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Ethelbert Williams ‘Leadership is not about walking into the room and knowing everything. ’

Ethelbert Williams leads the Johnson & Johnson Consumer eCommerce group—where he’s tasked with spearheading sales growth and profitability—and serves on the U.S. Customer Development Leadership Team. A 20 year veteran of global commercial leadership, he’s worked with a number of prestigious retail organizations—including Procter & Gamble, The Boston Beer Company, Kroger, Target, and Amazon.

Douglas Hampton Dowson

6 min read

Williams holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He also serves there as an adjunct lecturer, speaking and teaching on topics like digital marketing and media.

Ethelbert Williams is hailed throughout the industry as a champion of marketing and sales strategies across direct-to-consumer ecommerce. And when we had the chance to sit down and interview him upon his official nomination as a Convrt Judge—we obviously jumped at the chance.

Can you describe your job in one line?

As Head of US eCommerce Sales at Johnson and Johnson Consumer Health, my focus is helping us continue to drive growth against our retail e-commerce platforms, as well as last-mile delivery platform partnerships across our omnichannel ecosystem.

What do you love about the retail industry?

I love the combination of helping really established partners, mostly retailers, continue to transform their businesses. As well as, working in an environment where you have so many incredible upstart emerging players who are working to transform and bring us into the future with how consumers shop.

So I love that combination of old and new and that balance—and how we’re building for the future together.

What are some of the key challenges that you see facing retail at this point in time?

From an e-commerce perspective, one of the things we want to continue to transform is what is that category experience on what we like to call our digital shelf. So that’s our consumer experience across these platforms. How consumers are shopping and discovering our assortment. Are we continuing to elevate and drive that right and relevant experience to really captivate that shopper?

I would say that the second piece is really how we’re thinking about end-to-end data and really driving and supporting the decisions we’re making across the business—both in terms of assortment and pricing, as well as in promotional and advertising strategies.

The final is, cleaning up and aggressively managing our supply chain ecosystem to lean into a completely new omnichannel environment. How we’re delivering a product to retailers, and how we’re delivering product from retailers to end consumers. Managing that end-to-end in a super powerful way and making sure that it’s profitable and supports appropriate unit economics is where we need to lean into the future together.

The thing that I remember most distinctly that I continue to try to carry forward is this space of digital commerce or e-commerce needs to be a full organization affair.

From your first day at work to now, what are some of the biggest things you’ve learned?

I feel like in this space (specifically e-commerce), and I’ve been working in the consumer product space in various sales and marketing leadership roles for over 20 years. For me, every day, every week, feels like the first day. Every week feels that fresh in this space, both internally and externally with trade partners and the challenges that we have to navigate and build through together.

And honestly, that is what makes the work I do so exciting. To really make sure I’m giving you something to sort of hang your hat on, the thing that I remember most distinctly that I continue to try to carry forward is this space of digital commerce or e-commerce needs to be a full organization affair. I call it a family affair. It’s not one title, not one role, not one team.

Many organizations, including ours, have leveled up and are at a readiness level and truly understand this is a full family affair. It involves supply chain, it involves finance, it involves marketing, it involves sales, and how we are managing this business with the general manager mindset and bringing the entire organization into the future to really capture and captivate the spaces. That’s kind of been what I’ve tried to carry forward for sure. But every day is the first day for me.

What is your vision for the future of our industry?

I love that question, but let me tell you something… if I did, I’d probably be really really rich. I would probably be incredibly successful.

The way I think about that is, for me, it’s less important that I have a vision versus am I plugged into the right thought partners and people who help me develop my own cadence and heartbeat. With that, I describe my approach to setting a vision as, I have sort of a cohort that is my professional and personal board of directors, if you will. I have incredible partners through the agencies, through the technology partners, through the data partners that we have, through consultants, and through peers who are working in other organizations that are in a similar part to their journey.

Other organizations may be in different categories. And because of that, this “personal board of directors” is a group that I really tap into to help create a vision to tackle problems and challenges collectively, whether it be talent related or something technical with the business. And so, less of the vision comes from me internally, versus one that is really guided and shepherded with many incredible leaders and thought partners that are in the industry. It’s a really tight industry, as you know. For sure.

What does leadership mean to you?

There’s an incredible balance between the most amazing leaders that I’ve had the privilege of learning from and working with, and a sense of curiosity.

Leadership is not about walking into the room and knowing everything. For me, leadership is about being able to walk in and be a part of a room, a conversation, a team, and journey and inspire the best and everyone.

Part of that is truly being curious. I feel like I’ve transformed and translated my career multiple times over the last couple of decades. And that’s because honestly, I’ve tried to remain curious and learn. I mean, you’re talking to someone who studied journalism in economics in undergrad at Northwestern University. I didn’t study business, marketing or sales (and much less e-commerce) 20 plus years ago.

It was really about learning and being curious. And because of that, I’m looking for leaders and partners on my teams who have showcased an incredible ability to learn, develop, and grow quickly because that’s exactly the space that we’re working in today.

I’m continuously learning about different aspects of how we’re executing against promotions, retail media, how we’re managing data across the business and emerging technology and platforms that will impact our business. It’s just things like conversational AI. All of those elements are things that didn’t necessarily exist in their current state 20 years ago when I started my career. So for me, leadership is absolutely about learning and developing. So you can lead and you can bring people along for the future.

Leadership is not about walking into the room and knowing everything. For me, leadership is about being able to walk in and be a part of a room, a conversation, a team, and journey and inspire the best and everyone.

What does creativity mean to you?

I don’t consider myself very creative. I love and I’m inspired by creative things. I have a lot of creative people in my life that span many genres of creativity, music, visual arts, dance, culture, and advertising, but I really do not describe myself as a creative person.

Instead, for me, creativity, similar to your incredible question around leadership, is about being able to inspire the best in others to unleash creativity, new thinking, and new ideas. That’s something I’ve learned from some incredible leaders and that’s something that I certainly try to unleash in my toolbox as I’m working with teams.

Part of leadership for me is being able to manifest and inspire creativities and others—to unlock opportunities and to solve problems. That’s an incredible gift and tool to have, and something that I hope to continue to sharpen and aspire for in the future.

Do you have any insights or advice for someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

I like to say don’t follow in my footsteps. I want you to fly beyond anything that I have had an opportunity to do, and that brings me so much joy in being able to mentor. I have some incredible talent across the industry that I’m privileged to mentor, give advice, and work with.

Obviously, I have an incredible team that I’m privileged to work with at Johnson and Johnson Consumer Health, and I want leaders and talent to see well beyond anything that I have ever accomplished. To me, that’s the greatest joy. Some of the things that we’ve talked about—around what leadership means to me, which is inspired through curiosity and learning and development—are what creativity means, similarly inspiring the best in others to be creative and innovative. If you can find a way to harness those attributes and make that energy your own, I think you’re going to have a magical career.

That’s a career that’s going to put you in positions to lead and inspire others. That’s gonna put you in a position to be creative in solving organization and business challenges, and provide you with a lot of runway. Those are more tenets and attributes for how you can maybe walk and manage your experiences in your career. Those are some of the things that I try to live by.

Those are some of the traits I try to instill and inspire in others. I’m privileged to see others go well beyond where I thought I could even be, which is so exciting.

I like to say don’t follow in my footsteps. I want you to fly beyond anything that I have had an opportunity to do.

The Convrt Award is about authentic, independent recognition. Why do you think that’s important?

I know with the awards and the platform for the various categories, it’s important to assemble an esteemed group of judges across the industry with diverse perspectives and functions in a really independent manner. So, not being tied to another organization, a vendor, a resource that has something invested in the process, is really gonna build a lot of transparency and a lot of credibility in what’s being put forward through the awards, which is really exciting and super unique.

The other aspect is through the Convrt Awards and the categories of the awards, it’s all about the future. It’s inspiring work and results and outcomes with organizations who will be honored in a world that looks very different for us as people who are building brands and businesses.

So both the transparency through the esteemed group that will be looking at the different entries in the categories as well as the role and the type of work that’s gonna be honored and supported and praised is super exciting.

What would you like to see from participants entering the awards?

I want to be inspired. I selfishly want to be inspired. I’m excited to see the submissions and celebrate great work, but I want to learn.

It’s both about celebrating the past, the work, the creativity, the outcomes that many of the entries the businesses have submitted, but it’s also an opportunity to learn and to be inspired so we can replicate success. It’s also about celebrating that so others can see and learn and do better.

It’s as much about celebrating work as it is about helping others learn and develop as we build collectively toward the future, in this space with thought partners together.

It’s both about celebrating the past, the work, the creativity, the outcomes that many of the entries the businesses have submitted, but it’s also an opportunity to learn and to be inspired so we can replicate success. It’s also about celebrating that so others can see and learn and do better.

Any words of encouragement for entrants?

Be bold. Be aggressive in showcasing the work that you think will translate to helping our partners achieve the outcomes that are super important.

And that’s the key, I think—really bold and aggressive outcomes. That’s really, in the sound bite, how I would frame up some of my feedback. That’s something that comes to mind when I think about the categories and the type of work I’m excited to see and learn about.

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