I address many topics relating to ecommerce leaders in this blog, podcasts and interviews. Most companies tell me they’re looking for a “strong” leader, or an “experienced” leader, or some variation thereof, and pretty much assume that applicants will have the requisite leadership skills. As a recruiter who has specialized in ecommerce and digital marketing since the dawn of the internet, I can tell you that not all candidates fill the bill. And in fact, at the mid-levels, most don’t. No real fault of their own. Companies just don’t train leaders like they used to. Many ecommerce managers are thrown into the deep water, and it’s sink or swim. Corporate mentorship programs in recent years have become less much less common among smaller organizations.
So, in the interest of helping my candidates become stronger leaders, I would like to begin by addressing a few of the key attributes that truly distinguish good leaders from the great ones based on input from candidates I’ve worked with who represent some of the best leaders in digital commerce today.
Learning the Strategic Ecommerce Leaders Approach
Put very simply, you can’t have strategy without leadership. They are truly inseparable. You can certainly create a sound strategic plan, but doing something meaningful with it requires bold leadership. The best strategic ecommerce leaders I know not only fulfill their regular leadership responsibilities, they do it in a proactive and forward-thinking way. They also incorporate a specific set of qualities and characteristics into their leadership style as they lead their team and execute on longer-term objectives and plans. There are really only a few differences between leadership and strategic leadership, but they are big and they are distinctive. The differences center around the way leadership principles are applied. Strategic leaders are not only concerned about fufilling today’s expectations, but they also define and focus on a future agenda that hones in on things that really matter. Defining a long-term for vision for your team is important because that allows you to better allocate scare resources, and channel the collective effort of your team. This prepares the strategic leader to seize opportunities, head off threats and ultimately achieve better results. Thinking, acting and planning strategically should never be considered the responsibility of senior leadership alone. ALL ecommerce leaders, at all levels, are responsible for envisioning and taking action on the future they want to create.
Being an Effective Leader
Anyone can be a “leader” and tell others what to do. Drill sergeants are great at telling others what to do, but few are effective leaders. No one starts off as an effective leader or manager, but you can aspire to improve your skills by learning what leaders do and how they think and what they do. So, what are some of the qualities of successful leaders? They focus on strengths, both in themselves and in others. Ironically, it’s been shown that strong people have more weaknesses than strengths. You can never achieve greatness among the best ecommerce leaders by simply compensating for your weaknesses, but you can become an outstanding manager by identifying your areas of great potential strength- what you like to do and what you like to do well- and then by focusing your energies on becoming an organizational expert in those few areas.
Research has shown that you only have to be excellent in a few areas to move to the top of your field. We see this all around us. Perhaps the most obvious example is in professional sports. Baseball players, for example, tend to be extremely talented in maybe one or two areas. Maybe they’re really good at stealing bases, and also really good at throwing out runners from the outfield. But few are great at everything, such as hitting a large number of home runs, being a Golden Glove, and being exceptionally fast running the bases. An entertainer might be a talented actor, but not necessarily an accomplished dancer or singer.
Another important quality of an effective leader is being a role model, the kind of person everyone wants to look up to and be like. Effective leaders imagine they are living in a gold “fish bowl”, and everyone is watching them. They are hyper aware of the impact of their words and geastures on the people around them. They realize that what they say has tremendous impact. I had a manager once who told me that everyone else on our team was a “loser”, except for me. While that comment gave me a momentary lift, I realized that with that statement I was just one misstep away from becoming a “loser” just like the rest of them. That forever changed my attitude about my work there. Conversely, an effective leader understands that a positive remark by them over someone they exert influence or control can have an inordinately positive effect. Another key quality is one we all recognize- integrity. It is not only the most admired quality but also the most required quality of an effective leader. Trust is what binds all relationships, both personal and in business. Your willingness and ability to trust the people that you look up to and report to is absolutely essential to your ability to perform at your very best.
Building Influence Through Communication
I’m sure all of you have experienced this: When true ecommerce leaders speak, things happen. But before I go into what makes a good communicative leader, allow me to debunk one common myth. Many of us think of leadership communication as a competency much like strategic thinking or project management. But the fact is, ecommerce leadership communication is not a competency. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “What? How can it not be a competency”? It’s more than a competency. It IS your leadership. Everything you do as a leader is manifested through your communication. And it’s important not to confuse management communication with leadership communication. Managers communication accurate and timely information to help people do their jobs and do their jobs better. Ecommerce leaders communicate to get people to think and act differently, working together, aligned and committed. Leaders push people past the normal cynicism, the doubt and uncertainty that exists in an organization. Their voices gets people aligned, engaged and committed. The challenges ecommerce leaders are up against in today’s organizations are enormous, so how do these leaders make sure their voices are heard above the din of the crowd. Hint: It’s not just about having good presentation skills like good eye contact, modulating your voice or pacing your message, knowing your audience, tell them what you told them, etc. To be heard, and I mean really heard, leaders need to speak in three dimensions: Personal, Future and Story.
Personal. All communicators need to make a personal connection. Whether you’re talking about ordering office supplies or describing corporate strategy, leaders need to make a personal connection with the listener(s). They do this by talking about passions and principles, sacrifice and loyalty, service and community, the things that speak to the part of ourselves that we hold most dear. Leaders also must speak the simply easily recognizable truth. People will make a connection with the person they believe is being honest and truthful (this is where integrity comes in which we discussed earlier).
Future. The thing that distinguishes communication among ecommerce leaders is that it needs to be an invitation to a tomorrow that is better than today. Think about all the great communication you’ve heard from the best leaders you’ve worked with. The great ones communication about a tomorrow that is better than today, and it is woven through all of their communications
Storytelling. All great leaders are great storytellers. Research shows that we listen, think and organize our minds in stories. That’s why “storytelling” has been such a big buzzword in digital marketing. We cannot change our outlook on something until we have a new story to replace an existing one. The leader’s job is to help create a new and bigger story, both for us as well for the organization. Many leaders simply try to create a grand story for an organization or a team or even a project, and it falls on deaf ears. The leaders who really have an impact know how to create big stories in which everyone places a starring role. Just think about times during your career when you were happiest. There’s a good chance that during those periods you played a key, starring role in something, whether it was a project or new responsibilities. When your leader spoke, chances are something inside you moved. I’m reminded of the words of author James Humes: Every time you speak, you are auditioning for leadership.
Key Skills of an Ecommerce Leader
Now, let’s talk about the nuts and bolts, day to day know-how that every ecommerce leader needs.
The ecommerce leader is the chief steward of the organization’s electronic storefront (transactional website). Their goal is to drive new traffic, create and deliver an online experience that will endear users to the brand, and turn visitors into customers while maximizing overall profitability of the online business. The responsibilities of the ecommerce “czar” are wide ranging, including strategy, website development, user experience, security, site maintenance, analytics, operations, technology, and oversight of third party service providers. The ecommerce leader also acts as a sort of internal “diplomat” to rally other operations of the company behind the ecommerce side of the business. Ecommerce is big and getting bigger. Forrester Research predicts online sales will account for one of out every ten dollars of overall consumer spending by the year 2016. I guess that’s why they call it ecommerce: We know what the “e” is for, but at the end of the day, it’s all about commerce and driving the business.
The best ecommerce candidates I know couple marketing wisdom with technical know-how – ecommerce managers work closely with website developers and oversee the selection of ecommerce platforms, online payment systems, authentication, security, and an array of other technologies required to operate a web-based business. But besides the technical skills, what else does it take to be an effective ecommerce chief?
Having a Strategic Mindset. The ecommerce leader holds the company’s ecommerce vision. He or she sees long-term market potential and business opportunities. They’re expert at employing research and customer data to drive the business. They think “beyond the margin, ” as I like to call it. Being strategically adept is one of those attributes that comes only with experience. It’s what truly separates the major leaguers from the under-studies. You want concrete examples from your candidates that demonstrate these competencies.
Strong Aptitude for Data and Analytics. I talk a lot about this in my writings, so I won’t dwell on it much further here. Suffice it to say that online marketing is more about analyzing test results and less about gut instinct. In ecommerce, you can measure what works and what doesn’t, sometimes almost instantaneously. Your ecommerce candidate must be highly adept at crunching and interpreting data.
Collaboration/Relationship Making/Influence Maker. Like practically every other job in the realm of digital marketing, ecommerce is ostensibly a team sport. Ecommerce leaders interact with practically all major departments within the business. They also work with many different outside vendors. Cross-collaboration and interpersonal skills are a key part of the job. It’s essential to understand the candidate’s ability to work effectively with teams ranging from product marketing to sales, from finance to customer service, plus external partners. That’s one of the most important areas I probe when conducting reference checks for these candidates. In many instances, the ecommerce chief also plays the role of “change agent”, leading the company through a transformational shift from legacy marketing into online commerce. In those environments, forging cross-functional relationships is mission critical.
Operational and Project Management Expertise. What we’re NOT describing here are the pure technologists. Leave that to the coders and hackers. I believe that the best ecommerce managers are a blend of marketing and technology, the marketing techologists as they’re often called. To them, technology is a means to an end- converting visitors into paying customers. Choosing the right technologies and projecting the vision and mission of an online business is important, but at the end of the day you want an ecommerce leader who brings a proven track record of driving results. That’s how business leaders will measure the ecommerce leader’s success. At the root, ecommerce leaders need a deep understanding of ecommerce metrics including conversion, AOV (average order value), traffic, shipping and so on. . And of course, this includes their ability to attract, hire and retain strong talent, and show demonstrative management and leadership skills (assuming it’s a department of more than one).
When interviewing ecommerce candidates, be sure to ask about their experience juggling multiple and concurrent projects including the following:
• Desktop and mobile website development
• Digital content
• Online merchandising and launching new products
• Brand marketing
• Social media
•Also, confirm their budgeting and P and L experience for positions that are responsible for revenue rather than only operations .
The ecommerce manager needs to be able to describe the consumer’s purchase path on the website, and how to optimize that navigation. Also, make sure they’re well-schooled in cross-selling and upselling. Ask how they have tracked the performance of campaigns on various platforms and acted on those results to optimize consumer engagement and create differential brand experiences.
As for technical skills, this is not an all-inclusive list, but I look for candidates who have familiarity with the following:
• Web Analytics tools
• Strong knowledge of search engine marketing, and all of its variations
• Social media analytics tools
• Ecommerce platforms like Magento, Shopify or Demandware
• Online advertising tools such as Google Adwords, Google Product Listing Ads (PLA’s) and display ads
• Experience working with the major social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google
• Experience with Vine, Instagram and Pinterest can be a “nice-to-have”
Remember: At the end of the day, the ROI you receive from your investment in digital marketing and ecommerce will depend on the caliber of the people you hire.
The Job Description
Recently I received an Ecommerce Director job description from a client (actually, it was spelled “E-Commerce” Director, but don’t get me started on AP style rules!). Nothing unusual there, except that it was exceptionally well-written. As a Director of Ecommerce recruiter who specializes in this space, I’ve been writing these JD’s since the dawn of the internet, and I’ve even written a book on what to look for when hiring ecommerce leaders. But this one truly stood out. Why? Because it leaves little doubt about exactly what the hiring manager is looking for, and believe me, there is nothing worse than a vague Director of Ecommerce recruiter job description.
I’m not going to reproduce the JD in its entirety here, but I would like to pull out a few lines from the “Required Qualifications” section that stood out:
“Proven success in B2B ecommerce.” This particular business is all B2B. Not that they shouldn’t consider someone with B2C experience (and I’m recommending that they do), the first two words in that sentence are most important: Proven success. I don’t know any employer who doesn’t want candidates to be able to demonstrate a proven track record, yet many job descriptions don’t state it. This one is very clear. The employer is telling applicants: “If you’re going to make claims that you met and/or exceeded goals- and we hope you do- we want you to come in prepared to back it up.” The good news is that digital marketing is highly measurable, so that shouldn’t be hard to do. I always advise candidates to actually create a kind of professional diary and make entries whenever something significant in your job occurs, something that helps solidify your value to the employer, something eventful enough that you might just want to share it with another employer some day. Sometimes those achievements can be hard to remember if you don’t actually write them down somewhere. You can always use your resume for that purpose and then condense the entries later into more concise bullet items when you’re ready to send it out.
“In depth knowledge of evolving web technology and trends, and how to apply it to the business.” Unless this is a pure techy job, the Ecommerce Director probably will report up through marketing. Marketing is all about driving the business, so while knowledge of technology is essential, an Ecommerce Director needs to have business acumen. Including a few words in the Ecommerce Director job description that talks about leveraging ecommerce technology to grow the business is good. It will help ensure that you probe for that during candidate interviews.
“Ability to interpret web analytics to translate customer insights into successful marketing programs.” Very concise and extremely well stated. Translation: We are looking for new and compelling ways to engage with our customers, and analyzing and interpreting customer data is key.
“Ability to work on a cross-functional team consisting of Marketing, Creative Design, Customer Service, Sales and IT.” I like how they avoided the usual, “must be able to work in a highly collaborative environment,” and went with something more descriptive. What this does is reveal the true impact of the role across the organization.
“Smart, adept and conversant in communicating strategy and tactical updates to stakeholders.” Again, this is a very concise way of stating the importance of intelligence, being highly skilled at your craft, and the ability to communicate effectively with anyone whose work will intersect with that of the new ecommerce leader.
My biggest beef with some of the ecommerce leadership job descriptions I see is that employers sometimes get too carried away when they list requirements. I remember one Ecommerce Director job description I saw once that required proficiency in more than 30 different ecommerce platforms and programming languages! Just remember that when you write a job description for hiring an ecommerce leader, try to devote less space to how an employee should spend his or her time and more of it addressing performance outcomes. In fact, when I prep candidates for interviews, I always suggest that they ask the hiring manager this question: “What are the 3-5 key things this person needs to accomplish in order to be successful in this job?”
The best ecommerce leadership job descriptions will already answer that question.
Avoiding a Bad Outcome When Hiring Ecommerce Leaders
Spending time on-site with hiring managers and human resources allows me, among many other things, to fully understand why digital marketing and ecommerce recruitment decisions go sideways. In those situations, the stakes are high: Replacement searches are costly, and everyone knows that the next time around, they absolutely must get it right. What’s interesting is that the reasons for mis-hires are pretty consistent. I have found that ecommerce hiring mistakes tend to boil down to these two common issues:
I want someone who doesn’t work in a silo. While being a lone ranger is great if you’re a cross country runner, it can be highly destructive in the world of online sales and marketing. Just this year, I have conducted two searches specifically to replace digital marketing and ecommerce leaders who were negatively impacting efficiencies and morale because of tendencies to work in total isolation or to throw up interdepartmental barriers. In one situation, the incumbent declared that he thought staff meetings were a waste of his time, choosing instead to communicate through emails, texts and phone calls even though everyone was physically located in the same building, some even on the same floor. Perhaps he came from an organization where leaders lacked a unified vision, or where departments operated to the beat of their own drums rather than towards a common goal. Perhaps it was due to lack of training or even immaturity. Whatever the root cause, hiring a digital marketing or ecommerce specialist who avoids information-sharing and collaboration is like taking a razor blade and stabbing at a tightly wound ball of rubber bands.
I want a stronger leader. We probably all know someone who was very intelligent and highly skilled who was promoted into an ecommerce leaders position, only to fail at the job. By the same token, each of us can probably think of someone who had average intellectual ability and average technical skills, but went on to become a very successful leader. Clearly, the personal styles of leaders can vary widely, but in my meetings with clients who are conducting replacement searches for leadership roles, they explain that the shortfall almost always has to do with emotional intelligence, and for digital marketers and ecommerce leaders, I’m going to put motivation, empathy and social skills right at the top. That’s because employers tell me they want leaders who are expert at building and retaining talent, and the fact is, many online businesses have grown from the inside out. Employees who started with the company 10 years ago working in the warehouse are now in positions of accountability over people and budgets. Even with maturity, some people need on-going training to enhance their emotional intelligence. As someone who has placed literally hundreds of leaders during the course of my recruiting career, I can guarantee you this: The higher your emotional intelligence IQ, the better the leader you will become.
Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, is one of the nation’s preeminent executive recruiters in ecommerce, digital and omnichannel marketing. Jerry has been recruiting and placing marketing professionals for more than 33 years. With more than 200 published articles on his blog and LinkedIn profile, and widely quoted by leading business publishers including Bloomberg, AdAge, AdWeek, DigitalCommerce 360 and Target Marketing, Jerry is the “voice” of best practices in the recruitment and hiring of ecommerce leaders and digital marketing professionals. Jerry is also the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Careers in Ecommerce and Digital Marketing,” on Amazon, and participates in many leading digital marketing and ecommerce conferences and webinars. He is also a vetted member of the Clarity.fm faculty of experts, specializing in the fields of digital commerce. Check out Jerry’s other insights on the Thought Leadership section of the Bernhart Associates website.