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Lars Leafblad and Marcia Ballinger, co-founders and principals Ballinger | Leafblad

Q+A with Lars Leafblad & Marcia Ballinger

Minnesota Business writer Brian Martucci chats with the co-founders and principals of St. Paul-based “civic search” firm Ballinger | Leafblad about talent acquisition in the nonprofit sector, and more

By Brian Martucci
Monday, October 19, 2015

Minnesota Business recently caught up with Marcia Ballinger and Lars Leafblad, co-founders and principals of St. Paul-based “civic search” firm Ballinger | Leafblad (and Minnesota Business (Real) Power 50 members). The pair discuss the finer points of nonprofit sector talent search, how young social entrepreneurs can magnify their impact, the outlook for Minnesota’s civic scene and Lars’s glory days as a touring BBQ slinger.

MN BIZ: Lars, you had various roles in the nonprofit and academic sectors earlier in your career. What drew you to search?
LARS LEAFBLAD: Since I graduated from St. Olaf College, I”ve been trying to find a way to earn a living doing what I love most, which is connecting people to each other and to opportunities to develop as leaders. When another executive recruiter told me 10 years ago that they were in this business because it meant “getting paid to be a connector,” I knew it was a profession I wanted to pursue. 

The concept of being hired by a board/senior management team to be their ambassador of sorts to the community of prospective candidates brings together my interests and experience in development, marketing, communication, community engagement, storytelling, strategy and entrepreneurship. 

MN BIZ: Marcia, you came from a human resources background. What inspired you to make the transition to external search?
MARCIA BALLINGER: Well, “inspired” is a strong word and I wish I could claim it. “Stumbled into” is actually more the case. I was in a difficult role in a difficult culture with a challenging boss. Executive search, or perhaps consulting in a broader sense, seemed like the antidote to where I had been. I thought I'd try it for six months or so. Well, it’s been nearly twenty years!  

MN BIZ: How did Ballinger Leafblad get started? What drew the two of you together, and what made you think it could work?
BALLINGER: Like a lot of new companies, our firm began on the back of a napkin. At The Egg and I on University Avenue, to be exact. Lars was sharing his thoughts about his ideal next step and I realized that his thoughts matched mine.  

I knew with 100% certainty that our partnership would work. We’d been partners together at another firm, and I knew that we both have a similar approach to clients, similar values, and perhaps most importantly, a similar sense of humor.  

MN BIZ: How did you connect with / build the rest of your team?
LEAFBLAD: Marcia is the best recruiter I know and she had led the effort to build our team, our advisory board and our on-boarding coach partners. She's an exceptional judge of character, potential and culture fit.  

BALLINGER: Phenomenal good fortune on our part! We think we have the most top-notch team around  Our administrative and research colleagues, Diane Meskan Schwecke and Nathan Perez, came from the firm we previously worked with. Our other partner Jill Harmon had been leading the non-profit practice at another search firm. Our reference specialist Holly Kelsey Henry was referred to us.  

MN BIZ: How do civic searches differ from “traditional” searches for for-profit companies? What's different about Ballinger Leafblad's approach, specifically?
LEAFBLAD:  Civic searches tend to involve multiple decision-makers on the hiring decision; be it a search committee, board of directors, or highly participatory and inclusive organizational culture. We are being hired to serve as project managers that help coordinate the many moving parts involved with making the hiring decision with that myriad of decision makers and stakeholders engaged throughout the process.

We believe that a “search is more than a search” and seek to work with clients who share this belief. What does this mean? It means that a leadership search is a moment in time for an organization, institution, board or senior management team to pause and engage stakeholders in shared visioning, strategic alignment and candid conversation about the priorities, opportunities, challenges and envisioned future for the institution. It’s an opportunity to build a shared recruiting strategy that brings together HR and donor stewardship or investor relations to collaborate on the search process itself for a more successful long term outcome. 

Our approach follows a process that allows our clients to engage these stakeholders (staff, alumni, individual donors, institutional funders and/or community partners) and ask them to share advice, idea and insights that can inform the search itself, the position description, expectations for success and help address concerns shared by those stakeholders in addition to producing an outstanding slate of qualified, engaged and exceptional candidates for the client to assess a fit with at the end of the search process. 

BALLINGER: Civic searches typically involve many more stakeholders. Stakeholders come in a variety of types — board members, staff members, clients, funders, engaged community members and the like. These groups have functions that range from decision makers to interested individuals who want to provide input to the search process.  

The characteristic of “many stakeholders, many voices” is certainly a fit for our firm and our approach. We love to connect with anyone and everyone that our client would like to involve in the recruitment effort. Each individual perspective has value. It's interesting to see how the various parts interconnect.

MN BIZ: Do you work with benefit corporations and (technically for-profit) social enterprises?

Yes, we have worked with social enterprise nonprofit business models including Genesys Works — Twin Cities

MN BIZ: I love your annual report. What inspired you to put together such an unorthodox, entertaining, informative (and not at all dry) annual report?
LEAFBLAD: We wanted to create an annual report that reflects our aspiration and mission to re-imagine executive search for the civic sector and so we sought out Pollen to ask if they’d be interested in working with us on the project. Our annual report reflects their ideation, inspiration and gift for visual storytelling applied to an annual report format. 

Jamie Millard, Meghan Murphy and Allegra Lockstadt of Pollen's storytelling team brought our annual report to life from ideation through implementation. We were very fortunate to have such exceptional partners in the design process and so many generous clients and supporters willing to take time to talk with Pollen about their experience working with us. We are just very, very grateful to be part of such a generous and supportive village as we've launched our business in the past year. 

BALLINGER:  Our “re-imagined annual report” was totally Lars’ idea.  He is the genius when it comes to our marketing and communications efforts.  I pretty much trust his instincts.  

MN BIZ: What excites you most about the Twin Cities’ (and Minnesota’s) civic sector these days? Are there any particular challenges or opportunities getting much-deserved attention and resources? Any particularly exciting approaches to civic work that you've not seen before? 
LEAFBLAD: Universal cognition that we will need to attract, develop and retain much more diverse pools of talent to meet the sectors leadership requirements and opportunities in the near and long term in this region. 

Civic organizations are acting more entrepreneurial to retain talent, attract philanthropic support and diversify their revenue through earned income, philanthropy and public-private partnerships. 

BALLINGER: I recently served as a judge for the Eide Bailly Resourcefulness Awards, recognizing innovation in nonprofits.  I was blown away by the creativity and ingenuity.  It was amazing to see how creativity emerges in so many nonprofit organizations, often in rather inauspicious times, such as when resources are slim, or when community needs increase.

MN BIZ: What can younger or less experienced social entrepreneurs and/or civic leaders to make (or make more of) a difference? Any advice for those just starting out?
LEAFBLAD:  Work hard. 

Ask lots of questions. 

Say thanks to everyone who makes the time to share with you. 

Promote the work and success of others. 

Who you work with, and work for, will open future career opportunities, so think carefully about who you can learn from early in your career. 

Seek out mentors early in your career. 

MN BIZ: Lars, can you talk a bit about your experience founding Pollen? What gaps or needs does Pollen fill that weren't being addressed, or addressed well?
LEAFBLAD: When I founded Pollen in 2008, it was because I was trying to solve a logistics issue. I was inundated with emails from friends and friends of friends who were either seeking new jobs unexpectedly or contemplating how they would be seeking a new job in the near future. I could have spent 40 hours a week meeting with those friends in late 2008 and 2009, so I decided to create an email that listed people seeking to network with prospective employers, hiring managers or other contacts in MSP.

That email was originally called the “Larsifesto” and was shared with probably 150-200 individuals. It started getting forwarded to people and soon people were asking me to add them to the email distribution list. As the list grew, I re-branded it as “Pollen” to reflect the goal of the email to spread and share opportunities across the Twin Cities. 

Pollen really took off when we had the opportunity to partner with Joel Kramer and Corey Anderson of MinnPost.com. They shared our content on MinnPost and our subscribers nearly doubled overnight.

Pollen became the Pollen it is today when Jamie Millard and Meghan Murphy approached me to ask if they could help build a website for Pollen and the rest is history. They’ve incorporated Pollen as a Minnesota nonprofit, recruited Pollen's first board of directors and now oversee all management for the organization as co-directors. 

I'm not involved day to day or a member of the board of directors. I’m a founder and publisher emeritus who cheers from the stands and supports the organization however I can whenever I'm asked. I'm just very, very proud of what the Pollen team is building to provide platform(s) to connect, amplify and promote individuals, organizations and partnerships in our region making impact. 

MN BIZ: Lars, the Famous Dave's National BBQ Touring Team sounds awesome. How did you get involved?
LEAFBLAD: With all due respect to my co-founder, working for Famous Dave’s was truly the best job I've ever had. 

I saw a ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window of the Roseville (Har-Mar) Famous Dave's on my way home from St. Olaf in May 1997. I submitted an application, interviewed and was hired as server at the Roseville location in June 1997.

I worked hard, caught the eye of my manager and was given the opportunity to work on the Famous Dave’s National Touring team as a dishwasher and server. We traveled across the upper Midwest that summer of 1997 competing in BBQ competitions in Fargo, Duluth, Minneapolis, Chicago, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Cleveland. It was a riot. I was invited back to join the team again in the summer of 1998 for a repeat BBQ tour and had a blast. Lots of BBQ, long hours and hilarious stories.

If you look at the pictures around a Famous Dave’s entrance you might see me (more hair on my head, less hair on my face) helping hold up a trophy from those summers. 

MN BIZ: Marcia, you and Reggie, one of your family’s two French bulldogs, are a registered therapy dog team. What does that entail, and how else do you give back?
BALLINGER: Reggie is a certified therapy dog, meaning he is trained to visit various settings to provide comfort and entertainment. It’s fun. I love volunteering, and I love dogs, so there you have it.

I am also the Chair of the board at Capella University. That experience has been beyond awesome.  I get to be involved with the sector leader in innovative higher education for working adults. How cool is that? 

MN BIZ: Marcia, you’ve written a book on networking — “The 20-Minute Networking Meeting,” available on Amazon.com.  What advice do you have for people who feel they need to expand their network?
BALLINGER: I’ve been so honored to speak to groups about networking.  I consider it absolutely essential to have a broad network.  Our professional network can give us advice, information, encouragement.

My advice in a nutshell:

Networking meetings don’t have to be elaborate.  Short focused meetings are the best.

Say thank you!  A lot.

Be prepared.  Know exactly what you want to talk/ask about.

Make the meeting about the other person.  Promote the other person after your networking meeting.  Think of yourself as a “hub” of positivity in your professional circles.

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