Talent scout

It’s impossible to get Eric Belcher to stop talking about the growth culture at his company.

Ask him about how InnerWorkings Inc. grew more than 45 percent from 2007 to 2008, and he’ll tell you it’s because of a culture of growth.

Ask him how the provider of managed print and promotional procurement solutions has gone from a start-up to more than 700 employees and $419 million in 2008 revenue in less than a decade, and he’ll tell you it’s because of a culture of growth that always has the next generation of talent ready.

Ask him if the Chicago Bulls have a shot at winning the Eastern Conference of the NBA next year, and he’ll tell you … well, you get the point.

But to be fair to Belcher, he’s not just talking about the culture at his company to sound like a good president and CEO. His company is growing at a breakneck rate in an otherwise stale industry. He has to have good people on hand and a stock of highly talented people ready for the next round of growth.

“So here we are, growing wild in a contracting industry, which makes recruiting of talent in our professional services world absolutely critical,” he says. “We are nothing other than the sum of the talent of our people and our reputation. We need to work as hard as we ever have to ensure that we’re really attracting the best talent in the industry, and I need to be doing that first and foremost.”

So it’s safe to say that nobody better understands how important maintaining the culture at InnerWorkings is than Belcher — and no one spends as much time as he does working on it. Despite the company’s large size, he still spends nearly half of his time recruiting talent. At any given time, Belcher has a robust list of the future superstars in his industry in Chicago and beyond, and that is what he’s using to position his company going forward.

Here, Belcher shares a few tips on how to recruit top industry talent.

Spend your time recruiting

To keep the influx of talent at InnerWorkings constant, Belcher takes on the job of recruiting personally, noting that he spends somewhere between one-third and one-half of his time on the task.

But recruiting isn’t just visiting college campuses, sifting through old resumes or making a few phone calls to headhunters when big office jobs open up. Good recruiting begins when you start to see talent in fruit that may not be ripe for the picking.

“It’s not necessarily reacting to employment requests that come to the company but proactively seeking out talent,” Belcher says. “I feel as though in almost every conversation I have with somebody who is not employed by InnerWorkings, I’m wondering if there is a recruiting opportunity for our organization. So I would say a key trait of a successful leader is someone who is constantly looking to bring in the most talented individuals in the industry.”

That means putting time in on people who may not be on the active job market.

“It’s been my experience that many of the most talented people in the industry are gainfully employed and, in many ways and many cases, quite content with their current prospects at their place of employment,” Belcher says. “So the process of recruiting is not a 45-minute interview reviewing one’s background and resume. It’s keeping an ear to the ground to understand who is making a difference in the industry and then proactively reaching out and getting in touch with that individual.”

So you have to keep an eye on the all-stars you meet along the way, even if you don’t have a direct relationship currently. When you see someone with talent, find a way to build a better relationship.

“It can be an initial discussion to see if we might be able to reward some work to their organization or to reach out to them as a potential customer and get to know them in a personal way,” he says. “Over time, we help them to understand what our company is doing, the revolution, if you will, that we’re leading in our industry, and ultimately draw that talent into our world.

“So the process of recruiting for us is one that may take a year or longer from the time of the first meeting to ultimately being able to bring in a talented industry professional.”

The process clearly isn’t instantaneous, but it’s worth it to begin to build up a long list of people you can turn to when new opportunities arise.

“We not only are looking for individuals right now,” Belcher says, “but to develop a bench of people that we know well and draw upon in the years ahead as we look to round out our team.”

Put the fit to the test

While Belcher is constantly turning casual conversations into mental recruiting lists, he knows that just because the cashier at lunch seemed smart, that doesn’t make her an automatic fit for InnerWorkings. One of the important things to look at is the person’s career aspirations.

“We’re looking for people that, like our company overall, are looking to grow at a fairly rapid clip,” he says.

Again, if you begin to make a list of people you think might fit in down the road, you can start to analyze them through your company lens. By watching their career path, you can glean more about their objectives and, at the same time, they can take more from you in occasional conversations.

“We get to know the individual in more detail and their goals and objectives and their track record,” Belcher says. “Secondly, though, the individual that we’re speaking with gets to know us. In many cases, we’ve hired people that we have a working relationship with as either a supplier or a customer for quite some time, and so the individuals that come to our organization having known us or worked with us a while have a very good sense for our culture. And our culture, by the way, is a culture that fosters hyper growth, and that’s not for everybody. … We need individuals who have an entrepreneurial streak within their background.”

So Belcher digs for that entrepreneurial spirit. He says you don’t need an actual entrepreneur, but you need someone who has shown independence and moxie.

“Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve worked at a start-up, but that means that they have a fire in their belly and they want to make a difference and they want to make a mark,” he says.

So you have to look for people that have rallied around a cause or who have taken on big, risky projects on their own.

“We’ve developed a culture where there is a group of people rallying around the cause, pioneering this new way to buy and sell printed materials, and there is an energy and an enthusiasm, which I don’t think you find in companies that may be growing 5 to 10 percent a year,” he says. “There’s an excitement that ultimately captivates certain people that we’re recruiting.”

Push talent forward

A big part of recruiting and keeping top talent has to do with another internal system: promotions. To keep top talent coming and to keep them happy when they arrive, you have to be willing to let people grow into new jobs quickly. Belcher himself is proof that it works, having joined the business in 2005 as the head of operations. He then moved up to chief operating officer before becoming president and, ultimately, CEO. He shares that as part of his pitch both internally and externally.

“I’m not unique on that front; there are many people within our company that have seen an opportunity to do something new and exciting and better within our organization and have personally worked to make that vision become a reality, rolled up their sleeves and subsequently have been rewarded from a career standpoint,” he says.

But most leaders are a bit hesitant to promote people quickly. How do you know who and when to promote? Belcher says you ask people to step up and then you let them do it — but you don’t make a secretary the chief financial officer, you have them take one pay bump at a time.

“We look for individuals who will raise their hand and look for an opportunity to go above and beyond — one step above and beyond — what their current job description might state,” he says.

Once someone has been trained and shows exemplary competence in a new role, there’s no reason to hold them there just for the sake of holding them there.

“They’ll only be constrained by what they’re personally able to accomplish, and we have plenty of examples of people who have come in and been promoted and been promoted many times over within short periods of time,” Belcher says.

Of course, letting people grow up that fast will mean some employees will reach their limits. When that happens, you have to decide what you’ve run into.

“There are two options with somebody who is not able to keep up.” Belcher says. “One is to make sure you don’t promote them beyond their capabilities, and if they’re a valuable, contributing member of the team within their portion of the business, you make sure you don’t pull them out of their comfort zone and into a world where they’re not going to be successful.”

Dealing with that comes back to only considering people who have expressed interest in moving up and, when people are about to move up, having a very frank conversation about what the exact specifications of that job will be.

“Many employees will know when they might be moving out of their comfort level and into an environment which could stretch their own personal professional goals and objectives,” Belcher says. “So when opportunities arise to take on ever-increasing portions of the business or responsibility, we get into a very open dialogue with our employees about what the new challenge would be if they were to take it. We tell them how we would define success in the role, what the expectations of the individual might be, and, really, the more open and frank the dialogue, the greater the chance we have of not taking a situation, which may be working well for the company and one of our team members, and making it into a situation where it’s actually bad for everybody.”

The second issue that you can run into is someone who simply cannot hang with a fast-paced culture.

“Now, if they’re not able to contribute in any way (because) the business is just too rapidly changing and, frankly, too aggressive and ambitious for their liking, part of developing … the hyper growth component is not compromising when a situation is obviously not going to work out,” he says.

But when you’re recruiting wisely and looking to the people stepping up for more work, Belcher says the second problem is uncommon because you won’t make yourself fall in love with an internal candidate when a job opens up.

“Again, I’m probably sounding a little bit like a broken record here, but the way in which a company is able to protect itself best against a scenario where they promote somebody into a position, which is uncomfortable for that employee, is to have good, credible alternatives available,” he says. “We do everything we can to have a great, deep bench of talent whom we’ve known for some time and know us well. So when a specific opportunity arises where we don’t have a match internally, we can engage in a meaningful dialogue in a relatively short period of time with somebody from outside of InnerWorkings.”

How to reach: InnerWorkings Inc., (312) 642-3700 or www.inwk.com