How I Built an Empire – Expert Advice on How to Grow Your Business
We sat down with staffing agency CEO William Vanderbloemen to discuss his recent business expansion and the expert business growth tips that he learned along the way. William combined his Christian values with his skill in executive staffing to form Vanderbloemen Search Group. After several fruitful years matching pastors with local congregations, the firm has expanded their vision to provide staffing for faith-based organizations, schools and nonprofits. Vanderbloemen helps them fill leadership roles with a keen eye on cultural fit.
How long has this expansion of services been in development?
18 months prior to now.
What pushed you to broaden your scope of services?
You know, I don’t think it’s a broadening. For us, it’s an extension. We’re moving in the same direction, we’ve just expanded our understanding of our client base. We started out working in churches; we had a brand new idea, and you know, brand new ideas and churches, they don’t always get along. The first people who hired us were highly entrepreneurial churches, which tend to be very large – churches that were willing to take a risk – the vast majority of the large churches in the US hired us. Of the top 400 churches, 208 of were our clients. We realized about 5 years ago, that that’s only serving a small fraction of thousands of churches that are out there in the US. So we decided to build a company within the company to help us reach what I call the more “normal” church. So that started to take root. And now more than half of our business is for churches that I call normal-sized. And we still do work with larger churches. So it was a natural extension.
Rather than working with a church’s COO, we were working with church committees that were made up of volunteers. Those same volunteers would come forward and say “I’m serving on the search committee for a Christian school here in town, and we’re looking for a new headmaster, could you please help us?” So we would do a little bit of work here and there for things that were not local congregations.
The short answer is: I started to realize a few years ago that the “Church,” with the “big C” is bigger than just the local congregation. Maybe they’re a relief organization, maybe they’re a school, maybe they’re businesses like Chick-fil-a that’s very driven by Christian values. They’re part of what I call the ‘big C’ Church, but aren’t part of the local congregation.
So we said, how do we service those people? And that the was conversation that started a year and a half ago. We said well alright, we’ve been just receiving this work organically. But I’m a big believer that when forward momentum is coming to you, and then you put strategy and vision behind it, and intentional planning behind it, you’ll grow it. For a year and half, we said: What would be an intentional strategy for reaching these different areas of the Church that aren’t congregations? The fruit that came from that: we had an expanded vision of what the church is, and that meant we needed to expand our services past serving just local congregations.
The tweetable answer:
We have not changed our services. We’ve expanded our understanding of who our client is.
And now we’ve expanded our services to match that. And as an entrepreneur, I know that I’m susceptible to what I call SOS, Shiny Object Syndrome. Like, “There’s a new thing, I’ll go try that.” And I don’t want to do that. We are not following a shiny object, we are not leaving our lane. We’ve just got a broader vision of what that lane is, and we’re going to swim in the whole part of that lane.
At the internal level, what did you have to do to prepare for the change? Did it entail hiring more people? Did you have to tailor your search practices as you expanded?
Yes. Great question. I think on three levels. We needed to develop three things. One, we needed to develop our credibility in each market. Two, we needed to develop people that that market would hire, and that included hiring new talent as well as developing our own people. Three, we needed to develop execution. It’s the question of: Can we actually do the work? So we worked backward. We focused on execution first, and we spent the last year and half revamping our systems so they’re scalable and they’re most transferable from practice to practice. So we don’t have to start all over. So that our current staff can execute the work if we bring in schools and nonprofits and for-profits, from a staffing [perspective] to create legitimacy, we [started] some of that in our people. We make sure we’ve done work in each of these areas and say, “We’ve already done this many schools, we’ve already done this many non-profits. And these people have done it.” We’re currently in the process, and of course in the next 6 months you’ll see it, of naming some practice heads. We’re in final interviews with 4 or 5 people for whose going to head up our education practice. And they’re going to have a very long track record of doing all these great things in the education world.
The first thing, with regard to our legitimacy, was to make sure before we start saying “well we’re doing searches in this area,” was to make sure we’ve already done work and that we’ve done it well. So we went and studied the work we did for schools and nonprofits and for-profits and said, what did we do well? What did we learn there? How do we tweak our system so that it’s ready for a large influx? I think the entrepreneur’s chronic weakness is that we always tend to outsell what we can deliver. I know that’s my chronic weakness. So for 18 months, we said, how do we build delivery systems that show legitimacy, that show influence, that show ability to execute, such that I won’t get there and really start selling it, then not be able to deliver. The last thing you want to do is not be able to deliver what you sell.
Could you touch on faith-based leadership, and why it pays to consider these values when you’re matching candidates with companies?
Yes. So my most recent book was on team culture, it’s called Culture Wins. And in studying some of our own culture, why we’ve won awards, and studying leading cultures in businesses and churches and nonprofits – what I’ve come to learn is that
Competency can often be taught. Cultural fit cannot.
I think I’ve made the mistake in the past of hiring really competent people, without paying attention to whether or not they were a good cultural fit. I’ve now flipped that. I look for a cultural fit first, and worry about the competency later. Now obviously if you’re a hiring a brain surgeon, they need to be competent, right? Air traffic controller, they need to be competent? But for the most part, I think competency can be taught, culture cannot. So when we’re coming at a faith-based organization, more than just some values on the wall, in a faith-based organization, their beliefs and their culture are things that people actually lay their lives down for. Not just for corporate structure or corporate value. So understanding those sorts of live or die issues that an organization has is absolutely essential for those who serve in their organizations. It almost certainly is more important than finding competency. So for us, when we get hired, oftentimes we’ll get hired to serve a particular vertical we’ve never done work. So I don’t know anything about hiring superintendents, why do you want to hire me? “Well because you know our values, and you know our culture, and we trust we’ll figure the rest of it out. So in the faith-based world, it’s not about finding Super-Christians, it’s more: how do you be an informed student of the culture and values of the organization, and we have that informed learning. It’s not just something you Google and figure out. But being a student of values and culture enables you to unlock sort of the family code for that organization, that probably runs deeper than even the corporate values in a Fortune 500 company that’s not tied to particular faith.
With that in mind, how do you assess a candidate to gauge whether they would be a good cultural fit in a particular position?
For years I have joked that we need to hire some really smart coders who can come up with a system where the computer says you’re the perfect candidate. And maybe that’ll happen one day. But you know, one of the most lucrative things on the internet is finding someone to date, think of eHarmony. And I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s married because of eHarmony. It just doesn’t work. In the short term maybe, but not in the long term. And as much as I’d like to think it’s a science, as in: this + this + this = a great interview, it’s way more [tough] than science. We are getting paid for our ability to have really good intuition. It’s informed intuition, based on a lot of criteria we draw from the client, and a lot of criteria we draw from the candidate. But at the end of the day it’s intuition. And the simple analogy is: Search is like an organ transplant. When someone comes to us saying, we need a new CEO, a new headmaster, a new pastor, it’s basically like saying we need a heart transplant, right? So part of what we do is go look for what hearts are available out there, what’s the donor pool look like? But if you talk to a transplant surgeon, almost any one of them would say, the real money, it’s not in developing the donor…
Search is like an organ transplant. The real money is being able to do the tissue match. Because you can put a healthy heart in a healthy body, and if the tissue doesn’t match, everybody dies.
So what am I looking for in a candidate? At this point, I have studied the client, I know the tissue and the DNA of the client really well. Now I’m studying the candidate, partly for competency, partly for character, but more than anything: does this tissue match that tissue? So that when they come together, it won’t be hard, they won’t get rejected, it’ll be like we found a long lost family we never knew about. And I don’t know how you would break that into a science.
How has your faith-based background has helped you excel in your searches for pastors, executives and the like?
I could spend hours on that. I think that, in our particular work, particularly with beliefs and values, you’re not talking about things that people might squabble over, like the beliefs of this company or that company, you’re talking about beliefs and values that people have gone to war over for centuries.
Understanding those beliefs and values at a molecular level cannot just be Googled.
Not just anyone can walk in and do that. People say, William, how’d you build this company so fast, and I tell them, I’m the 20-year overnight success. For 20 years I did post-graduate work at Princeton in seminary, I got to know a lot of different kinds of churches at a very granular level. And all that learning that I did for about 20 years before starting [Vanderbloemen], I don’t how you would walk in and serve a faith-based client without having a lot of study on: what is your faith, what are your beliefs, what are your values, what is your culture? You can’t Google it. And it’s not even about building a big rolodex. Everyone has a big rolodex. The trick is not finding people, the trick is knowing who fits where. And that’s not something you can learn overnight. So all the training I did, and now the people we’ve brought in, have equal levels of training, sometimes better, is very specialized when it comes to knowing values and beliefs. And it doesn’t matter whether its a Chick-fil-a, or a christian school, or a non-profit, it all sort of matters at the same level.
For more expert advice on how to grow YOUR business: