I address many topics relating to ecommerce leaders in this blog. Most companies state that 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 leaders 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, this post address a couple of 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.
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.