Gallup's Jim Clifton on Entrepreneurship and Millennials in the Workplace: Part II

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Jim Clifton, the chairman and CEO of Gallup and author of The Coming Jobs War, oversees one of the largest research and polling organizations in the world.

In our interview with Clifton, he talks about how to make America grow again.  Part one of the interview identifies start ups and scale ups as the essential ingredient to get GDP growth back to the historic rate of 3.75% a year. Part two focuses on how to make that a reality.

As Peter Drucker said: “I never predict. I simply look out the window and see what is visible, but not yet seen.” Here is Jim Clifton’s vision of tomorrow and his plan to address its new challenges.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

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Q: What can be done to encourage and even facilitate healthy start-ups and scale-ups?

A: We must recognize the uniqueness of entrepreneurs and intentionally cultivate and mentor them, like we do star athletes.

Next, we must engage millennials in these scale-ups in a manner that serves their differences and the greater good.

And lastly, we need to address the needs, city by city. We need tribe leaders.

We can fix this.


Q: How would you characterize entrepreneurs?

A: The only good thing about turning 65 is that I have known so many entrepreneurs and had many as clients. Their stories of how their companies started are so random.

You need an alpha male or an alpha female—someone who has a rare determination—because there are so many days that look like you won’t make it.

It’s almost like starting up a rock band. You need a lead singer or it won’t work. You do need someone that can write the songs, and play the bass guitar and rhythm—that sort of thing too. Some people don’t have the determination.

Q: How much structure do entrepreneurs need?

A: Entrepreneurs have an extraordinary need for structure to stay on track. And simultaneously, they have an enormous need for independence.

They need some key people around them with strengths that complement each other—for example, the entrepreneur’s rare determination coupled with someone else's organizational ability. But you can’t just have anybody’s organizational ability because starting a company is so messy and so unpredictable.

Q: Is there a method of encouraging entrepreneurs?

A: We have a whole system for cultivating and grooming great football players but nothing to support entrepreneurs. It drives me crazy.

If you happen to be a star running back in West Texas or California, the whole country knows who you are from the time you are in high school, even middle school. And we create an environment for you to go to Southern Cal and then to be a Green Bay Packer. Everybody expects you to do something great.

One theory is that you become what other people expect you to become. Have you ever heard of someone telling a middle-schooler they expect them to be a great entrepreneur?

As a society, we believe entrepreneurship is trainable. We don’t believe that sports and natural ability to learn are trainable. We believe those are God-given. 

The development of NBA and NFL players in this country is so intentional and systematic. No great running back is ever left behind. 


Q: Is Gallup doing something to address this issue?

A: We plan on making the Don Clifton Strengths Institute at the University of Nebraska the site of the first experiment to make the development of the God-given gift of entrepreneurship highly intentional and systematic, including early identification and accelerated development.

The thousand kids that come into business school will each take CliftonStrengths, which Don Clifton invented.

Q: Why is identifying your strengths so important to a young person’s career and to their life?

A: The question is, what can you build? How can you leverage your strengths and build something?

You might build a church, a day care center, a nonprofit. Just build something. And build as much as you can. We were put on this earth to build as much as we can, and dad said there wasn’t a class for that.

Build a career around your strengths instead of your weaknesses. You can’t ignore your weaknesses, but you can minimize them to make a life where your dreams come true. This was Don Clifton’s belief, and it is mine too.

Q: Can you give me an example of the power of this approach?

A: I mentor a couple of kids. When they understand their top five CliftonStrengths, they often didn’t even know they had them. They put them on their résumés, and when they show up at their new jobs, they have a whole new presence when they know what their strengths are.

The same thing is true when you start up a company. When you know your strengths and weaknesses, you are more likely to leverage them, and you are more likely to have the confidence to do things you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Q: How much are you spending on this new program?

A: This is a pretty big experiment in human development. We put in $30 million. With that, we are looking to develop combinations of strengths for creating start-ups and scale-ups.

We will give them special attention, like you would star quarterbacks. These will be kids with a high potential to build something of importance.

Q: Once you get it started, what is your long-term goal?

A: Our plan is to demonstrate it at the University of Nebraska and then plug it into the top 200 universities and then 1,200 campuses. We think it is America’s best chance to reignite the economy in a highly sustainable way.

Somebody needs to save the American economy because I don’t think either Washington or the voters are going to, so maybe Gallup and the University of Nebraska can. 


Q: Jim, do you think millennials need to be managed differently than the prior generation?

A: Here at Gallup, we have something called the Great Hall and there are a number of interesting top executive types in there right now asking the same thing as we speak. 

Because we have found something that we think is quite profound in the difference between millennials and the generations before and after. Because I have just turned 65, I am almost the perfect contrast group to the millennials.

We have found that if they are not managed differently—not better, differently—than the boomers and the Gen-Xers, America is going to miss a rather terrific productivity opportunity.

Q: Are you really so different from today’s young people?

A: For me, I went to business school at the University of Nebraska. I just wanted to have a salary of $20,000. I didn’t care what the job was because my pride was in my family. 

I didn’t have one yet, but I knew what I wanted. I wanted a wife, three kids, a house, a yard, and a Chevy station wagon—that was my great American dream and all my friends’ and everybody else’s too.

So if someone said, I got a job, and they would be asked, what’s the job, and oh, you’ll sell cigarettes or some kind of product that will make people sick. That is not what I am doing. I’m just going through the motions because my great American dream is in my family, not in my job.

Q: Why is that different from the millennials?

A: The status of that has flipped. Now with millennials, their great American dream is in their job. It is about the purpose of it. So if you were to hire me, Jim Clifton, 40 some years ago, and started talking about the purpose of my job, I would say, “You are boring me. Why are you doing this? I don’t care what it is.”

Q: You are saying millennials have to feel like they are part of something, right?

A: When the millennial comes into the workplace, if you don’t address purpose, you don’t get them, you don’t engage them, you will never maximize what they do because it is no longer about pay. It is more about purpose. It has been a switch from pay to purpose.

The will of the workplace has changed. The pay in the workplace has to be fair. But for you to get me to start, for you to get me, you have to tell me my purpose. If my job doesn’t have meaning, my life doesn’t have meaning.

And I have to believe I will be mentored and learn in my job—it also has to build me. But with Jim Clifton, if my job didn’t have meaning, it didn’t make any difference. Because for me to have meaning was with my family.

That is the short story of a profound change that has been coming slowly and then suddenly is here.

Q: Do millennials start companies?

A: Millennials will be better employees than boomers and Xers. But they don’t start companies. Boomers started companies. Millennials don’t. 

Q: Why don’t millennials start companies?

A: I just got a note from Social Security. I am 65 and I can start getting $2,800 a month. I have that security. If you ask me, “Do you think your kids will have money for retirement?,” I don’t know about my kids. I know my grandkids will not have Social Security. The debt can’t be paid. It is too hard to.

But the kids now know that; they didn’t used to. It is no longer a secret that they will not have entitlements. 

Kids come out of college, and the world is different. You come out of university with $150,000 of debt, and you also have an awareness that the government can’t take care of you like they did Grandpa. You’re probably not in the mood that I was to borrow $5,000, 40 some years ago to start up a company.

Q: What was it like for you and your generation?

A: It was really easy to start a company 40 years ago. You just had to go to the bank. They gave you a checkbook, and you could get started. But now when they start talking about all of the government regulation, you start to scratch your head and say, oh my gosh, I have to get an attorney. I can’t do any of this.

You have three things: (1) concern about your future financial security, (2) college debt, and (3) a big heavy wet blanket from the federal and state governments that cause you to think twice about starting a company.

This has absolutely stopped the start-ups and scale-ups.

Q. How else are millennials impacting America? 

Millennials are altering the very social fabric of America and the world. They're waiting longer to get married and have children, and they're less likely than other generations to identify with specific religions or political parties.   Millennials will change the world decisively more than any other generation.

Q: Will the CliftonStrengths help address that issue?

A: With mentoring and support, start-ups happen. CliftonStrengths will help students understand and manage through these challenges so they can build tomorrow. 


Q: You wrote, “Successful local companies are not just the engines of job creation, but also the engines for local social and community improvement.” Explain.

A: The country tends to rise and fall on the success of cities. Look at Nashville versus Memphis. Memphis is not doing very well, and Nashville never stops going. 

If you go to Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they’re like twins separated at birth. Both cities are close to the Missouri River, and Sioux Falls is booming, while Sioux City hasn’t worked right for the last 20 years.

Detroit 40 years ago was the richest city in the world. It was a big celebration of life, free enterprise, and capitalism. If I went to New York or San Francisco, they would tell me, don’t leave your hotel room after it gets dark. Now Detroit has crashed, and New York and San Francisco are a big part of saving America.

Q: What accounts for this “tale of two cities”? 

A: When you have real strong city mothers and fathers, people that mentor and invest in their city and city institutions, cities embrace entrepreneurs.

For most people, loyalty to a city is stronger than the loyalty to their country. They know the people; they know the schools; they see the streets. They would rather die than lose the loyalty of their city.

But then you get a generation transition, and just like you do with children taking over companies, children taking over cities is less straightforward. 

They tend to be rich and highly influential people, with less sense of responsibility. And whether they really go to work on taking the city to the next level is variable.

Q: Is there anything to be done about this? 

A: I think it is very fixable, but we have to change our mindset on how a company starts. America re-wins the world by taking the country’s entrepreneurship and innovation up a notch. 

But that can be accomplished only with the assistance of effective local tribal leaders. Few people recognize the importance of cities, much less the importance of tribal leaders. 

The heroes America needs for this moment in history will come from those who guide, advise, encourage, and mentor a small business or social enterprise to success, which is the conception moment that saves a city and a country.