· 6 min read · Features

Interview with Linda Thompson, human resources director at Gallup

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Gallup's HRD, Linda Thompson, is very choosy when it comes to hiring. Only the best will do, she tells Peter Crush. Individuality and likelihood of future success with the company is what she looks for.

It says something about the culture of a company when its HR director, Linda Thompson, is nicknamed 'the new girl', despite having worked there for more than a decade. But this really is no ordinary company. Thompson heads the people strategy for Gallup - the political pollster-cum-employee engagement consultancy which, since devising its famous Q12 (12 Questions of Engagement) has collated data from 12 million individuals, on 620,000 different projects among 504 clients in 16 different industries - oh, and 47 languages.

"All the things we consult on, we live in our values here," she says. "We need the most engaged people in our business - not simply because we consult on that, but because ... why wouldn't you. We won't take someone because they'll be OK for six months. OK is not for us. It's not sustainable; it won't last. Why would you want to hire anyone like that?"

As Thompson sits regally in Gallup's boardroom, a floor with an unbroken panorama of the River Thames, it is hard to imagine this HRD was once pulling pints as a pub landlady (she was even voted Pub Manager of the Year). But in a strange twist of fate it was in that position that she first became involved with Gallup, and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually see her join the company as HRD.

"In the 1980s Gallup worked with the then Allied Domecq on what makes successful bar managers," she recalls. "I was a pub manager at the time (at The Four Oaks Carvery) and was also interviewed. Over time I became an area manager, training other pub managers, but the experience of what made great people always stuck with me." She says: "Back then Allied had more like 120 questions that measured engagement, but now that I look back on it, the company was really worrying about the wrong things - HR hygiene factors such as pay. My experience was that my best public houses all recruited not just for skills and knowledge, but on best practice and talent."

This was not the only time Thompson dealt with Gallup. Eventually climbing to a human resources manager role with Allied, she describes her later work there as being instrumental in helping change company culture when Punch Taverns was taking it over. That was in 1999, and within a few months Thompson had finally made the break and joined Gallup direct. "I knew the people agenda would be first class, and that I could also add to it," she says.

Now that Thompson is calling the shots rather than sitting as the client, her stewardship is all about how she believes HR should act, and how this fits with the Gallup view of the world. There is surprising commonality, though: "Beyond the basics like on-boarding, culture and pay and benefits, consistency of hire is a big priority of mine," she says. "I've just succeeded in filling a manager's role that has been open for 12 months. Only now do I know I've got the right person. My attitude is that it's worth the wait; a 'they'll do' approach doesn't work for Gallup. We must have excellence in our roles, so only the best will do."

This dovetails neatly with the Gallup view of engagement that individuality should be what companies look for. "Not getting selected to work with Gallup is not an indictment of applicants," Thompson says. "It's just that they don't fit with the company. Most people we see are actually fabulous, but the role won't help them shine."

Just what it is that makes Gallup employees shine is not totally left to chance. Gallup hires not just for knowledge and skills but for their likely future success at the company. It is predicted through a web-based 'talent assessment' tool, and so prescriptive is it that Gallup only interviews around 3% of those jobseekers completing it.

"Talent interviews confirm candidates are the best fit for the organisation. We measure people against the best in the world," she says. "We look for the people who can't fail because they show these traits in their everyday lives. It's not possible to be generic in Gallup. It's not generic in its nature. We just want more of the best, every time."

Having volumes of best practice research on what makes great employees obviously helps and, according to the criteria it measures clients by, Gallup is itself actually in the top 1% of companies. Just to remind them what their traits are, though, each Gallup employee has them listed on their office door, or prominently on their desk. "We always review people through their strengths first, so it makes sense to showcase them all the time," argues Thompson. "One of mine is 'futuristic'. Another one, is that I have 'woo' - the ability to talk to people."

As well as strengths cards around their workstation, another quirky trait (although Thompson says she doesn't recognise this word quirky)is that each Gallup staffer has a 'bucket' on their desk. Employees are encouraged to 'fill' other people's buckets whenever they want to hand out unconditional praise for a job well done - effectively it collects good news. The idea came from Tom Rath, Gallup's global practice leader, who in the book, How Full is your Bucket?, written with strengths psychologist Donald Clifton, outlines how negativity is the one thing that erodes performance - even life itself. The book has become a global best-seller (at one point only Harry Potter sold more), and, according to Thompson, "if your own bucket is not full, it's because you haven't given out enough praise to everyone else".

Thompson says it is precisely this light-touch approach to HR (she arranges staff lunches every Thursday, offers access to financial advisers and even asks each employee how they like to be thanked) that gets the most out of people; the company does, after all, operate a pay-through-performance scheme. This light-touch kind of courtesy also extends to how managers should manage staff.

"We have what's called Go-To's" she says. "This is where staff 'go to' their line managers to have problems dealt with. People don't say they have an HR issue, they say they have a Go-To issue instead. Having managers manage is," she continues, "a clear part of our engagement model. Despite everything I've read or heard (see following pages on theories of engagement), I still believe that people leave managers, not companies. That's why I'm very clear about managers being the ones who look after people development here at Gallup."

Thompson believes having clear and simple HR rules is why many of the people have been with the company for 20 to 30 years. "People love coming to work. They don't take time off sick; they have a sense of responsibility."

Thompson knows this because, just like Gallup clients, Gallup staff also answer twice-yearly engagement surveys (which get upwards of 96% response rates). Gallup also interviews its clients about what they thought of the staff they dealt with in terms of how motivated they were. In return for their help, Gallup lets clients see its own engagement scores.

"We set new goals and values for continuous improvement," says Thompson. "We're very performance-oriented. Pay fewer people more to do more is our mantra. Pay is based on how much extra work people want to do, so it's entirely up to them how much they want to do."

At the time of interview, Gallup was collating entries to its own Great Workplaces Awards (where, among other criteria, organisations must have at least a Q12 score of 4.15 out of 5 from at least half of an organisation's employees). Should it enter, Thompson says she is "completely confident" the company would meet its own criteria. "What's significant is that we don't do things that necessarily cost a lot of money," says Thompson. "We give out recognition letters each week; while our CEO writes to us all of the time about the state of the company. People really love it, and they can write back."

Such has become the importance of the Q12 model that polling, what Gallup was initially known for - including its time as the compiler of the UK's official Top 40 singles and albums chart - represents just 6% of the business. Most recently it polled Americans on the popularity of their new president, Barack Obama, while in the past it has garnered opinion on everything from attitudes to sexism in the workplace, to the number of US citizens that believe in UFOs. But Thompson, who says she once considered splitting the polling business away from the engagement one, says her staff are energised by the difference they can make to clients, rather than the polls they can produce. "One of our clients has reported 20% year-on-year growth for many years," she says. "This is a real incentive for Gallup staff to help being a part of that for the years to come.'

Thompson sees the immediate future as doing more of the same, although she adds she is also looking at the role of leadership within the business. "When I first dealt with Gallup all those years ago, my only impression was that it was a pollster. It's odd to think, 30 years on, I'm now in charge, and I can see the people who are responsible for making it happen. My job isn't about just recruiting, but also how to create teams. Gallup people just love serving people, just like my original hires at my pubs. If there's one thing I've learned, it is that you can have as many HR policies as you like, but the one thing you should never get rid of is individuality."

CV

Born: Birmingham; attended Waverley Grammar School 1964 to 1968

1995: Joined Allied Domecq Leisure as a senior human resources adviser leading a team of six - she had been at Ansells, which was acquired by Allied, where she had held a number of management positions. Promoted several times, eventually to human resources executive, Allied Domecq Restaurants

1999: Human resources director, Gallup.