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What Are You Building?

Adapted from Born to Build (Gallup Press, May 2018).

People will ask you throughout your life, "Where do you work?" and "What do you do?" They never ask you, "What are you building?"

When conversations change to "What are you building?" you will change, and so will the world.

Well-meaning and important global institutions, scientists, academics and politicians have never fully understood the rare gift to build something -- a God-given natural talent that many are born with -- that to some degree, you yourself possess.

Some refer to this gift as "entrepreneurship," which it is, in part. But this human phenomenon is better characterized as "building." Entrepreneurship has taken on many definitions, and it's often confused with innovation. We need a lot of innovation, but building is a very distinct, separate phenomenon.

An innovation has no value until an ambitious builder creates a business model around it and turns it into a product or service that customers will buy.

An innovator is first and foremost a creator, an inventor -- a problem solver with a deep passion for improving something. Innovators are thinkers.

A builder is different from an innovator. A builder creates economic energy where none previously existed.


Builders can start very young. When an 8-year-old puts a lemonade stand on a corner, they create new economic energy on that corner -- goods and services are exchanged for the first time at that place.

Years ago, a 14-year-old could take on an existing newspaper delivery route with 25 papers and boom it to 100 papers. This young builder created economic energy that wasn't on that route before. Believe it or not, U.S. GDP actually ticked up a little when that paper route quadrupled.

Builders also create goods and services that customers didn't even know they wanted or had ever imagined. Builders create demand.

When Google or Apple was launched or the first commercial airplane took off in 1914, there was no inherent demand for any of their products or services. Nobody said, "Gee, I wish I had a device in my pocket on which I could search everything humans have recorded since the beginning of time instead of going to a library."

Or, "It would be so cool to fly through the air in a metal tube at 400 mph rather than ride to my destination on my horse."

Or, "I wish someone would invent plumbing and electricity rather than using candles and kerosene -- and going to the toilet outside."

Economists and well-meaning thinkers often look at a weak or declining economy and conclude, "We have a declining economy because demand is weak or because there is no demand at all." A more insightful observation is, "There is no demand because there aren't enough builders who create demand." Without builders, there is no demand, no growing economy and hence, no good jobs.

There was never an inherent demand for cars, flight, TV, video, indoor plumbing, electricity or the internet, or Starbucks or Amazon -- somebody had to take a good idea and build it into something big. And when people do that, they create economic energy that wasn't there before -- as well as new good jobs and all the things that build a growing economy.

Is it time for you to think about building something?

Maybe you could build a small or medium-sized business. Or build a huge business -- one with $10 million or $10 billion in sales. They all count and add up to the sum total of the world economy. We need hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses. All societies need organizations of all kinds continuously starting up and booming -- or they can't develop.

You could also build a small, medium or jumbo nonprofit. Nonprofits create economic energy too. They boost GDP and create real jobs and real growth in cities and states.

Builders from Andrew Carnegie to J.P. Morgan to John D. Rockefeller to Henry Ford famously created historic economic energy through steel, electricity, trains and cars. They transformed America and the world because they created customers that didn't previously exist. They had a gift to envision, create masses of customers and change how we live. They also made very big bets -- they would sometimes bet everything they were worth. Extreme builders will, a few times in their life, bet it all.

Every institution in the world -- even nonprofits, schools and churches -- has customers. Builders are born with a gift to know how to create demand for those customers -- market disruptions that offer a better way to live.

But creating a big booming enterprise or nonprofit organization won't happen with just one gifted builder. There is a fragile ecosystem around effective builders.

Gallup has found that there are three key players in the development of any organization, whether it's a new enterprise, a new division within a company or a nonprofit. We call them the "three alphas": the alpha Rainmaker, the alpha Conductor and the alpha Expert. When this combination exists in an organization or on a team, the likelihood of it breaking out and booming grows exponentially.

An alpha Rainmaker has unusual drive and persistence -- rare grit. Obstacles and failure actually increase a Rainmaker's determination. An enterprise virtually never works without this player.

An alpha Conductor has management ability. This is the operations person or manager who knows how to get all players on the team -- or in the "orchestra" -- to work together seamlessly. This person holds the whole organization together.

An alpha Expert provides differentiating expertise to the core product or service. Whether it is an analytic services startup's brilliant statistician, a new restaurant's star chef or a software firm's best programmer, virtually every successful startup has an alpha expert who highly distinguishes it from the crowd.

Born to Build -- which Gallup is releasing today -- and the assessment included with it were created to help you decide how building plays into your life and career. They will help you answer the question "Am I an alpha builder?"

You were born to do this. Whether you are an alpha Rainmaker, an alpha Conductor or an alpha Expert, there are no limits to what you can build.


Jim Clifton is Chairman and CEO at Gallup.

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