2.The Theory Behind Life Themes

For Gallup, hiring is all about talent. Specifically, it’s about finding the best talent you can to fill the openings you’ve got.

Everyone has some talents, things they’re good at or that they care about. And some people are better at some things than they are at others. That much is clear and simple. What is neither clear nor simple is how companies can identify the talents that are critical for particular jobs; how they can measure the talents of hundreds or thousands of candidates for those jobs; how they can compare these two sets of talents; and how they can then hire the right people.


Most companies rely on some variation of the standard recruit/interview/reference check/hire system. This business-as-usual approach is certainly methodical. But all too often it substitutes procedural checklists for more rigorous criteria. Worse, managerial intuition – “personal chemistry” – tends to overwhelm clear-headed evaluation.

The Gallup system virtually eliminates intuition in favor of life themes – spontaneous, recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. According to Gallup, while people always have a number of themes in their lives, it is possible to identify dominant themes – the few defining personal qualities that close friends would always mention first. And it is possible to use an objective evaluation of those themes as a basis for hiring.

Consider some of the categories the Gallup system uses to describe management qualities. The classifications include ego, performance orientation, discipline, responsibility, mission, and focus. Managers for whom ego is a dominant theme tend to define themselves by the recognition they receive. Because they need to see themselves as leaders, they strive to excel and are willing to take risks. Managers for whom focus is a dominant theme distinguish themselves by their persistence toward a goal over a long period of time. They are frequently people who have clear objectives and have benefited from mentors after whom they pattern themselves.

Gallup begins by creating a life-themes model that establishes the attributes of the most successful performers in a given job. Let’s say a major retailer needs to hire salespeople for a new store. The company identifies its most talented salespeople. Gallup interviews these people to identify the strongest life themes among them. Based on these results, Gallup creates its model – a profile of the attributes that describe the most important talents for the position. Then Gallup interviews applicants for the sales job, identifies each candidate’s life themes, and compares these themes to those of the model group. The retailer makes final hiring decisions based on these comparisons and whatever other data it collects as part of the selection process.

It’s easy to understand why companies who need to hire large numbers of front-line people are attracted to the life-themes approach. But what works for sales clerks, restaurant managers, and hotel housekeepers also applies to more specialized jobs – like power forwards in the NBA or cooks stationed on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Consider the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers, once the doormat of the NBA, now a strong contender in its division. Every year the Cavaliers get the chance to make a few critical selections from the thousands of players coming out of college. But here’s the challenge: How can the Cavaliers management know with any certainty which few players have what it takes to flourish in the pros? The reason some make it and some don’t is talent – but talent that goes beyond dribbling, shooting, passing, or rebounding.


Gallup developed a life-themes model to identify these elusive talents. Three themes stood out. Successful NBA players have “court sense” – the ability to know where everyone else on the court is without having to look. They also have the ability to deal with pain, an important factor in adjusting to the grueling NBA schedule. Finally, they have big egos.

Indeed, the model established a cause-and-effect relationship between ego and NBA superstardom. According to Gallup, however, a big ego doesn’t come from being a star. Ego is what players need to become stars. Ego has a direct influence on whether and how basketball players take command of the court. That, in turn, influences their effectiveness on the floor, the contributions they make to the team, and their confidence in shooting the ball.

Gallup became intensely involved with the Cavaliers in 1986. It recently analyzed the careers of players who had been drafted based on life themes. It found that 78% of the players who fit the model were still in the pros after four years. Only 5% of those who didn’t match the model made it that long.

Now consider a different profession. There are hundreds of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico staffed by large crews of workers who live on them for weeks at a time and put in long days under harsh conditions. These crews need to be fed and to have their rooms cleaned – a service operation that is about as far from the big money and bright lights of the NBA as you can get. A major company in the rig-servicing business decided to use life themes to help select its people.

With good reason. The cooks and housekeepers on oil rigs are not likely to be confused with Jacques at the Ritz or Maria at the Four Seasons. They log rugged shifts: two weeks on, one week off. The nature of the work and the difficult conditions go a long way toward defining the people who hold these jobs. According to one observer, the work force included “drying-out alcoholics, ex-cons, and the homeless.” Turnover ran to 300%; many workers would do their two-week stint on a rig, pick up their pay, and never show up again.

The company’s goal was to cut down on turnover and upgrade performance quality. The first step, as always, was to prepare a model based on the best performers. The Gallup project manager says even the best performers left a lot to be desired – at least at first glance. “They were a mess,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘If these are the best the company has, we may be in trouble.'” After interviewing just one person, however, he changed his opinion. “I was talking to a housekeeper. He talked about how he liked to make the rooms really clean because it was the only place the rig employees could go that was clean, and how important it was to them.” The housekeeper had a sense of order and a sense of empathy – as a result, he was happy to put extra muscle into mundane tasks like cleaning washbasins.


“The second person I interviewed was a cook,” the project manager continues. “He talked about making gumbo, and how it was important to check the roster showing where the oil rig workers came from. Men from Alabama like their gumbo with okra, and men from Louisiana like their gumbo without.”

After interviewing the best housekeepers and cooks, Gallup produced a model that identified their most important life themes. The list included some fairly obvious attributes: pride and a sense of being the best at whatever they do; teamwork and the ability to “make others feel at home on the rig”; discipline and the ability to manage their own lives as well as the food supplies or cleaning materials of the company. But there were also some surprising themes. For example, Gallup identified something it called “kinesthetic”: high-energy individuals capable of handling the physical demands and long hours involved in working offshore. Another theme was “congruence”: the ability not only to perform the job but also to accept the conditions of offshore life. Finally, as an important theme for people living in a small space, Gallup identified “accommodation”: the ability to smooth out difficult situations and to avoid getting caught up in negative thinking. The company adopted Gallup’s model and reduced turnover by two-thirds.