E-Commerce Sector: Is This the Right Time to Enter?

The last 18 months have been a rollercoaster ride for e-commerce firms with respect to hiring talent at the leadership level. It is fascinating to see that the industry has been in news for hiring leadership talent but oscillating from one end of the spectrum to another during this period. At first, the industry was in news for attracting leadership talent from various industries and geographies, (including the Silicon) and recently it has been in the news again for the exodus of leadership talent back to traditional and established sectors. So what apparently went wrong during this period?

Let us look at some of the plausible reasons for these exits:

• Some people have claimed that the innovation opportunities with e-commerce firms are limited and not really motivating enough.
• Sometimes, companies and executives both have realized that they need a different cultural environment to thrive i.e. a case of being a cultural misfit.
• Some executives have been victims of constant alignment and realignment of organisations, making senior roles redundant.
• Some e-commerce companies hired in frenzy with all the investor cash they received and became top-heavy, exacerbating the problem of cost effectiveness and profitability

Irrespective of the reasons, when such a fiasco happens, both parties are to be blamed. As a recruiter, we are taught to focus on the drivers of change for the candidate. The same principle applies to companies who hire executives. It appears that both parties probably compromised on these areas. Candidates moved because:

• They found e-commerce more exciting and fastpaced than their respective sectors—Excitement (E)
• Digital experience was a learning opportunity and building the market would be a Greenfield opportunity—Learning (L).
• There is a genuine problem that can be solved and the market is ripe for the product/ technology—Solution(S).
• They were intellectually motivated to work with some of the brightest minds in a high-pressure environment—Intellectual (I).
• The most important reason, which very few people emphasised during the process, but is usually the biggest deal breaker—Wealth Creation Opportunity (W).

While it is not wrong to make a move on the basis of any of the drivers mentioned previously, the issue was that each of these drivers existed in isolation for various cases. The key to making any move work, especially in a new age industry, is to ensure that all these drivers are addressed affirmatively with sufficient conviction. They represent what I call the “ELWIS-Set of Value Drivers”. They can be mutually exclusive, but the key to a successful move to e-commerce is to ensure that the ELWIS drivers are interdependent, not mutually exclusive.

The e-commerce companies also made a mistake by hiring the kind of individuals that they did. Having worked in an environment where they have scaled up and managed large businesses does not guarantee that they will be able to repeat their success. Most of the time, these people were successful because of the environment they operated in. In the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world, it is not always a fungible talent across industries or even within industries in many cases. However, the e-commerce sector is still a sunrise industry and the industry for the future. The online consumer is rapidly evolving and experimenting,showing unprecedented eagerness to adopt new approaches. From buying standardised electronics to buying personal care items and from traditional avenues of entertainment to on-demand videos, the story keeps evolving. E-commerce will need serious leadership executives and executives from other sectors will always be tempted to take the plunge.

Round one is over and hopefully both parties will learn from the mistakes made in the past. Companies must hire only when they cannot do without the candidate and not because they have investor money in the bank. Candidates must join because they believe that the “ELWIS drivers” are in place and not because they can’t refuse the stock options thrown at them. It is now the right time to take a closer and deeper look at the industry and take a plunge based on the “ELWIS – Set of value drivers”…And when you do that, the chances are that you will get it right! Round One went to none; may Round Two go to both.