There is no one thing that defines an effective leader.

What my previous blog argued was that they were first and foremost people who worked out that their job wasn’t to know the answer but to know how to get to the answer.

This takes three things:

  • first, to build a shared understanding of the facts such that the problem is commonly understood;
  • second, be willing to test and learn from the outcomes about what direction is likely to give the best results and,
  • third, to find rapid, agile ways of implementing fast when testing has identified winning ways forward.

Fascinatingly, the same principle underpins great ecommerce delivery – get the customer insight to define the problem and then test to identify the most effective solution and act fast to mainstream.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise: ecommerce is after all the channel most closely connected with the customer in the market, and in a world that is changing ‘faster than we can learn’, staying connected to the customer is about staying connected to changes in the market and knowing how to respond to them faster than the competition.

As far as leadership in change is concerned we have built a simple model that applies to changing organisations and to engaging with and responding to changing markets.

Leadership in Change

Briefly this suggests that effective leadership in a changing world is built on the capability to:

  • Step back and reflect: Reflect and identify the key challenges; plan how to engage others before acting.
  • Orchestrate change through others: Set a compelling vision and collaborate to use everyone’s talent and potential to deliver it.
  • Focus on the outcome: Keep the goal clear and adapt to find new ways of achieving it using failure as positive learning.
  • Test and learn: Use hypotheses informed through deep customer/market insight to experiment to find the best way forward.
  • Broaden bandwidth: Champion the importance of a diversity of voices and ideas in looking for options that may resolve key issues.
  • Challenge performance and behaviour: Stand firm on values as well as on performance outcomes and address the conflicts as they arise.
  • Manage energy: Appreciate the time and energy it will take and have the stamina to see it through.

There are obvious implications from this framework in terms of individual skills and behaviours. To succeed as leaders individuals will need strong communication skills, the ability to engage and mobilise people, and the courage to stand firm on values and address conflicts.  

There are also implications for being able to work across a diverse range of people (cultural, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) and for understanding how to ensure the organisation builds the capability to manage from hypotheses rather than theses. Finally there are implications for self-management: finding time to think about the issues and yourself and being able to manage your well-being so that you keep healthy, mentally as well as physically.

So, how do you change the organisation then?

You have to be clear where you are going. Think strategically about the organisation you need to be able to deliver your goals. Figure three shows the key elements:

 

Organisation effectiveness

We always start with defining the culture and end with deciding on structure. Form should always follow function in thinking about organisational change – indeed, in our experience it’s not a bad mantra for ecommerce effectiveness either.

The culture that generates success in a world that is changing faster then we can learn is one that values diversity, exploration, testing and that is obsessed about the customer. This is an open culture, always willing to learn new things, change old ways of doing things and accept challenge from inside or outside.

It’s one that does not accept assertions about the world, but that embraces opinions informed from sound data. It is a culture where people make commitments, keep them and take responsibility for themselves and for others whose success is important towards the success of the enterprise as a whole. It is a collaborative culture which does not tolerate inter-departmental politics or ‘not invented here’ behaviours.

Leaders need to identify the key behaviours they want in their teams and work out:

  • What would this look like if it were happening?
  • What would we hear if it were happening?

This really helps both the setting of standards and painting a picture of the future, but also how to give team members feedback when you don’t get what you want.

And what do ecommerce organisations need?

The capabilities needed are technical and personal. The technical ones in ecommerce are specific: insight generation, hypothesis creation and testing execution. These require skills ranging from understanding platform and web implementations and their performance analytics, through insight platform creation, effective customer experience design to copywriting and the judgement of design executions.

The personal ones are about communication effectiveness, the ability to spot and describe issues effectively so everyone understands, and an ability to work to rigorous process and data standards.

We have left out user experience quite deliberately. There is a role for customer experience champions and this will include insights from experience and testing in the past; but given that the pace of change in the market means that what we have done in the past may not work today or tomorrow the core responsibility of a CX function has to be to the building of insight that is current and the testing of alternatives that optimise the outcomes for customers.

‘UX’ in our experience has a tendency to breed highly opinionated, and very often inflexible, experts.  These people are as likely to damage performance as much as they are to improve it. The key capability above all is that of listening to the customer and building deep insight that creates hypotheses. The expertise you want is hypotheses creation and testing strategies to find solutions that deliver revenue and/or margin.

Leaders need to be clear about what is critical in the team, where the gaps are and how to fill them. One of the biggest challenge in ecommerce is cutting through the plethora of false friends – the capabilities you don’t really need and being prepared to take these out of the organisation in order to free up resources for the ones that are performance critical.

You also need to change the way the organisation works

Capacity is about how you choose to allocate resources both internally and externally and what processes you determine will support the best commercial outcome. In our view there are capabilities every ecommerce team should have at its core and ones that should be resourced externally. Many teams end up with the wrong balance and as a result invest far too much in people and activity.

One of the biggest gaps in ecommerce today is the lack of a clear strategic process that ties together brand, customer insight, product development, IT and sales to deliver optimum performance.

In response to this we have developed the Customer to Action and Engagement to Action models and they remain some of the only end-to-end process models available to ecommerce leaders today.  

Engagement to Action is our approach to performance improvement in digital marketing; Customer to Action can transform optimisation performance. Both start with the customer in the market, in particular understanding why they do not buy. Both create insight through blending qualitative and quantitative data into insight-based hypotheses. Without processes that can do this and that are adhered to by all players in the ecommerce eco-system, ecommerce teams will be severely hampered in generating the growth that their stakeholkders are looking for.

Performance change requires a plan and the leadership to deliver it

To make change happen you need to work out what to change to deliver your organisational goal. Our suggested order of thinking focuses on how to deliver a step change in commercial performance:

  • Process and shared goal: getting this clear and owned across the functions involved in delivery means that everyone will work in a common way to a common drumbeat
  • Resource allocation: if it isn’t working stop spending on it. If people aren’t delivering, then stop spending on them. Everything in ecommerce is measurable. If it isn’t then stop spending on that too! After this you’ll have resource to allocate to testing. Once the tests deliver then you can invest to the level you want behind proven success. This stands true for marketing, online sales execution and CRM activity.
  • Culture: the process will only work if people keep to commitments and behave in a way that supports it. This is a long haul change and needs to be defined early and then reinforced regularly
  • Skills: the process will only deliver if you have the right capabilities in your own team and in the agencies that you employ. This will be the biggest driver of resource change – both your own and in the agencies you employ.
  • Attitudes: once you’ve laid out the process and your expectations and understood the gap the other driver of resource change is poor attitude – move this out quickly as it is corrosive.
  • Structure: in a world that changes faster than we can learn structures will increasingly become fluid. Certainty should come from a clear purpose and strong values. Your team should become used to working in a variety of groupings depending on the issue and the stage in the process.  

Econsultancy is hosting a Digital Transformation Conference focusing on Talent and Culture in London on June 14th. Apply for your free place today.

James Hammersley

Published 10 May, 2017 by James Hammersley

James Hammersley is CEO and co-founder at Good Growth Ltd and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him via LinkedIn.

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