for millennials. Their work really is their life and their identity. The workplace is their society. In many cases, the workplace has become their family and community.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

My challenge to the Gallup tribe is that unless you are doing something that changes the world, why are you doing it? My leadership style is high purpose or nothing at all.

Among my top five CliftonStrengths is Individualization. It causes me to believe that if you drill deep enough into literally any person’s God-given strengths, there is a genius inside. Sometimes just a slight change in a team member’s job can cause a moonshot for their careers. The greatest act of any manager or team leader is to find something that every employee is really good at — or even the best in the world at — and have them do that thing every day.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Alec Gallup (1928–2009) was one of my best friends at work. His father was our company’s founder, George Gallup. Alec was born with a very high IQ and tested at genius level since he was a little boy. He attended Princeton and did graduate work at Stanford and New York University. He convinced me that I needed a deeper understanding of world history and global politics to do my job better at Gallup. He also convinced me I needed to greatly improve my writing.

It was easy for me to believe he was right because I knew he loved me and deeply cared about my development.

He went on to spend literally hundreds of hours educating me in world history, writing and, of course, everything imaginable about U.S. and world polling. It was highly individualized development that money can’t buy. It changed my life.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I work for an organization that brings goodness to the world every day.

1. We know at Gallup that we change lives literally every day around the world when we help people discover their God-given strengths. More than 20 million people have taken our CliftonStrengths assessment to learn their unique strengths. I cannot go anywhere in the world without people running up to me and saying, “Gallup changed my life.” CliftonStrengths has become the language of universities and organizations around the world, including NGOs and governments. Most G2000 companies use it to some degree either throughout their organization or within early adopter departments.

Don Clifton (1924–2003) invented CliftonStrengths. He was honored by the American Psychological Association with a presidential commendation as the father of strengths-based psychology for inventing and writing the first taxonomy of the 34 strengths of individuals.

2. Along with Gale Muller and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and other scientists, Gallup built the first-ever World Poll — the biggest feat in the history of global polling. It is the world’s first listening machine that allows the voices of 7 billion world citizens to be heard regularly on a range of issues. This has changed the world because it is the first time that everyone has a voice in how the world develops.

3. Gallup Chief Workplace Scientist Jim Harter discovered that 70% of all the variation between lousy and great team engagement can be explained by one factor: the manager. This discovery will change how organizations are run in the coming decades more than anything else in the practice of management. It will change the productivity of the whole world because leaders can finally pull the most powerful lever for human development.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“There are 5 billion ways to lead a life, and we should study them all.” — George Gallup (1901–1984)

That is why I go to work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would fix income inequality.

The movement would be directed at increasing the number of quality startups and organic growth in existing organizations. Everyone in the whole world would know their God-given strengths and then tie them to building something — building anything: a company, a nonprofit, a new business startup, a new division within an organization. Build anything that creates any kind of “customer.” Build a new church, an extraordinary child development center, a charter school, or build the next Apple or Amazon. Maybe the greatest of all — build a great family.

My big movement idea is to have people stop asking each other, “Where do you work?” or “What do you do?” and have them ask, “What are you building?” It works for everyone anywhere in the world. We should all be building something. That is the meaning of life. We build as much as we can, and then we die.

The name of the movement would be, “Shut up and build.”

That would change the course of humankind by reversing economic decline, which would reverse income disparity as well as the most important reversal of all — disparities in hopes and dreams for a great life on earth.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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