People & recruitment

How to hire the best ecommerce leaders

How to hire the best ecommerce leaders

Hiring an ecommerce leader, whether it be a manager or a director or a vice president, is a big deal. It can represent one of the most important hires a business can make, if not THE most important for organizations that sell products exclusively online. It will touch practically all aspects of a company’s operation from finance to HR to legal, and can even transform its culture from one that operates through more traditional sales and marketing channels into one that is more digitally driven. The most feared response I get from employers when I ask questions about what specific skills and background they’re looking for in this person is along the lines of, “That’s why we’re talking to you,” or, “We’re not really sure.” Believe me: Candidates will ask the same questions, and those are the last answers they want to hear.

Here are some of the most critical questions you should be asking BEFORE you actually begin your search.

Should they report directly to the top, or report up through marketing, sales or IT?

That depends. The reporting relationship will speak to your commitment to ecommerce and the message you want to send to the outside world about the importance of the online channel at your organization. A VP or higher ecommerce leader, at larger companies, will typically report to the President or CEO when your web business is at least as big as any of your other sales channels. Essentially, that puts this person on par with other business heads who participate in executive planning sessions that influence the overall direction of the company, which can include Board interaction. At the Manager or Director level in mid-sized or larger companies, ecommerce typically falls under marketing, or if there’s is no marketing, sales or customer-facing responsibilty it can be slotted into operations. IT had control of ecommerce back in the earliest days of online commerce when businesses didn’t know where else to put it. These days I recommend it only if the position is going to be a predominately technical position such as web development.

What do you want your Ecommerce Leader to achieve?

Ecommerce does not operate in a vacuum. The key to understanding this question is knowing how ecommerce will align with your other broader-based business goals. Do you expect ecommerce to eventually match, or even overtake, other sales channels, and when do you expect that occur? Will you need a CRM strategy to maximize customer loyalty? What kind of an investment are you willing to make to achieve all of this? Are you building an ecommerce business from scratch, or are you looking for someone to accelerate your current efforts? It takes different skills and experiences to launch an ecommerce business from the ground up versus taking an existing $100M enterprise, and tripling it. Use the answers to these questions to help build your job description. It is not uncommon for companies to “overhire” these types of positions for the future. That’s OK in ecommerce, but I can’t emphasize this enough: Evaluate and understand your short-term and long-term needs before you even think about hiring an ecommerce leader

Should they manage a team that is remote or on-site, internal or outsourced?

Let me state right from the get-go that I am not a big fan of hiring an ecommerce leader remote if this is your first major ecommerce hire. Sure, it might make it more difficult to attract someone if you’re in a more rural market, but your first choice should be to try to find someone who can work on-site, particularly if you’re a mid-sized or larger business. Ecommerce is a team sport. Ecommerce interacts with practically all departments and strong communication is vital, particularly in environments where online commerce must be fully integrated with other channels. Your next choice should be someone who can show a track record of success working remotely. The key word phrase here is “track record.” They’re out there. I have placed them. They totally understand what is required to make it work, and they have done it.

As for in-house versus outsourcing, it comes down to skills and time. Digital commerce is a complex machine that requires a long list of specialized know-how. It also takes time to seek out and engage dependable outside specialists. There is no “one size fits all” to this, but based on my experience, outsourcing has been a common choice among my clients that were experiencing a growth spurt, were developing a competitive advantage in a core operation, and wanted to maintain and build on that. Most mature online businesses will develop a hybrid approach.

How can I avoid some of the ecommerce executive recruiting mistakes that have dogged other online businesses?

Culture, culture, culture. Qualifying an ecommerce leader is pretty straightforward once you know what key questions to ask. Then, the conversation turns to fit… or sometimes, it doesn’t. Ecommerce leaders, by definition, are change agents. They are envelope pushers. They move businesses in uncharted directions. That means they have to mesh within the culture of your existing organization, or sometimes that even means slight changes to your culture. You must know the right questions to ask to ensure that they will be a lasting, impactful hire when hiring an ecommerce leader

Remember Bernhart’s Third Law of Ecommerce Executive Recruiting: Success at one dot com does not guarantee success at another. In fact, that is often NOT the case. Avoid the temptation to hire because they came from a brand name you admire or trust. The more important questions when hiring an ecommerce leader are things like P and L responsibility, specific performance metrics, operational efficiencies, market trends they were facing, etc.

These questions are not meant to be all inclusive, of course. I have been known to spend more than two hours drilling deep with a hiring manager. But these are some of the key questions you need to ask to help ensure you identify the right leader for the role.

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


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