'Pardon Me. I’m So Sorry. This Is My First Pandemic'

“Pardon Me. I’m So Sorry. This Is My First Pandemic”

Introduction:

This week, I go one-on-one with William Vanderbloemen. We start off talking about how he managed to see The Great Resignation coming and what he thinks are the keys to coping with it. Then we step back, and—with the help of many questions suggested by listeners—we discuss his journey from pastor to CEO, including what happened to his company culture when everyone went remote and why he still reads every single email he gets—even when he’s off on a seven-week sabbatical. Plus: William explains how he hit upon his unconventional social media strategy, and he offers suggestions if you’re looking for a VP of marketing. (Suggestion No. 1: Try not to lose the one you have.)

— Loren Feldman

Guests:

William Vanderbloemen is founder and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group.

Producer:

Jess Thoubboron is founder of Blank Word Productions.

Full Episode Transcript:

Loren Feldman:
Welcome, William. This seemed like an especially good time to talk to you. I think it was in, maybe our last episode of 2020, that you predicted that 2021 would be a year of “COVID churn,” I think you called it. It’s become known as The Great Resignation. But you obviously saw it coming. What did you see?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, several things, Loren, but it started with phone calls. For those listening who don’t know, I own and run a boutique executive search firm. And invariably, every year, there are some cycles to our work. And one of the cycles is every year in January, we get a larger than normal volume of calls from really high-capacity people who are calling confidentially to say, “I think I might be thinking about making a change.” And, you know, I used to wonder why, but then I realized the first part of January is when the gym’s crowded, everybody’s gonna get in shape, everybody’s gonna lose 10 pounds, everybody’s gonna balance their checkbook, and—I guess—take a dream job, right?

So every year, that happens in January, and we’re kind of used to it. Well, last year, in 2020, I started getting those calls, and I recognized them, the tone of them. People are calling who aren’t needing to look for a job, but they were happening in October, not in January. And I just started to wonder, “What is going on?” This feels like a surge is coming. So we started poking around, and we did some surveys, and we did some studies. And we just started to notice one of the unintended consequences of the pandemic was that there would be massive turnover, and we called it The Great COVID Job Churn. I wish that I’d thought of The Great Resignation, or I wish my PR people had gotten COVID Job Churn out quicker, I don’t know.

Loren Feldman:
We had it here.

William Vanderbloemen:
We were some of the first to make that call, and it’s just proven to be dead-on, and some of the reasons that we cited I think still stand very true. One is: We’re creatures of habit. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven your car, and you mean to go to the office, but you end up at the house. Or the other way around.

Loren Feldman:
All too often.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, you get in a rut, and you just kind of do what you always do. And in our world, many of our top executives we place, or top pastors we place, have sabbaticals every seven years. And when they take those sabbaticals, smart employers put some form of golden handcuffs on them to stay a year after their sabbatical. Because when people take a sabbatical, they get out of their rut, and they start asking “why” questions. Why am I doing this job? Life’s short. Why, why, why, why? And they come back, and it’s like, it’s time to rethink career.

Well, the pandemic was not a sabbatical. Most people who I know worked their tails off. But it was a break in pattern, and it got us out of a rut. And I think it got a lot of people asking the “Why do I want to keep doing this?” question. You had some involuntary turnover with jobs that just went away. You had people that were making more money taking federal aid than in their normal jobs. But I think two things were really pushing more than those external circumstances—that is, people started asking why. And then people started asking not just why do I do what I do, but where do I do what I do? In cities like Park City that are just now massively inflated with real estate because people are like, “I can work from wherever I want to.”

The acceleration of virtual work and the acceptance of virtual work just hit the gas, so I think you saw a whole lot of different competing factors. Maybe we can put in the show notes a link to the article where I list about seven real tactile dynamics that played into this turnover, but it’s here. And the workforce is very fragile right now. We can talk about that. But very current events, I think, are going to make it even more volatile for the next 6, 8, 10, maybe even 12 months. And I think it’s no longer a question of, “Will you have turnover?” It’s a question of, “How are you going to mitigate it? And how are you going to prepare for it?”

Loren Feldman:
Let me ask you this, and maybe this is a two-part question. The churn, the turnover, is one thing. There’s also been a shortage of workers, and I think that’s hit certain areas like the hospitality industries especially hard. Did you see that coming too? And has it affected the areas where you work as much as it has something like hospitality?

William Vanderbloemen:
Yes, for the first question. No, for the second. Yes, because one of my golf buddies is in the concert business. Nearly everyone—and it’s a fairly large organization—was 1099’s. Well, when arenas got shut down, he couldn’t keep them, so he let them go. I mean, they weren’t having concerts. Well, now he’s started to have concerts again, he’s got to go rehire people. But those people have all found new jobs. I saw that a whole lot of people who were in very particular sectors were gonna have a hard time backfilling the holes that were created by the pandemic.

In our world, not so much. We do a lot of work with faith-based organizations. We started by helping churches find their pastor, and that’s still the backbone of our work. But what we see now is, it’s a different type of work, and it requires a different kind of person who can work in this hybrid environment of virtual and in-person. And, boy, it’s just led a lot of people to question, “Do I want to keep doing this?” And they step away. And in our world, there was going to be a shortage anyway. I think this is true across all sectors. But as the last wave or two of Baby Boomers retire, there just aren’t enough people my age. I’m 51, but from like, late 30’s through mid 50’s, there are just not enough people to fill the holes created by the Boomers. And so you’re left with hiring millennials, and maybe they’re experienced enough, and maybe they’re not. So there are lots of reasons why it was gonna be a year of turnover anyway and a shortage of workers. But I think the pandemic’s just added to that, and I don’t know a sector other than maybe government employees that hasn’t been affected.

Loren Feldman:
There are a lot of business owners I talk to who are kind of asking the question, “Where’d everybody go?” You know, there were enough employees before. What happened to them? It sounds like it hasn’t really hit you and your industry, but do you have an answer to that question?

William Vanderbloemen:
I don’t. I mean, I think it depends entirely—if it’s our friend Jay who’s trying to do storefront stuff, it’s one thing. If it’s manufacturing, it’s another thing. I think the “creatures of habit” is a pretty deep groove for humans, and a lot of people got used to not working. Federal benefits just ran out, so I guess the jury’s still out. I read in my Morning Report today, we might be in for a rude awakening, and that people might not come back to work. I think people get out of the habit.

We were already dealing with this sort of gig economy where you could side-hustle this and that, and I think a lot of people just found little side hustles they can do here or there and yon and not have to take a job. Our 17-year-old has a job at a great grocery store here, H-E-B. It’s a wonderful, wonderful grocery store, a well run business. And he has figured out—he has an 11-year-old sister—I will hire him as her Uber driver on the weekends. And he makes way more money doing that than he does going into his job. That’s a personal example of a very large dynamic that’s happening.

We surveyed a lot of our larger clients, and we found—and I’ve seen in the Morning Report, many times, articles that are similar to this—that a lot of their employees who were working from home during the pandemic now have two full-time jobs and just aren’t telling anybody. So, man, there’s just a lot of stuff that’s gotten overturned that it’s going to take a while to sort out. I don’t know where everybody’s going, and I think it’s largely dependent on the industry, you know?

Loren Feldman:
Do you have any examples of employers who are coping well with all of this? Anybody who’s come up with a fresh approach, a new idea, that maybe we could all learn from?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I think that the employers that I’ve seen who are showing honesty and candor about how bad it is are the ones that I see doing the best. We host a culture conference on workplace culture. It’s totally free. You can download it for free—I think it’s cultureconference.org. We had all these experts, Pat Lencioni—I mean, you’d know the names who spoke for us—and I got to speak, because we own the conference. Just like little TED Talks. And I said, “Hey, guys, we wrote a book on culture. We’ve won all these awards on culture. Let me tell you something: If you think your culture is bad, it’s not as bad as mine.”

Loren Feldman:
What do you mean, it wasn’t as bad as yours?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, so we had turnover during the year. We hired a lot of people. We restructured at the beginning of the pandemic. We said, “We have to shrink our overhead by 40 percent, if we’re going to make it through a year and a half of this.” So when we came back to work, half of us had literally never seen each other in person. Literally. We restaffed as the year went on. People are in, but they’re not in, and then maybe they’re exposed to somebody, so they’re out for however long. They have to be out until they get a rapid test. So it’s just quiet. We don’t know each other.

We went through a very intentional effort at diversifying our staff—racial ethnic diversity—which has really been good. I mean, if you look at our Christmas card this year versus five years ago, you’d say, “Wow, they’ve overhauled the place.” That’s great. What I didn’t realize—all the push for diversity that everyone is rightly pursuing right now, it’s great—when we were five years ago bringing on new people, it was almost always a friend of an employee who was coming to work for us. “Well, my girlfriend wants to apply for that job.” Or, “Hey, my buddy wants to apply for that job.” So it was all people who knew each other and had relational equity. Maybe they went to church together. Maybe they’re on the same softball team. Now, we have people who are very diverse, which is awesome, but they have incredibly diverse backgrounds and very little relational equity. And they haven’t worked together all year, and they don’t even know each other. And culture is built on relational equity.

So when I say at the conference, “Our culture is terrible,” we don’t have a bad place to work. People wouldn’t say it’s a toxic place to be, or they’re mistreated, or it’s not authentic. It’s just lacking relational equity. I was afraid that when I said this at the conference, it was just going to demoralize my team, many of whom are brand new. But quite the contrary. They came to me and said, “Thanks for saying that. We’re gonna work on this.” So I don’t want to lionize myself in that, but I have begun to pay attention, and the employers who are willing to say, “Hey, I know it’s a tired word now, but this really is unprecedented. And I’m figuring it out.” I have one client who’s doing a great job, and I’ve stolen this phrase from him: “Pardon me, I’m so sorry. This is my first pandemic.”

And it’s kind of inarguable, right? Like, it’s my first pandemic. And I think some measure of authenticity helps. There are other things I’d point to. I think people who are focusing on culture—work can’t just be a place where you come and do a job, because that’s kind of going out the window. How do you make it a place that’s appealing and not just a sentence? Depending on the sector, some flexibility. Although I continue to be an old curmudgeon and just believe that we were meant to be together and we have better productivity when we work together. And while there may be some hybrid schedules that survive or become true changes, I think teams will find that they’re more productive, more efficient, maybe more profitable when they’re in a space together.

Loren Feldman:
Are you in a space together now?

William Vanderbloemen:
We are.

Loren Feldman:
And has it helped?

William Vanderbloemen:
Yes, yes. I never was a huge fan of that old phrase “management by walking around,” but I’m doing a lot of it right now: just asking people how they’re doing, trying to invest in them. It’s been a lonely 18 months for a lot of people, and I think building relational equity in the workplace is helping.

And it’s not perfect at all. I mean, we’re a small company. We have 34 full-time people. We have seven or eight who are consultants who are always on the road. So what does that leave you, 26 in-office? And I doubt we’ve had more than 18 or 20 at any given time, because somebody got exposed to somebody over the weekend who tested positive, so they’re out. It’s still weird, but it’s way better than when we were all virtual.

Loren Feldman:
You said a moment ago that you anticipate some increasing fragility in the weeks ahead. I’m guessing you may have been referring to President Biden’s vaccine mandate. How is that hitting your world?

William Vanderbloemen:
I think it’s going to help me. Any small business owner listening: You’ve just got a whole new market of people you can hire. I’m not going to try and politicize things. I’m vaccinated. I got in line. I actually got mine a little early, because there was a county south of us that had a lot of anti-vaxxers, and their vaccines were going to expire. I’m all for it, right? But boy, the sentiment is strong. And this is not just the Texas guy. Like the sentiment is strong everywhere that, in a year where everything has been out of control and people have not been able to have a say in their life, there’s a strong part of our population who wants to have a say in whether or not they’re vaccinated.

You can argue whether they should or shouldn’t, but when it becomes a federal mandate… I guess if I owned a company with more than 100 employees, I’d feel two ways. One: Thank you, President Biden. You’re the bad guy now, not me. I’m not going to have to mandate it. Okay, fine. We’re just doing what the government said. But on the other hand, you probably just invited 10 of my 100 employees to go ahead and make this the reason that they’re leaving their job. And I think it’s just going to inflame already fragile teams and workplaces.

I read of one hospital this morning that had to close the maternity ward, because they don’t have enough nurses. And they’re just saying, “You have to have your baby somewhere else.” And the nurses weren’t coming to work because they weren’t going to do a vaccine mandate, and it was up north. It wasn’t in us backwards southern states. I think that mandating the vaccine, while it may help the fight against the pandemic, I think it will have an unintended consequence of giving people the reason they need to leave the job they’re currently at.

Loren Feldman:
You said that it could help you and other small businesses. Presumably that means helping you by giving you the opportunity to hire employees who leave these big companies.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, come work for us. You’ve got a choice. We don’t require it here. We bonus you if you do get vaccinated.

Loren Feldman:
But that does mean you’re hiring people who are unvaccinated. Does that give you pause?

William Vanderbloemen:
I don’t know. I don’t know that. I don’t ask them, but if they tell me they’re vaccinated, I’ll give them a bonus. So I’ve got a pretty good idea.

Loren Feldman:
Don’t you think if they’re leaving their jobs over the mandate, that probably means they’re unvaccinated?

William Vanderbloemen:
I don’t know. I just think small business owners, who are looking for workers and saying, “Where did everybody go?” will now have some percentage of people who work at large businesses who are going to leave over the mandate. I mean, I’ve got a friend who would leave over the mandate and he is vaccinated. He just doesn’t think that’s a place for the government to step in.

Loren Feldman:
But it doesn’t make sense to leave an employer over a government mandate. It’s like what you referred to before, right?

William Vanderbloemen:
I could be wrong. I have a religion degree. I’m not from Wharton, but my gut is telling me that irrespective of what you think about the president’s mandate—and I’m not taking a side on that—I just think an unintended consequence is going to be there are some people at larger companies who don’t want to be told what to do and will leave, and they will go to companies that don’t have a mandate. And that, by default, will be small business owners.

Loren Feldman:
All right, we’re gonna take a quick break to hear from our sponsor Work Better Now. And then we’ll take a step back and talk about how you started and built Vanderbloemen Search Group.

[Message from our sponsor]

And we’re back. A lot of these questions, by the way, most of them, came from listeners who are eager to hear more about how you built your business. And I love this question: What did you find is the biggest difference between being pastor of a church and CEO of a company? What surprised you most?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I think my own ignorance surprised me on a number of fronts. As a pastor of a very good church, in a large mainline denomination, I didn’t realize I was living in the mindset of kind of a union worker. I had amazing job security. It’s very hard to fire a pastor. I had a pension plan. I didn’t ever really think about our P&L. I had to go raise money, but you know, we did a good job of that. In my time in ministry—and I was in one of the best Presbyterian churches in the country—I didn’t ever sit in a meeting and think, “How much is this meeting costing to run right now, based on salaries around the table?”

When you start something—and this isn’t the answer to CEO, this is the answer to founder—but when you start something, as you’re doing now, you realize, “Every minute I’m spending is a minute that could be spent earning. And every cost I have… is it worth it or not?” I’d never thought through that lens. And frankly, I think I’m healthier now than I was before, because I just kind of took a lot of things for granted and was ignorant, because I went straight from undergrad to Princeton for seminary and straight into ministry, and just always had a job and always had good benefits and always had a pension.

Loren Feldman:
What do you mean by “healthier”?

William Vanderbloemen:
I have a healthier self-awareness of how hard it is to make a living, of how hard it is to make something profitable. I think I would look at my old self and say, “He’s pretty entitled.”

Loren Feldman:
That’s so interesting, because I think for a lot of people, the gut instinct would be to assume the opposite.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, no, not at all. And it’s weird, Loren—and you wouldn’t know this unless you live it—but when you’re a pastor, it’s not uncommon at all to be at a lunch, and then the waiter comes over and says, “Hey, one of your people took care of the bill.” Or to come home and your lawn is mowed, because somebody just did it for you. They wanted to do something nice.

Loren Feldman:
That doesn’t happen to you as a CEO?

William Vanderbloemen:
Not really. But it lulls you into this. Like, if that’s all you’ve ever known, it’s like, “Wow.” And even down to the tax breaks that are there. If you go into ministry to have a financially flush life, then you’re either stupid or criminal. So you’re not gonna make a ton of money, but boy, you can get lulled into a false sense of entitlement pretty fast.

Loren Feldman:
Would you say that being a pastor was good preparation for being a CEO?

William Vanderbloemen:
For being CEO of this company, absolutely. I have sold things my whole life, Loren. From paper routes to… I mean, I’ve just sold everything. And this is the most nuanced sale I’ve ever been a part of. Every single congregation is different. They might have a different denominational affiliation. I have such an appreciation for what it takes to run for president of this country, as I travel around and realize: Seattle is so different than Yakima, Washington is so different than Detroit is so different…

And when we try and sell to different parts of the country and denominations and theological backgrounds, and you’re dealing with institutions that are not functioning rationally… They’re making their decisions based on belief and faith, and not just bottom line. It’s incredibly nuanced, and had I not done this job and sat in the chair as pastor, I don’t think I’d have the foggiest idea how to empathize or build something that addresses pain points, or even sell it.

Loren Feldman:
You mentioned sales. Could you compare the sales aspects of being a pastor with the sales aspects of being a CEO?

William Vanderbloemen:
Oh, totally, absolutely. In pastoring—and we’re going way far down a rabbit hole probably you didn’t intend—you’re either in sales or quality control. So what do I mean? There are some people who, as a pastor, are drawn toward trying to grow their church or get more people interested in the faith. Or as I used to say, “I would love to be the guy who overpopulates heaven. That would be great.” So I was in sales. It was just… I don’t know, what do you wanna call it? Eternal fire insurance? Versus the guy who’s like, “I want to take the people who are here and make them into the highest-quality believer,” or disciple or adherent or whatever word you want to use. I was much more in sales, always. That part was not a hard transfer.

Loren Feldman:
A lot of CEOs, including some on this podcast, struggle with making the tough, unpopular decisions—having to fire someone, having to lay people off. Was that hard for you, coming from the faith-based world?

William Vanderbloemen:
I hate it. I hate it. I can’t stand firing somebody or making the hard call. It’s probably a dysfunction of mine. I really like pleasing people, which is not a great quality.

Loren Feldman:
Well, nobody likes doing it.

William Vanderbloemen:
I’ve met some people who do and they really do. I mean, my goodness. But it was certainly a lesson. I was in a larger church. I think our total payroll was about 300 employees. So it’s a pretty good-sized group, so it does get way more business than the normal-sized church or synagogue of 100 people, or something like that. So I had a little bit more exposure to the business side of things than a typical pastor would, but we deal with this all the time with our clients where it’s like, “Man, I don’t want to fire him. Can we find something else for him to do?” “Jesus wouldn’t fire anybody, would he?” And I’m like, “Well, he did. He fired a fig tree and cursed it for not producing.” But it was a tougher transition, but maybe not as tough as some people who lead ministry and then go straight into the corporate world.

Loren Feldman:
Is this something that you’ve been able to help churches with? Obviously, the churches and the pastors you work with sometimes have to make these kinds of tough decisions.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, and the flip side, Loren, that’s actually more common is, every pastor I know has one business person, whether it’s a woman or a man, in their church who’s really done well—and pastors are impressed by that. They’ve made enough money, and now they want to quit. It’s the old line, “I want to move from success to significance.” So they start volunteering at the church. And the pastor says, “They would be great. We should hire them. They’ve been CEO of this company, or a general in the army,” or whatever the thing is.

And I would say: When you bring someone from the marketplace into the church world, there is at best a 50-percent success rate. Sometimes, they can’t make the transfer. They’re too hard-nosed. They run off the volunteers. They just act like normal business people. And the church is a quirky, weird thing. So we help them on both sides of the need to help somebody to the door, but also prevent you from hiring somebody who’s going to mow everybody down.

Loren Feldman:
In your transition to founder and then CEO, was there a moment when you said, “I got this?”

William Vanderbloemen:
I hope not. I mean, there are certainly some milestones, I think. What’s the old line? “In the 20 years I’ve been married, I’ve been married to 10 different people.”

Loren Feldman:
I actually haven’t heard that but I like it.

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I feel that way as the founder and owner of this company. I think I’ve launched six or seven different versions of this company. As we’ve gone through, we’ll get to a place where it’s like, “Oh, now we’ve gotten here.” But then we have to pivot and make an adjustment, and we’ve got it again. Boy, if 2020 didn’t cause people who thought they had it to second-guess, you’re a rare individual. I’m all for confidence, if you can back it up. But I hope I don’t ever say, “I’ve got it,” Loren, and I have a lifelong battle with pride.

Whether it’s the Hebrew scriptures or the Bible that you’re reading, you’ll find pretty quickly that the God described in those two traditions is staunchly opposed to the proud. And so I find myself at odds all the time with my favorite—I think I’ve told you my favorite Ted Turner quote: “If I had a little more humility, I’d be perfect.” I hope I don’t ever say, “I got it.” We do get to a place we go, “Oh, isn’t it nice. The place can run itself now.”

Loren Feldman:
But there is a meaning to that that I think does contain some humility. I mean, it’s a level of comfort. It’s a sense that you now kind of know what you’re doing—not not that you’re perfect. Does that change the equation for you?

William Vanderbloemen:
That does change the equation, and there are some things now where, I’m like, “Yeah, no, we’ve got this.” I don’t think I’ll ever say, “We’ve got this” on the sales side. But on the delivery side, my biggest threat to our business is me. A friend of mine said to me from the very beginning of the business, “William, the one thing you have got to be aware of is you will always run the risk of outselling what you can deliver.” Because I love to sell.

So now when we sell like crazy, I know that we’ve built a system that can deliver, and deliver really well, and on time, and at the right cost. So that does feel like, “Okay.” And I can’t take credit for that. I hired some people who are really smart who got it done. But there are some parts of the puzzle where I go, “We’ve now got this.”

Loren Feldman:
On the podcast, we’ve talked a good bit about your remarkably successful content marketing strategy and how everyone you hire has to be willing and able to create content that you use as your primary marketing. Was that your plan from day one?

William Vanderbloemen:
No, we sort of fell into it, Loren.

Loren Feldman:
How did you figure it out?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I don’t know if you’ve listened to “How I Built This.”

Loren Feldman:
Sure.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, so we actually stole straight from it, and we’ve done “How God Built This” and interviewed entrepreneurs in the faith-based world. It’s really cool. But one of my favorite questions that gets asked on that podcast is, “So when you look at your success, do you chalk it up to talent or luck?” And they ask it in different ways, but they always seem to ask that question. If we make it for the long haul, as a business, and there’s ever a rewrite of Outliers, and they need another example or an appendix, we could be it. We were so right place/right time. If I had started three years earlier or later, it would have failed.

Loren Feldman:
Because social media wasn’t in the right place for you.

William Vanderbloemen:
We started the year that Twitter started. And who knew that Twitter would be way more effective in churches than anywhere else—that popular pastors have a higher retweet per follower than entertainers? It’s weird.

Loren Feldman:
Wow.

William Vanderbloemen:
I happened to notice that email was starting to become more than just a correspondence. It was becoming—what did they call it?—”email 2.0.” I was just starting to fish around about that and started to blog a little bit when I hired someone who said, “We really ought to look at this company called HubSpot.” And then that all fell into place. We were a very early adopter with them, and then I happened to be in the right room at the right time and met one of the founders, and he became a friend. It was just so happenstance.

I do think we had a disciplined commitment to what we caught. So there’s providence and luck in catching the lightning in a bottle. But then we said, “Now we’re gonna ride it.” And we could have done a better job with it, but it’s been great. We’re now looking at things going, “Okay, it’s still about content and thought leadership, but how is it different now than it was 10, 11, 12 years ago, for instance?”

Loren Feldman:
Or 10, 11, 12 months ago?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, true. But like, everything’s about video content now, or the resurgence of LinkedIn. That’s a whole new, like, we’ve got to go figure this out. So we’re still learning, but we didn’t have it planned from day one. We’re just trying to read tea leaves and figure it out as we go. I think my vision as a leader is not the ability to see 500 miles down the road. It’s more like, “What’s the next thing?” And then have good people who can map it out.

Loren Feldman:
You mentioned the resurgence of LinkedIn. Do you have a new strategy for how you’re using LinkedIn?

William Vanderbloemen:
Yes. Hire a new VP of marketing that knows how to develop a strategy for LinkedIn.

Loren Feldman:
Can you give us a hint what that strategy is?

William Vanderbloemen:
I don’t have a clue. We just did an audit of all of our marketing efforts: social media, blog posts, web traffic, email growth. And we’re trying to get a handle on things after the pandemic. We had a real surge during the PPP. We sort of caught lightning in a bottle there and ran with it. So now what do we do with it? And how do we strategize? I’m actually interviewing right now for a VP of Marketing, and the interview is, “Sign an NDA, I’m going to send you our marketing audit, and you tell me what to do.” And what I’d love to find is—and this won’t be that hard—someone way smarter than me. I should not be the one coming up with the best marketing idea. I have a religion degree.

Loren Feldman:
But you have been doing this for quite some time now. And you’ve learned a lot.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, have you ever heard of the seven last words of the church?

Loren Feldman:
No.

William Vanderbloemen:
The seven last words of the church—I’ll get the word count wrong with contractions, or whatever—but it’s like, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” And I’m 51, I’m not 37 anymore. And I know, I know, that I have, every day, the likelihood of calcifying.

Loren Feldman:
Are you on TikTok?

William Vanderbloemen:
I am not on TikTok. I don’t post on TikTok, but I pay attention.

Loren Feldman:
Well, you’re ahead of the game just doing that, I would suggest.

William Vanderbloemen:
I’m trying, but I may have told the story on the podcast before. But years ago, when our youngest was about two years old, I decided to start being a little more intentional with jogging. And that meant I had to start stretching, because I was old enough to start getting injured. And I remember the stretching being harder than the jogging. I came home one day to do my stretching, and the two-year-old walked in the room, and there I am just dying trying to touch my toes. And she looked at me, and she came and sat down beside me, and she tied herself into a human pretzel, which only two-year-olds can do. And then she gets back up and laughed out loud at me and left the room.

And I just thought, “William, every day you’re alive, you get less flexible.” Man, as they say in the South, “That dog will hunt.” That line is worth remembering, if you’re a business owner. Every day your business is alive, it is a fact of life that you will get more rigid, less flexible, more calcified. So at 51 years old when I’m looking at a marketing strategy for LinkedIn, or whatever it is, I am trying to find younger, smarter, faster people who will intentionally stretch me to a place I don’t know, rather than the natural propensity that I will have to just say, “Well, we’ve always done it this way,” or, “Blogging always worked in the past.” I don’t want to be that guy who falls into a rut and stays there and wakes up, and he’s been lapped by something new.

Loren Feldman:
I’ve spoken with a lot of business owners, including some on this podcast, who have really struggled to hire the right marketing person. I don’t know how far into your search you are, but have you learned anything thus far about how you identify the right person?

William Vanderbloemen:
It’s a very difficult search. We do a lot of them. As we’re talking right now—it’s a public fact, so I’m not breaching a confidence—but we’re doing one for Joel Osteen right now. You would think he’d be able to find a marketing person. He’s kinda got a pretty good gig going on. He’s the most watched preacher in the world. But it’s just hard. There is a real supply/demand crunch. You can actually understand it forensically.

Marketing changed with the internet at a rate that was much faster than the development of new marketers. So you’ve got people still trying to sell print ads and TV spots. And like, it’s just a whole different mindset that’s been required since about 2008. And there are not enough people who have come up, who are trained, and every company has had to turn on a dime and learn. And some of them are very tech savvy. If you don’t follow Wendy’s on Twitter or Instagram, you really need to. It will make you smile at least once a day. They have the most brilliant marketing, and it’s so rare.

So if you find a good VP of Marketing, do whatever you have to do to keep them, or pay them a retention bonus so you know you have them through the end of the year. I play golf from time to time, and I was teaching my daughter to play, and she wanted to learn how to play out of the sand traps, right? And I said, “You want to know the number one rule of playing out of the sand traps?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “Don’t hit it in the sand trap.” That’s the most important rule: If you don’t hit it in there, you don’t have to worry about it. If you don’t lose a good marketing person, you don’t have to go find one.

Loren Feldman:
But how do you keep them? I mean, if somebody is really good, Wendy’s or somebody is going to be available to them. How do you keep them?

William Vanderbloemen:
So some things I’m learning—and I’m just learning—but I’ve got a friend who says, “If you give away tasks, you will surround yourself with doers. If you give away authority, you will surround yourself with leaders.” One dynamic I’ve found in Millennials and Gen. Z is they really expect to be given authority and not just tasks. And that’s dicey, right? There are a few things I’ve gotten, I think, right. This is one of them. With marketing and sales, I said, “Look, I would far rather you come back to me begging forgiveness than asking permission. Do it. Ship it. Get it out there. And let’s deal with the consequences later.”

So in terms of retention, I don’t know if you’re giving away authority or not. A lot of CEOs don’t. Marketers spend all the time in the world getting a plan together, and then the CEO says, “We haven’t done it that way. I’m a little nervous about that.” It’s back to that calcification and getting less flexible. Are you giving away authority? Secondly, are you paying them in an incentivized way? Some marketers would rather not get paid per lead. They’d rather have security in knowing they’re going to get paid, whether their ideas fail or succeed, and they might need that in order to be creative. So I think understanding your employee and the right way to compensate them so that they will stick around.

Try and stay with the market. Try and build a pipeline, because you won’t stay with the market. I mean, I can’t tell you the number of times—whether it’s faith-based initiatives or schools or churches—they get some of the best marketers there are and then Google comes along and says, “We’ll pay you $300,000 to do a job for us.”

That’s the main thing. I think that when I’m looking for candidates, though, if you’re currently searching in marketing, it’s: How intuitive are they? How willing are they to speak up to me—which works for me as a CEO, it might not work for all listeners. And that’s why whatever we paid for the marketing audit was worth every penny, because I now have a, “Here is what our situation is. What would you do with it right now?” And then I can see: Are they agile? Are they aware? Are they going to tell me things I don’t know? Are they going to lean on old ways that I could figure out on my own? I would avoid the search if you can, though. It’s really… it’s one of the hardest searches we do.

Loren Feldman:
You mentioned that you spotted the coming COVID turnover, because people were reaching out to you saying they were ready to look for another job. You probably get some people who come to you that you don’t think that highly of. What do you do with them?

William Vanderbloemen:
That’s such a good question. This is old school advice people have probably heard, but I’m thinking through several words that start with C, when I think of candidates. There’s character, there’s competency, there’s chemistry with the job they’re looking at, or cultural fit. So three or four C’s. In our world, if character is missing, if that’s where they’re deficient, I can’t place them. It doesn’t work.

Loren Feldman:
What do you tell them?

William Vanderbloemen:
“Hey, man, I wish the best for you. I believe the best for you.” You know, I’ll get a little more candid. People will call me and tell me, “I’m just feeling like it’s time for change. I’m feeling like my season is coming to a close.” Now what do I want to ask them? I want to say, “Is it a misdemeanor or a felony?” So that’s what I want to say. But the reality is, I’m learning that very, very few people will admit that they’re about to get fired. And even interviewing people and asking them about their career transitions over time, it’s got to be a single digit percentage of the 20,000 interviews we’ve done, where somebody would say, “I got fired.”

People just don’t have that level of self-awareness. So unfortunately, if it’s a character flaw, if I’m going to know whether it’s going to work or not, I need to know the truth. And if I can sense that they’re not ready to tell me the truth, well, that’s their decision, but I can’t help them. And I’ve gotten more and more blunt about that over the years.

If it’s a competency issue, some people just have zero issues with self-esteem. It’s amazing. They’re running an organization with 100 members, and they think they’re ready to jump to 20,000. And they’re just sure, and God told him that it was time, and that’s a little easier to deal with, because I can just give him statistics and say, “Here’s how many churches are this size, here’s how many openings there are.” But I don’t know that I’ve had too many candidates come to me that I think they won’t fit anywhere. There’s a lot of jobs out there.

Loren Feldman:
You’ve told us that you guarantee your searches. If the person you place doesn’t work out, you’ll go back and do it again for free. How often does that happen?

William Vanderbloemen:
Not very often, maybe two or three percent of the time. And sometimes, it’s they got fired. Other times, it’s they made the geographic move, and they didn’t realize it was going to be so weird in Macon, Georgia or Seattle, Washington, or pick the place. We’re doing one right now where—it’s a bad example—but we guaranteed the search for two years, and 23 months into the job, he got COVID and died.

Loren Feldman:
So even in that situation, you do the search again?

William Vanderbloemen:
One hundred percent. One hundred percent. It is an absolute guarantee. The majority of the redos are: Something went haywire that we didn’t know about. We had a guy one time… poor guy. He moved across the country, and he wasn’t sure about the move, but his wife really was. She said, “This will be perfect. Let’s do it.” He said, “Yes.” He got there, and within a month, she filed for divorce. And she knew that that state had a much more favorable situation for her than the previous state. So, I mean, can you predict that? It’s a broken world. That’s why we actually have, you know, faith. If it weren’t broken, we wouldn’t need it.

Loren Feldman:
You told us recently about taking seven weeks away from your business this summer, as kind of an experiment. Was there anything you did to prepare for that period away? Was there a process?

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, I took four weeks away the summer before, and I took two weeks away the summer before, and I took one week away the summer before. And I learned some things. I learned that if I want our firm to maintain and continue on the path—like if I got hit by the proverbial bus—and Adrienne sat and owned it, she could take passive income as an owner.

Loren Feldman:
That’s your wife and co-founder.

William Vanderbloemen:
That’s right. She’d be just fine. She wouldn’t have to touch it. It can run itself. If we really want to make a big difference in the world, which is—I want to run a successful business. I don’t mind it being profitable. But if I really wanted to make money, I’d go into oil-and-gas search. That’s not it. I want to make a big difference, and I think if you’re helping organizations who are trying to, let’s just say, leave the world better than they found it, if you can find them the right key staff, they can go a lot faster.

So what I learned this summer was: If we want to maintain, hey, great. If I wanted to steer the company with one hand on the wheel, we’ll grow a little bit, and that’s great. If I really want to make a run, at 51, I’ve got 10, 12, maybe 15 years of relevance left before I’ve gotta figure out something else. And if I really want to make a difference, then I now know the places I need to put my energy.

Loren Feldman:
Who handled your emails? Who responded?

William Vanderbloemen:
Let’s qualify things a little bit. Taking that time away did not mean total unplug, okay? For whatever reason, I’m not a very effective CEO. You would think my assistant reads my emails and only sends me the important ones. I still read every single email, and I know that’s dysfunctional, and I need to get over it. But I’m not there.

Loren Feldman:
Do you practice Inbox Zero?

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, I do. I’m horrible at sleeping, Loren. Just really bad at it.

Loren Feldman:
That’s not good.

William Vanderbloemen:
I was up at 4:30 or 5, and I could check in on things or maybe even have a quick meeting. 6 a.m. Mountain Time is awesome, because it’s already eight in New York, and it’s only seven in Houston. I could knock out a few things if I needed to, and I did frame up my next book. So that’s kind of fun. So I wasn’t totally away, but I did take my hand completely off sales and management of the company.

Loren Feldman:
What did you tell people about reaching you if they felt they needed to? Under what circumstances?

William Vanderbloemen:
In our office, we say, “If you email me, I’ll get back to you in 24 hours.” Okay, “If you Slack me, that means I need to get back to you quicker. If you text me, that means you really need something. And if you call me, I’m going to pick up.” Now that’s our after-hours communication protocol. If it’s after work hours and you do those things, there’s the protocol. I kind of applied that to: I’m gone for the summer.

Loren Feldman:
How many weeks are you planning on taking off next summer?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, we’ll do one more.

Loren Feldman:
My thanks to William Vanderbloemen, and my thanks again to everyone who suggested these great questions for him. If any of you have questions for any of our other regulars, please send them to me. You can email me at [email protected]. Or you can just hit reply to your 21 Hats Morning Report.

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