Jim Clifton

Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton and Chancellor Donde Plowman Oct. 8, 2020

Most know the Gallup firm for two things: its public opinion polls and the Clifton Strength Assessment, invented by Don Clifton in 1999.

Unlike other self-help programs, the Clifton Strength Assessment takes focus away from one’s weaknesses and focuses on what one’s doing right. On the fourth day of UT’s Vol Success Week, the Divisions of Student Life and Student Success invited Don Clifton’s son, current Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton, to speak on personal strengths and answer student questions.

Students could either tune in through livestream or attend in-person via the Student Union Auditorium.

Once 6:30 p.m. arrived, Chancellor Donde Plowman welcomed Clifton to the event and described the value of his father’s work. She cited the Strength Finders program as a life changing find which drastically affected her leadership style.

“Clifton’s Strength Finders has changed my life. It’s a way of knowing what it is that I do well and leveraging those strengths to try and be an effective leader,” Plowman said.

“Don Clifton asked a question that I have never forgotten … ‘what would happen in this would if we studied what people did well, rather than focus so much on what’s wrong with people?’ That question has changed the world, and it’s changed leadership,” Plowman said.

Donde ceded the floor to Clifton, who tuned in virtually. He thanked the Chancellor for her kind words, and thanked the Strength Finders Team for their work in working on and spreading word of the personal assessment program.

He gave a brief history lesson of Clifton Strengths. When he was a child, psychology and leadership studies focused on one’s personal weakness and how one could improve them.

“We lived during a time where they thought the way to develop leaders was to figure out what’s wrong with them and to write that down. Then you work on fixing those weaknesses,” Clifton said. “That’s the way it was most of my life.”

Don Clifton, a World War 2 veteran and student of psychology sought to change this. The elder Clifton wished to bring good into the world after the war, and so wished to focus on the positive traits that people have rather than the negative.

However, this was unheard of at the time.

“When he came back to the university, he wanted to do something that would be good for humankind.” Clifton said.

“He went to the library and famously looked around at the books in the psychology area. The books [were] all syndromes about what’s wrong with [people]. So, he went over to the [librarian] and said ‘where are the books about what’s right with people?’ and the guy said ‘that’s not what psychology is about.’”

Don Clifton went on to pioneer the study of positive psychology, creating the Clifton Strength Program along the way.

The Clifton model suggests that focusing on one’s faults leads to dissatisfaction. This is because one’s faults can’t become strengths with practice. However, the strengths we have — be they good management skills, empathy, inter-personal communication, et cetera — can be developed with no limit.

“There’s a blind spot. What if we figured out what somebody’s strengths were? Which one do you grow the most from? The answer is, the more you work on your weaknesses … they never turn into strengths. You mitigate them, you manage and minimize them. Then you figure out your strengths, and your strengths develop infinitely throughout your whole life,” Clifton said.

“He proved that leadership was going down a road with no answers.”

After the speech, first-year kinesiology major Jack Zerangue led a Q&A session with the CEO.

Zerangue gave the Clifton questions written by first-year UT students, each of whom had taken the strength assessment.

Many of the questions revolved around Clifton’s role as Gallup CEO and his experience as a leader. While Clifton described the job as “intimidating,” he came to value the varieties of experiences and points of views he encountered while viewing strength assessments.

Over time, he noticed a heavy importance placed on finding value in the job one does. He believes playing to your strengths to be of the utmost importance when choosing a career. If one doesn’t, one may end up in a career they don’t enjoy.

“The single most important thing is that you take a job with a task you actually have the capacity to perform,” Clifton said. “Taking a job that you don’t have the capacity for, that your strengths don’t fit, will grind the life out of you.”

According to Clifton, a career that plays to one’s strengths will always satisfy.

For specific career advice, he recommended that students learn how to direct teams and perform in leadership roles. All the while, one should develop their strengths.

The night wrapped with a brief speech by Amber Williams, vice provost for Student Success. She encouraged students to stay hopeful during the ongoing pandemic, saying that UT will help them develop their strengths.

“As a Volunteer, we not only want to help you understand your strengths but build them and stretch them to create the future you imagine. This has been a rough semester [and] we’ve been navigating a lot. We’ve been navigating three pandemics between COVID, racial injustice and economic insecurity. Imagining the future can be challenging,” Williams said.

“You are not alone. We want to partner with you and connect with you.”

This article has been updated.

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