Jim Clifton | This guy knows what you’re thinking

Jim Clifton | This guy knows what you’re thinking
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First Published: Fri, May 08 2009. 08 45 PM IST

Question master: Clifton has been surveying and polling people his entire career. Jayachandran / Mint
Question master: Clifton has been surveying and polling people his entire career. Jayachandran / Mint
It is not easy to stand out in this restaurant. Especially if you are dressed in a regular navy business suit rather than, say, a neon pink tutu. New Delhi’s 73-year-old The Imperial hotel is as regal as it gets. The walls are covered with old paintings and yellowing photographs. The coffee shop, where I meet Jim Clifton, chief executive officer of The Gallup Organization, for our breakfast meeting is simply called 1911. It’s a place where sunlight streams in through tall windows and the polish on the furniture glistens.
Yet the moment Clifton walks in, he grabs your attention. Clifton is a very substantial man indeed, comfortably over 6ft tall and broad-shouldered. With a head of shiny grey hair and a booming voice, Clifton has a presence that makes the waiters race up to him. As soon as we shake hands and sit, Clifton’s eyes dart around the room restlessly. “Should we order some food first? Or wait to start talking and then order later?” I reply I’ll just have coffee to start with, but ask him if we should do a quick poll to find out. Clifton, who is on a routine trip to check on the India operations, chuckles.
Question master: Clifton has been surveying and polling people his entire career. Jayachandran / Mint
The Gallup Organization is almost as old as The Imperial. Founded in 1935 as the American Institute of Public Opinion by George Gallup, a college professor-turned-advertising professional-turned-pollster, the company is synonymous with all kinds of polling and surveys even today. And it’s known for producing reliable, oft-quoted results. For instance, the company has a remarkably accurate record of predicting the US presidential election winners— they’ve missed out only two forecasts in the last 74 years. And just days after Barack Obama won the election, as predicted of course, Gallup immediately started daily polls to find out what Americans thought of the new administration. For Clifton, the process of finding out what people think is a constant, ongoing process.
To this day, Gallup does not do any commissioned research —where companies themselves pay for specific surveys—in order to prevent any bias in the outcome. “That’s a policy that was very important to Dr Gallup when he started the company,” says Clifton in a slow, firm drawl.
Clifton’s association with Gallup started in 1988 when his own research and survey company, Selection Research Inc. (SRI), acquired Gallup. George Gallup died in 1984 and the pioneer’s family had spent time looking at possible buyers. “George Gallup’s family was approached by several people. Many of them really big names: Saatchi and Saatchi, The New York Times Co., J Walter Thompson...,” explains Clifton.
So why did they choose the much lower-profile SRI? “The family wanted someone who would uphold the doctor’s principles of independence and truth. They understood that SRI would do that.” At the time, SRI and Gallup had a joint revenue of around $20 million (around Rs100 crore now). Today, the company pulls around $300 million in revenue annually. And much of that growth is thanks to some clever strategic changes on Clifton’s watch.
For instance, Gallup currently draws only around a quarter of its revenue from polls. Most of its income actually comes from a range of consulting services. In India, Gallup is almost purely an employee and leadership consulting firm. Through offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, the firm uses its expertise in collecting and analysing data to tell business leaders what their employees and customers think. And how they can use this data to improve.
However, Gallup does periodically involve India in surveys. Just after the Mumbai terror attacks last November, Gallup released a study showing that till the attacks happened 70% of Indians were satisfied with Indo-Pak efforts to control terror (against just 13% in Pakistan).
Clifton himself is credited with creating one of Gallup’s most popular consulting tools—The Gallup Path. Between sips of coffee, Clifton describes it as a method of improving business through behavioural economics—by increasing customer and employee engagement in the company. Gallup’s website states that around 500 companies currently use the The Gallup Path for performance management.
As Clifton talks me through the history of Gallup, a couple of themes stand out. First of all, George Gallup was a hugely quotable man and Clifton frequently drops pithy sayings by the good doctor. For instance, George Gallup on the philosophy behind polling: “If democracy is the will of the people, then someone should go and find out what that will is.”
Today one place you could find the will of the people is on the Gallup website. Almost daily a team of editors posts stories with data from the many polls running all year round. On 29 April, two weeks after the flu outbreak in Mexico, Gallup had already put up a poll result which said that 22% of Americans were worried about catching the A/H1N1 influenza.
The second theme was how George Gallup was a better academic and pollster than a businessman. When Clifton took over, there were companies all over the world using the Gallup brand. “The doctor had given them the rights without really thinking about it.” Post-acquisition, Clifton had to buy out all these companies in Latin America and Europe.
I ask Clifton how he first got into the business of cornering unsuspecting citizens and questioning them about “everything from hope to Muslims and America’s foreign image”.
And, as he does every time the conversation drifts to a personal subject, Clifton begins: “Oh, this is a really boring story...”
When Clifton was in business school at the University of Nebraska in his hometown of Lincoln, the governor’s office said they were looking for surveyors. Nebraska has always been known as a flat, featureless state bang in the middle of America. The governor’s office was disturbed by the fact that travellers mostly drove straight through the state without stopping to spend any money. It wanted to know how the administration could get some of these people to slow down and perhaps crack open their wallets a little.
“So I signed up and stationed myself at rest areas. I remember looking through the questions—where are you going, where are you staying, how much money are you carrying—and thinking: Geez, no one was going to answer this. They would think I was a robber or something!”
Somewhat revealingly for Clifton, things didn’t turn out like that. “I couldn’t believe how much random people were willing to tell me. I had them figured out in no time. I realized I was good at asking questions.”
By the time he was 23, Clifton had sold his first survey projects. “I’d go into client offices and try to hide the fact that I was the only employee I had. If they asked me anything, I’d tell them, ‘Let me talk to my people and get back to you’. I was my people!”
Then with a $5,000 loan, Clifton set up his own firm with a friend and began selling surveys big time. “I became an expert at interviewing farmers and ranchers.” Clifton soon knew everything there was to know about hogs and cattle.
“My friends thought there was no way I could make a living selling surveys. ‘Clifton’, they’d say, ‘we need to find you a proper job. Surveying hog farmers won’t get you anywhere’.”
Decades later, you could say that Clifton has proved them wrong. Gallup has offices in 30 countries and surveys people in a 100. Governments all over the world use Gallup poll data to help them craft policy.
But does all this surveying and polling leave him any time for himself? Clifton says that he likes to go for long walks around his home in Washington, DC. “There are a lot of monuments in that city and great places to walk around.” And then?
“And then I walk back home. I told you I was boring.”
Curriculum Vitae | Jim Clifton
Born: 25 August 1951
Education: MBA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Honorary degrees from Bellevue University, Nebraska, and Jackson State University, Mississippi
Current Designation: Chief executive officer
Work Profile: Clifton’s father started survey company Selection Research Inc. (SRI) in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1969. Clifton merged his own firm with SRI in 1977. It later acquired The Gallup Organization in 1988
Clifton Is Connected: Thanks to Gallup’s international network of offices and world-renowned surveys, Clifton is no stranger to some of the top world leaders, And being based out of Washington helps, “Sometimes I think the state department tells a visiting dignitary that President Obama is busy but Jim Clifton at Gallup seems to be free!”
sidin.v@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, May 08 2009. 08 45 PM IST