Bearing Partnership head of executive search Aryn Hurst-Clark talks about what to look for in your ecommerce leadership team
A s French Connection delivers the first ever direct ecommerce experience on YouTube, how is it that some ecommerce directors seem to get it so right online? What leads a company like Burberry to hire someone for its senior digital team from such an ostensibly incongruous brand such as Xbox? How come Matches Fashion became so successful online when the person developing the strategy was a finance director?
If you’re a retailer looking to emulate their success, you need to know what the commonalities are between these leaders. Having built up our expertise by hiring into the UK’s tier 1 ecommerce brands, we’d like to share some learnings with you. Namely, what you should look for in your ecommerce leadership team and how to go about acquiring it without being hoodwinked in the process.
What does an ecommerce leader need?
Creativity or (more importantly) the ability to manage people with it. It’s about managing a team with a constant vigil of ‘what’s new’ and ‘what’s possible’ within digital, then finding ways to commercialise those ideas.
The pace of change within ecommerce is such that your leadership team needs to be able to think strategically to manage the fire fight of the everyday drama, alongside zen-like contemplation for developing new business opportunities.
With ecommerce being underpinned by technology, relationships with platform suppliers or the internal technology teams are paramount. As are relationships with wholesalers, finance, merchandisers, customer service, logistics and external marketing agencies. A dynamic and highly proficient negotiator that can also motivate their stakeholders will pay for their wage with cost savings alone, let alone increases in performance.
The lifeblood of an ecommerce function is the ability to make decisions derived from the site’s data. Leaders will demonstrate geek-like obsession for analytics and performance measurements.
Digital is a fluid industry and favours first mover and fast follower strategies. This means taking risks. Being able to shut down initiatives that aren’t working out (even if it’s their own idea) - is an essential part of a leader’s strength of management.
How do I go about acquiring it?
The starting point should be a realisation that the odds are against you. Not only is there a dearth of talent available to approach, but the selection of those candidates creates its own problems. You may believe you’re getting an exceptional candidate when, in fact, they may well have inhibited the potential growth of their last company’s ecommerce function.
Avoid the ‘looks good on paper’ mentality. They must be good they worked for Amazon right? Possibly. But piggy backing brand name experience or, worse still, making a decision made purely on gut reaction is a ‘luck’ based decision.
You should write the brief from scratch. If you’ve ever sought to replace an ecommerce director, did you write a new brief or amend/copy the last one? If you’re seeking to replace an existing head of ecommerce, the overarching goal maybe the same, but the challenges will undoubtedly be different. Good executive search companies will also work with you to develop the brief in partnership, guiding you through the pitfalls and minimising the risk of presenting a badly thought out shortlist. Differentiate your company by offering to invest in their development. The number of retailers offering executive coaching to its senior ecommerce team is minimal and it pays dividends.
A PLC can normally afford to make a few mistakes in its top level hiring without sinking the company. The same mistake for your ecommerce function can seriously set the channel back, and if that person is involved in bad outsourcing or ecommerce platform decisions, you can multiply the time and cost wasted. The top tier of management and decision making within ecommerce requires intuition, unparalleled relationship building and leadership. To get them, it takes a retailer’s willingness to invest the time and effort into the hiring process that will deliver the best results.