We recently connected with Michael McDowell, Innovation Partnerships Manager, at RB. Michael has had an amazing career. He has seen the growth of the Internet and the ways in which technology has shifted business. His continued hunger to learn and grow has played a big role in Hertz’ evolution along the way. Michael has been pivotal in the growth of the organization’s web development team, business analysis team and analytics. After 21 years at Hertz, he began doing consulting work in the startup space, joined Brand Innovators’ Innovation Advisory Council and he has now transitioned to a job where innovation is not only welcomed, but it is a requirement for his job!
1. You had an incredible career with Hertz. You were there for over 21 years! That is significantly longer than most people stay at companies today. Why did you stay there for over 21 years?
In all honesty, I never thought I’d be there that long. I started at Hertz in 1997. There was a lot of job jumping going on at the time, especially in e-commerce, which is what I was doing and it was really far from my house. I thought, this is going to be one, two years tops and then I’ll move on to something different. And the reality is that I kept pivoting roles within the same company.
I spent the first four years growing a web development team from just me to 15 people. Then I switched to the business analysis team, which would now be called product ownership. I helped a couple other people grow that team up into about 15 people from nothing. Then I shifted into innovation and did that for six, seven years. After that, I shifted into digital optimization. So it was all these little pivots that kept me fresh.
You think about car rental and it’s fairly standard but there was so much innovation going on in the space, whether it was online in terms of reservation processes or in-car technology, which I got to work on. I did hackathons in Silicon Valley. I was doing error resolution, error proofing, using data analytics. It was always interesting.
The undercurrent to all of that was really the people. I was fortunate enough that the large percentage of my team worked there for 15 years or more. A lot of us started our careers around the same time and we all started moving up through the company at the same time. It was a great group of people. And I keep in touch with them very closely now. When you’re surrounded by great people, you’re either encouraging them to do great work or they’re encouraging you to do your best work, then it’s really easy to stay.
2. In the startup and technology space, we often talk about innovation and not being afraid to fail. How has this been instrumental in your career?
Well, specifically with innovation, you can’t be afraid to fail because if you’re not failing regularly, you’re not really innovating. Innovation is fraught with failure because you’re trying to push the boundaries and you’re not necessarily sure what customers are ready for. You might be ahead of the curve. You might be trying something a different way. And they’re not all going to be winners.
It would seem like having stayed at the same company for 21 years, that I probably didn’t take a lot of risks. But within that job, I would say that, yes, I definitely took a lot of risks in the role. And I kind of operated with a “what’s the worst thing that can happen” approach. I carry that with pride from college when I was an intern right up until now. Yes, there’s things that could go wrong, it might not go great, and it could be awkward but don’t get consumed by the fear of failure.
“And I kind of operated with a “what’s the worst thing that can happen” kind of approach.”
Just an example, when I was in my senior year of college I’d once waded into the Waldorf Astoria. I saw Bob Wright, who was the CEO of NBC. He was at this event and when the whole thing cleared out I really wanted to talk to him. I really want to work at NBC and I saw him go into the men’s room. So I just waited right there for him to come out.
And then I asked him, “I know you’re super busy. Can I just walk you out of the building?” And he said, “Absolutely.” We walk through the building and I was talking to him about what I was doing. When we got to the doors, he said, “Here’s my pen, here’s a piece paper. I want you to write this down in your own handwriting so you don’t get it wrong. This is my secretary’s phone number. Give her a call. Tell her that I told you to. And tell her you’re looking for this kind of job and she’ll point you in the right direction. That took a lot of guts to do, and it worked out great. Worst case scenario, he would have went, “Yeah, I don’t have any time kid. Sorry.”
3. So you’ve been with RB for about four months now as Innovation Partnership Manager. What does that mean?
My role at RB on the ecommerce team is really to bring the outside inside. A lot of the people here on my team have CPG backgrounds and they know our brands extraordinarily well. They know how to communicate what we do to our customers and how to get the best products out there. Where I come in is in looking beyond the horizon at technologies that could maybe be a good match as a partnership for one of our products. I look at new insurgent brands that are out there making waves in the marketplace. And say, “What are these guys doing?” Right now there’s a lot of talk about boutique eco friendly household products. They’re all the rage. And that’s where a lot of the growth is. So looking at things like that, looking at ways that we could bring outside expertise into the company, whether that’s through, summits, innovation summits, speaker series, things like that. You have to constantly be learning. It doesn’t end when you get out of college.
We work on disruptive innovations like we were piloting at CES. You know, auto replenishment, the idea that you can have a connected Finish dish detergent tub that automatically knows when you’re about to run out. So if you’re like my family, you’re using the dishwasher every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. If you go to get a dishwasher tablet and you don’t have any, well, now you can’t do dishes until you go to the supermarket. So it’s figuring out how to eliminate that sort of frustration. When you’re running low it automatically asks if you’d like to order more tablets and then it can place that order instantly. That’s really innovative and new.
There are some other aspects to my role too like looking at companies for more than just partnerships. Maybe there’s something we want to invest in and keep an eye towards, that sort of thing. But always my goal is to take the information that I’ve learned at a trade show, an innovation day or somewhere else and bring that back inside RB to help invigorate my teammates and colleagues so we can all continue to disrupt and innovate.
4. What has been your biggest failure or misstep in your career and what did you learn from it?
It’s funny, actually, I was just thinking about this one. And, you know, I’ve made mistakes that have stuck with me.
There was there was an incident that I had when I was a manager in web development. And all of a sudden the online enrollment process for Hertz Gold Plus Rewards stopped working and I was convinced that it was not my fault. I was saying to another team in Oklahoma City, “Guys, you did something today. You did this. You broke it. What did you do?” I was adamant that it was not my fault and I didn’t even consider it. And later in the day, this guy sent me a line of code and said, “Right here, this line of code you changed, this is what broke it.” And I looked and I was like, “Oops. Yeah, that was me.”
“And if you do make a mistake, then own up to it.”
Honestly, that is a singular moment in my career that I look at say, “OK. Remember, there’s always a possibility you are wrong.” So don’t ever go to war over something like that. You’re never going to be 100 percent certain that you didn’t break something. And there’s always the possibility. There’s no point in trying to taking on an “us versus them” attitude. Let’s just fix it together and let’s figure it out. And if you do make a mistake, then own up to it.
5. What career accomplishment are you most proud of and why?
I know this sounds cliché, but I’m proud of the accomplishments of my subordinates and watching my subordinates succeed. When I was a manager in the product ownership team at Hertz, I had two associate managers and they were great. They supported me very well and they allowed me to move into doing my innovation role while they took care of the day-to-day stuff.
Once I officially moved into my innovation role, I watched one of them get promoted into my old job and one of them get promoted into a job that was parallel to my old job. They both became leaders. Another guy that I originally hired into the company was just named to the INC 500 fastest growing startups!
Things like that, I think are really great to see and, you know, maybe you had some small bit of influence over something that led to them going the path they went.
6. What is the best piece of advice you would give a young adult about to enter the workforce in the digital marketing emerging technology space?
Be versatile. I was actually just telling my kids this. This may be giving away the secret sauce, but it’s one of the things that’s helped me be successful. It is my ability to bridge different areas of expertise. My whole education was focused on media, marketing, the entertainment industry, and understanding a little bit about business. Then, on the side, I went into technology, IT, the Internet and e-commerce. I came to the professional world with this relatively unique, for its time, ability to speak the same language as both sides, the business and IT.
“This may be giving away the secret sauce, but it’s one of the things that’s helped me to be successful. It is my ability to bridget different areas of expertise.”
I got this great compliment once from a former CIO. He’d asked me if I would mind going to the monthly revenue planning meetings with all of the regional vice presidents. He said no one else understands this stuff like you. You can read the analytics but you can also make sense out of it. He said he needed someone there who can do that and who can stick up for IT. It was validation of everything that I’d been doing.
The other part of this answer is you have to not be afraid. Because what is the worst that can happen, really? If you really follow it down, the worst thing that could happen is maybe you would get fired for trying to do something. But, that’s unlikely. And if you do get fired, is that really the kind of place you want to be working?
7. Do you have any favorite blogs, newsletters, podcasts or books you would recommend?
I’ve been trying to turn people on to blogs and podcasts forever. They are especially helpful now that I have a bit of a commute. My favorite blog is probably Seth Godin’s blog. It’s a marketing blog technically, but it touches on the modern economy, the modern workplace and all these things.
Freakonomics Radio is a fantastic podcast. They have a blog as well and their books are great. The Daily Tech News is a great tech podcast if you have a half-hour to 40 minutes.
The most recent book that I read that was really great is called, Range, by David Epstein. It’s all about bringing outsiders into established companies, much like the way I was brought into RB. So I have a completely different set of anecdotes and associations with problems that I could bring that maybe a lot of people wouldn’t have. Any Malcolm Gladwell book, but Outliers is probably one of the more phenomenal ones. Made to Stick is another great one by, Chip and Dan Heath. And Seth Godin’s book, The Purple Cow.