Eric D. Belcher was not overwhelmed by the fact that his company went from having a presence in four countries to having one in 44 countries in just a single year.
“When you’re in a rapid-growth environment, change is … not just something that you need to embrace and get used to,” says Belcher, president and CEO at InnerWorkings Inc. “It’s something you learn to feed on. It becomes exciting and important. My guess is if we dialed back our ambitions and had more time to spend worrying, who knows? We might find ourselves using that time to worry or talk about people at the water cooler.”
Belcher and his team have worked hard to position InnerWorkings as the market leader in outsourced print management services. They’ve done so by giving the customers what they want – a one-stop shop that can tackle all their printing needs.
He has been able to sell that promise and in the process, rapidly expand the company’s presence around the world. Belcher says the frenetic pace is only going to keep gaining speed.
“For us, it isn’t as though we’ve gone global and now we can sit back and integrate and grow at 5 to 10 percent and do what many other organizations do in situations like this,” he says. “We’ve both gone global and added about 300 people to our ranks last year. But we’re going to add at least that again this year to our company and probably grow at an extremely rapid clip once again.”
New people are showing up almost daily, bringing the total number of employees to more than 1,200 and still growing. Belcher says it’s not always easy, despite his affinity for rapid growth, to keep everyone moving forward as one.
“That makes the communication of who we are and what we do and where we’re going and making sure everybody is aligned all the more challenging than it would be if it were a more static environment,” Belcher says.
“We’re pioneering a space and we expect substantial competition at some point. By the time that competition comes, we hope to have a fairly meaningful jump on that competitor or set of competitors.”
Here are a few things Belcher and his team do to manage the company’s rapid growth and prepare for future competition in the print management industry.
Find the right fit
Belcher doesn’t want there to be any misunderstanding with potential new hires at InnerWorkings. In short, the message he conveys is that the future is subject to change and so is your job.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to show up on day one knowing that you’re going to have to deliver and it’s not the company that’s going to tell you in some long-written form exactly what the expectations are,” Belcher says. “It’s up to you to help us figure out where the gaps are and plug your talents in.”
Recruiting at InnerWorkings is done for individuals and not for specific positions. The reason is that some positions that exist today will not exist tomorrow and some that will exist next week haven’t even been thought of yet.
“There is sort of a natural selection that goes on with the candidate pool when you do recruit more for the company, the cause, the energy, direction and vision versus, ‘Hey, I’ve got a role and I need to fill it,’” Belcher says.
When you’re looking to bring people in quickly, you have to be in an almost perpetual state of recruiting. It’s probably not something you should delegate.
“I do delegate plenty, but on this one, I stay pretty involved as I find it’s much better to have a firm grasp of who we’re partnering up with early on versus making a decision and then hoping there will be an opportunity to blend that person into the culture and strategy of the business,” Belcher says. “It’s just time well spent.”
Skills are obviously important, but when you’re growing fast, you need to focus more on personality and attitude and make sure the person you’re looking at can handle whatever you throw at them.
“We are looking for people who are hungry and have a fire in their belly,” Belcher says. “People who see the master goal, the major goal that we have as a company, which is revolutionizing one of the oldest and largest supply chains in the world. We look for people who can get excited about that just like us. So there’s a passion, a fire, an intangible that we are constantly searching for.”
One of the keys to InnerWorkings’s success at finding people is the recruiting groundwork that was laid before the company entered hyper-growth mode.
“We work very hard to understand the people that we hire and their background not so much from doing the rote checking of self-supplied references and making a few calls like that,” Belcher says. “We do it but by finding contact network overlaps where we can get candid feedback and also by watching an individual as they perform over a period of time prior to joining our company.”
If you don’t have the time to do that, focus hard on the attitude because it will be a key to your new hire fitting in and meshing with your team.
“We just communicate frequently and openly and generally; decisions made about hiring are made in a fairly collective manner where a number of people within our organization will have a chance to weigh in on somebody that we’re thinking about hiring,” Belcher says.
While Belcher believes the future is wide open for InnerWorkings, there do need to be goals and objectives to keep everyone on the same page. It’s the ability to toe that line and promote independent thought that still fits in with a common goal that is his challenge.
“It would be easier for me to micromanage and be more autocratic than it is to step back and have the trust that is required for people to flourish,” Belcher says. “There’s a way to stand back and allow autonomy, but yet still have a firm understanding of what’s going on in the business. That’s the challenge.”
Belcher and 10 other members of his leadership team have put on paper a few priorities that they each plan to pursue for 2012.
“It’s not a broad, ‘I’m going to do a good job this year,’” Belcher says. “It’s very specific. That group meets once a week and we pull that document out every month and we make sure that within the macro, we all understand what everybody else is focused on and expects to accomplish throughout the course of the year.”
With that foundation in place, leaders are free to work within a set of parameters to find their own creative ways to deal with issues and challenges that arise each day.
“There is everything in between those one or two top priorities and the day-to-day, which is the vast majority of what fills our work days,” Belcher says. “With that component of the business and how we interact as a leadership team with one another, it’s very open, very dynamic and there’s a tremendous amount of autonomy that each leader has to make decisions.
“Ultimately, as long as there is that vision of what is the one thing that my function or my geography or my role needs to knock out this year to make it a successful year, it works.”
The regularly scheduled meetings work to keep everyone apprised of what their colleagues are doing. Beyond that, Belcher says he doesn’t want his direct reports to feel like they have to check in with him on every little decision that needs to be made.
“I want to be able to make decisions that I feel safe and comfortable making without having to hit the pause button and consult and hold meetings,” Belcher says. “There’s a simple framework that we’re all working toward, but outside of that, there’s quite a lot of room and freedom and excitement that people feel.
“The enjoyment people feel on Monday morning is exponentially magnified when there is this sense that I can make decisions within my world. If I don’t make them all right, which I’m not going to, I don’t have to worry about hearing about that. As long as I’m making decisions, everything is going to be good.”
Take smart risks
It may not always seem like it’s possible, but you’ve got to have a plan in place no matter how fast your business is growing. If you don’t, it will eventually get the best of you and you’ll hit the wall.
“That starts not with the CEO saying, ‘Hey guys, go take some risk and it will be cool if it doesn’t work out,’” Belcher says. “It starts with having a disruptive, ambitious and aggressive growth strategy which by definition is somewhat friendly to taking some risks and trying new things.”
If you always keep the big picture in mind and trust that your people are talented enough to deal with the occasional bump in the road, you can avoid the things that slow companies down such as a bottleneck for making decisions.
“It isn’t as though we’re reckless and charging ahead and someday, we’ll look back and clean up the mess,” Belcher says. “But we’re very comfortable making quick decisions as a company. I think we’re just very good at correcting as we go.”
Dialogue needs to be regular so that people constantly feel they are in the loop and know what’s happening and know that they need to be doing.
“We hold quarterly calls, we call it an open mic where for an hour, we’ll get on and it’s essentially a Q&A with people from around the world asking questions and things of that nature,” Belcher says. “It’s a very candid and open internal conversation.”
Belcher also makes it a priority to get out to his company’s locations around the world as frequently as he can to have face-to-face meetings. But the key, whether it’s laying out a new plan or troubleshooting an existing one, is to keep things as simple and manageable as possible.
“We really do keep to a minimum that which is most important to us, which is client retention and the reputation we have in the marketplace based on what our clients say about us,” Belcher says.
The formula has helped InnerWorkings grow from $482.2 million in 2010 to $633.8 million in 2011. One of the keys to enduring success will be Belcher’s ability to stay ambitious.
“The natural inclination when something is working so well is to hunker down and try to protect it,” Belcher says. “We suppress that and our goal is to keep introducing is at as rapid a clip as we can do without compromising our service offering.”
How to reach: InnerWorkings Inc., (312) 642-3700 or www.inwk.com
People with the right attitude help you grow.
Have a plan everyone understands.
Make smart decisions.
The Belcher File
Eric D. Belcher
President and CEO
Born: St. Paul, Minn.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa.; MBA, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business
What was your very first job?
It was working for the village that I lived in in Southern California for the summer, doing things like laying asphalt and trimming trees. Laying asphalt in the summer in Southern California, as hot as it is, I lost a lot of weight. It taught me I better go to college and get an education. It was a requirement of my parents that I get a job for the summer and I guess that’s the one I saw advertised and went and applied for.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life?
My wife, Lisa. Knowing me as a person, knowing me from the inside, she’s able to put into a unique perspective questions I may have regarding my work environment. And I can always trust that she is going to give me the most direct and open feedback that I’ll get from anybody, anywhere. It doesn’t hurt that she’s super bright.
Belcher on making decisions: The day I see the company struggling to make the difficult decision or taking too long to make what is a somewhat obvious decision, but yet is not being talked about with pure intellectual honesty in meetings — that type of stuff we have zero tolerance for. We’re just very open and we’re very quick at making decisions. That’s in part because of the business model and our strategy and our business approach and that’s what gives me the confidence that we’re doing things right.