Mitch Lowe is not looking for sympathy. He just wants you to know that the rapid growth of Redbox Automated Retail LLC — going from a dozen kiosks to more than 27,000 locations nationwide where you can pick up a movie for a dollar — has come with a few challenges along the way.
“If you asked most people in business what you would be worried about, growth would not be one of them, especially in the economy we’ve had over the last couple years,” says Lowe, president of the $1.16 billion subsidiary of Coinstar Inc. “But growth brings on a whole set of challenges that are unusual and very complex.”
One of the most complex challenges is finding people to fill the constant job openings that tend to come about with a rapidly growing business.
“You need to hire people very quickly, and you need to work a lot harder than I ever expected in making sure you don’t cut corners in your hiring,” Lowe says. “You try to continue to keep your high standards as far as the people that you hire and the rigor that you put in finding people who are the perfect fit.”
With the popularity of Redbox, Lowe is not lacking for quantity when it comes to receiving applications for newly posted job openings. But the quality is sometimes a different story.
“When you are so attractive, you start to have a lot of folks who are trying to get jobs there who are really good at presenting themselves but are not so good at fitting in with the culture or the style of the company,” Lowe says. “When you’re trying to hire 50 people a week, it starts to get very tedious, and you see people inclined to cut corners.”
Lowe needed to find a better way to fill personnel needs at Redbox that would prevent the kind of compromises that could ultimately hurt the 1,600-employee company’s ability to keep growing.
Make it a team effort
The solution to the hiring conundrum, like everything else about Redbox, was arrived at in a flash. Implementation would take a little more time and effort, but the idea became apparent very quickly.
“We have always been a fast-action company, and I believe we did this within a couple days,” Lowe says. “You have to set up an environment where making mistakes is not something that you try to hide or are fearful of.”
The idea was to get more people involved in interviewing potential job candidates. It wouldn’t just be a single department head or a department head and a division president.
“We instituted this practice of 100 percent unanimity in bringing on any individual new employee,” Lowe says. “We had typically seven people across the company from all levels who would interview any new candidate from the person at reception to someone who works in the field to a VP to myself. And even if the hiring manager was 100 percent behind hiring this person, if the merchandiser who merchandised the jewel stores did not agree that this person should be hired, we did not hire this individual.”
The idea was to get more people to take ownership of the culture and the responsibility of bringing good people to Redbox.
“Everyone realized that I have as much to say about whether we hire the absolute best people that I can count on and can count on leading the company as anybody else does,” Lowe says.
The opportunity to be part of a job interview would be open to anyone. Actually, it was even more than that. It would become an expected part of your duties as an employee at Redbox.
“There are going to be people who don’t make themselves available to conduct the interviews,” Lowe says. “So you need to make it much like our jury system in the United States where employers are required to allow people to participate in juries. It has to come from the top, a very clear statement that the reason why we are doing this is so that, over time, we build an incredible group of people who are going to be dedicated to solving problems. It’s going to be a much more enjoyable place to work. In order to do that, you have to participate. You have to live up to the rules of this process.”
Lowe was confident that the collaboration and involvement of other people in the hiring process would make a big difference in the quality of people who were offered jobs at Redbox.
“It wasn’t just a poster on the wall that said, ‘We believe in integrity and humility and we believe in perseverance,’” Lowe says. “It was real and no matter where you were in the company, you were responsible for hiring people that lived up to those values.”
It didn’t all happen that smoothly, of course, and Lowe had a few problems to overcome to get this new employment interview protocol up and running. First and foremost was the scenario where a hiring manager didn’t get the candidate he thought was best for a position because someone from another department didn’t see it the same way.
“This was a very controversial idea,” Lowe says. “Not everybody agreed with it, especially the hiring managers who did not want to lose their authority in who they were going to hire. People imagined, and this actually came to pass, that they would be really sold on a candidate.
“This person was going to be working for them and an individual in the call center didn’t think this person represented our core values and vetoed the individual. There were all these debates that happened very quickly upfront. They got it out on the table. ‘I don’t think this is going to work because it is going to slow down our process,’ or, ‘I know best who I should hire and these others won’t.’”
Lowe reiterated his belief that getting more people involved in conducting interviews, even if those people weren’t in the same department as the position being hired for, was a good thing.
To further bolster his position, he referenced the book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” by James Surowiecki.
“It’s the basis for our jury system and the basis for why democracy works,” Lowe says. “The core tenet is that a lot of people with some information on a topic, if they all get together and vote about what they believe in on a topic, they are more likely to be correct than if you put two or three experts on the topic trying to answer a question. … So that’s why we have this random group of people interviewing from different perspectives.”
A matrix was built that would list out categories of employees and the quantity of people that had to participate in the interview. It was done in such a way that interviewers would be chosen randomly by the human resources team, with anywhere from five to 11 people selected, depending on the level of the position.
“You have to be careful you don’t set it up so it can be manipulated and become a stacked deck,” Lowe says. “The trick is the hiring manager is not picking the people who interview the candidates because the hiring manager can be very biased.”
As much as Lowe believed this was a great idea, he did not force it upon the employees at Redbox.
“I have to show that I am not stuck and stubborn with my own preconceptions and my own ideas all the time,” Lowe says. “Only very rarely do I push through my own beliefs that might be contrary to others. Set the example that you are open to trying new things and new ideas and not being fixated on your own view of the future.”
He didn’t get everyone to agree with the plan. But through being transparent and willing to discuss the idea and answer questions, he was able to earn their support.
“When you have that consensus building, people say, ‘Well, I don’t agree, but the majority of you do and I trust you and I have faith in you, so I will try it.”
Perhaps the most important piece of this new hiring practice, aside from earning support for the idea, was to put employees in the best position to conduct good job interviews. The first point covered was critical if this plan was to have any chance of being a success.
“There was a stated rule at the very beginning of those meetings that no one was going to try to force you to change your mind,” Lowe says.
The reason this rule was so important was that there needed to be a way to resolve conflicts peacefully so that no one felt pressured to change their opinion for the wrong reason. If that wasn’t the case, the system would lose all legitimacy.
In addition to having the freedom to make their own choices, employee interviewers would also be free to come up with their own questions.
“We try not to script them too much in the way they ask their questions so we get all kinds of feedback from a different perspective,” Lowe says. “We encourage a free flow of questions.”
When an interview is completed, forms are filled out by the interviewer and turned into the human resources person managing the process.
“What they do is if there is more than the majority against hiring this person, we just move on to the next person,” Lowe says. “If it is one or two people out of five or seven or 11, then they will put together a panel to bring that group together to discuss the issues that they saw.”
It was some time after the system had been implemented that Lowe faced the very scenario his hiring managers had feared.
He had been looking to hire a senior vice president of purchasing for about a year and thought he had found the perfect candidate for the job. But out of the 11 interviews that were conducted, it was a near even split with people both for and against the candidate.
“So we got together, all 11 of us, and everybody explained why they were for or against,” Lowe says. “At the end of that, I could see pretty clearly that the issues that the people raised who thought the candidate wasn’t right for the role, they described things that I had not seen, but made sense.”
Lowe freely admits the decision frustrated him.
“I thought this candidate was perfect,” Lowe says. “What they taught me was that there are things, because of their unique perspective, things they saw that I did not see. And so we decided not to move forward with that candidate. It ended up taking me a whole other year to find the right person. It can be frustrating for the hiring manager, but you have to respect the process and respect the insights that come from the diverse interviewer. The other great benefit of this is that each individual feels that they play a big part in building the leadership and the teams across all parts of the company.”
There has also been a benefit to the people who have been hired under this system.
“We found the wider the range of people that did the interviewing, the more likely we were going to get employees that were going to stay longer, have more impact and have more fun working here,” Lowe says. “And it really has paid off. There’s just a whole sense of passion about Redbox and our mission from everybody, wherever you’re working at Redbox.”
How to reach: Redbox Automated Retail LLC, (866) 733-2693 or www.redbox.com
The Lowe File
Born: Omaha, Neb.
Education: High school graduate
What was your very first job?
Working as a demolition guy in a construction job. My job was tearing apart barns and removing metal roofs and that kind of stuff. It was fun because you could take a hammer and a crowbar and yell, ‘Timber!’ and watch stuff fall. I got this job from a friend of my parents who gave me the job as a favor to my parents to try to keep me out of the house during the summer.
My boss was this guy named Shorty, and he was never satisfied with the work that I did for him or the work that anyone did for him. It taught me a good lesson on how not to motivate and manage people.
Who has had the most influence on you?
One is Gregg Kaplan, the president of Coinstar Inc. What Gregg really taught me was analysis. If you want to continue to make decisions over and over again that end up being right, you need to do a lot of research and analysis and testing.
The other person was the person who was the co-founder of Netflix with me, Reed Hastings. He taught me focus. Focus on the big things. Focus on the things that could change the business in a big way. Leave the small things for later.
Who would you have loved to have dinner with and why?
It would be Thomas Jefferson. He was such an innovator and such a great creator. He was always devising tools and equipment to solve problems and he lived in such a turbulent time. I would love to see what was going on in his brain.