Commerce is transforming at a mind boggling pace. What it takes to be a good eCommerce leader at a CPG brand is evolving right along with it.
But there is no one size fits all, or perfect definition of an eComm leader. There is only the right leader for the right time or right stage of eComm maturity. To take an example from history, consider Winston Churchill. Most people would agree that Churchill was one of the best wartime leaders in history, but less than effective during times of peace.
You may find the same to be true with eCommerce leaders. Some are cut out for the “wartime” pace of building a strategy and organization from the ground up when improvisation, and bulldog tenacity and optimism are key. While others are better for the slow and steady state of late stage maturity when it’s more about fitting the pieces together and building consensus.
Below you’ll find a framework of important leadership traits and characteristics categorized based on where an organization is on its digital journey (a topic covered in-depth in our “Building a High-Performance CPG eCommerce Organization” report). We compiled these lists with input from digital leaders at some of the world’s biggest consumer brands.
Characteristics of an eCommerce leader
What’s important based on your brand’s level of eComm maturity
If you’re a CEO, this framework provides a good checklist to use in evaluating your current eCommerce leadership. It’s important that you find the right leader to match where you are in your eComm maturity journey. Failing to do so will likely slow down your progress.
If you’re an eComm leader, it gives you a good idea of what skills you may need to stretch to develop if you want to stay relevant as your company evolves, or prepare yourself for that next career move.
Traits of an eCommerce leader: Brands at a low level of eComm maturity
For brands just starting to participate in eCommerce, eComm likely is still a blip on the radar, representing a small, albeit fast growing, fraction of sales. Teams, therefore, are still small and tend to be focused around Amazon. It’s important that the leader of the team be first and foremost a technician. Someone who really understands the ins and outs of Amazon, has a good working knowledge of other eComm platforms, and can work independently with few or no other resources.
For brands at a low level of eComm maturity, the eComm leader also needs to be a pioneer — an opportunistic problem solver with a startup mindset. Not only do they need to “bring expert eComm knowledge and educate the rest of the organization,” as Neel Arora, Global Head of eCommerce at Nestlé aptly put it, “they also need to be an inventor of new ways of working and doing things.” What’s more, they also need to be “a sprinter, moving quickly to take advantage of immediate opportunities,” adds Arora.
"It's a lot harder moving an organization from a 'low' level of eComm maturity to 'medium' than it is moving from 'medium' to 'high'. Because moving initially from brick & mortar to an eComm / digital environment — getting that ship to move — is hard versus what's next to come."
Mike McGoohan Senior Vice President, Marketing & Strategy Central Garden & Pet
Traits of an eCommerce leader: Brands at a mid-level of eComm maturity
Following the wave of massive eCommerce growth the past 18 months or so, many brands have quickly advanced into a mid-maturity stage. And eComm leaders at this stage are now confronting the new reality set up by the pandemic, which requires a unique skill set versus brands just starting to participate in eCommerce.
One fundamental problem is that many eComm leaders have climbed the ranks being promoted based on their technical skills. But technical skills only go so far. They don’t necessarily translate to being successful within the larger organization, which requires a more strategic and commercial mindset — i.e., understanding where eComm fits in the company’s overall strategy, and the strategies of retailer partners.
Knowing how to work the organization also is critical at this mid-level stage of eComm maturity. The eComm leader must have the soft skills needed to champion eComm throughout the organization, rally the troops and gain buy-in across functional teams critical to advancing digital, e.g., Supply Chain; NPD/Innovation; Finance/Revenue Management, and more. This new breed of leader is commercially savvy, making planned and deliberate decisions based on data and insights (versus seat-of-the-pants).
"The type of eComm leader that will help propel you into the future isn't the one who really knows tech but has limited business experience. It's the one who has operations experience and business acumen, who can translate eComm from an operational perspective to help people make better business decisions."
Diana Haussling VP General Manager, eCommerce Colgate-Palmolive
Traits of an eCommerce leader: Brands at the highest level of eComm maturity
Brands at the highest level of eCommerce maturity have changed the talk track. It’s not just about eCommerce anymore, it’s just commerce — with a huge portion of it digitally influenced. Brands at this stage “get it.” They’ve fully embraced digital as an integral part of the consumer shopping journey. And they’re working hard to integrate digital — along with digitally specific KPIs and incentives — into the roles and functions across the entire organization.
This kind of environment and level of digital maturity requires more than an eComm champion. It requires an eComm “connector.” A visionary with strong business acumen who can orchestrate change and organizational transformation. It’s about setting and reinforcing a digital-first strategy. It’s about understanding how each role fits into eComm and generally rethinking how you do business, leading with digital (especially when most processes have previously been designed for B&M).
An effective high maturity eCommerce leader will anticipate and plan for disruptive changes in the market. This person should be spearheading the strategy for third-party logistics and drop shopping (3PL) and last mile delivery, and should be leading the charge on developing new attribution models for retail media ROI. They should be championing and developing test & learns across new commerce platforms and technologies (voice commerce, social commerce, quick commerce). But to think this person is just a pie in the sky visionary would be a mistake. In addition to seeing the future, they have to be able to get the organization executing the really complex work of eCommerce — in the present. They will be the ones driving workstreams around eCommerce profitability and omnichannel assortment.
"The scale of organizational change needed is huge and never-ending. The digital leader of tomorrow is one who can spot future trends and changes and start preparing for them today. By taking a long-term view on change management, they will be able to shift the organization's center of gravity to more of a digitally ready mindset."
Neel Arora Global Head of eCommerce Nestlé
So what? Now what? What can brands do?
Conduct an eCommerce readiness assessment. First, organizations need to understand where they are in terms of eCommerce maturity in order to know what traits are needed in an eComm leader. One way to do this is via an in-depth organizational assessment. Or take our eComm Readiness Assessment to quickly benchmark your company’s progress toward eComm readiness.
Recruit and retain the right talent. The commerce landscape is changing fast. Organizations that can attract, train, and retain the “right” eComm talent — leadership, bench talent, and other supporting team members — will be best positioned to manage through the change, setting themselves up for future success and they move through the different stages of eCommerce maturity.
Systematize talent management. There’s no time like the present to build your recruiting machine, especially if you’re looking to land tomorrow’s leaders. Put a systematized process in place for onboarding and training. Nurture talent internally as well by slotting people in and out of eComm roles for cross-training.
Consider new talent profiles. Finding qualified eComm talent to fill open roles is a big tension point for brands. Low supply and high demand is resulting in a land grab. But keep in mind: What got you here, won’t get you there. So, consider broadening your scope beyond eComm to identify new profiles of talent, both internally and externally. Mike McGoohan, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Strategy at Central Garden & Pet said, “Some of the most outstanding profiles I’ve found are smart people who are great business leaders, and they’ve learned eCommerce and digital in the last few years.”
Leverage automation & technology. Organizations need to separate out basic eCommerce tasks, which can often be automated, from value-added activities where internal talent should focus their time. Then invest in technology and automation for basic, repeatable tasks. Also consider how an analytics tool, like Profitero, can be used to multiply the effectiveness of existing talent.
Note: For more advice on how to find the right people to succeed in digital roles, as well as skills to develop as an eComm leader, view this on-demand Commerce Live session on “Reevaluating eCommerce Talent” with Diana Haussling, VP General Manager, eCommerce at Colgate-Palmolive and Mike McGoohan, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Strategy at Central Garden & Pet.
Contact us to learn more about how Profitero can help you rethink your eComm talent management approach.