Leadership lessons from Jack Ma

British bosses can learn a lot from China's outgoing retail titan, says FITCH boss David Blair.

by David Blair
Last Updated: 10 Oct 2019

As Jack Ma steps down as chairman of Alibaba this week, few could dispute that he has profoundly altered the face of business, both in China and the West.

Many leaders have scrambled to watch and learn as the project he started in a shared apartment in 1999 transformed into an organisation that has successfully infiltrated the entire Chinese shopping experience and continues to drive record profits. 

His record is not only rooted in his business success. Ma is famed for his flamboyance and charisma - he regularly performs on stage - which is a trait his biographer Duncan Clark holds alongside his strategic vision as a root cause of his success.

Here are the lessons all leaders can take from a man born to a poor family in Hangzhou, who now uses his £31bn fortuune for philanthropic and business ventures. 

Innovate with customers first 

On finding no Chinese beers in his first online search for "beer", Ma saw an opportunity for a company to fill that space by providing an online marketplace. Alibaba was born. 

Through its pursuit of "new retail" under Ma, Alibaba has led some amazing innovations.

Its online platforms enable the retail experiences that many struggling UK high street brands would do well to emulate. These range from in-app browsing and payments that empower physical shopping (Alipay, the brand’s popular payments platform) to automation and machine learning that enable it to understand the customer.

Singles Day, now synonymous with the Alibaba brand, started as an obscure anti-Valentines Day by Chinese students. Alibaba co-opted it in 2009 and in less than a decade launched it into a glittering celebration, in which people across China buy themselves gifts - whether single or not. Last year it made $30.8bn in sales. This kind of scale has only been achieved because Alibaba uses data to inform how to provide exceptional, customer first experiences. 

"Alibaba does what Amazon, eBay, PayPal, Google, FedEx, wholesalers, and a good portion of manufacturers do in the United States, with a healthy helping of financial services for garnish," said Ming Zeng, Alibaba Group’s chief strategy officer in an article for the Harvard Business Review. It is Alibaba’s mastery of this ecosystem that sets it apart, enabling it to make data-driven decisions based on what customers want from a business, and what they love. 

Foster talent

Originally a teacher, Ma has always valued his younger talent pipeline. He has explicitly left the business in order to enable the next generation to create what’s next, declaring: "I’m the person always looking forward". 

He has also repeatedly advocated for gender parity in leadership, arguing that women in senior positions are essential to a healthy business. Unlike many of its big tech counterparts in the West, nearly half of Alibaba's senior management team are women.

Work smarter, not harder 

Ma's legacy in terms of talent is somewhat diminished by his support of the ‘9-9-6’ working model: employees work 9am-9pm, six days a week. He has gone so far as to call the 12-hour day a ‘blessing’. It’s common practice in China, and has been called the ‘hustle’ that sets Chinese tech companies apart from Silicon Valley giants - but this does call into question employees’ well being.

Research indicates when working weeks go over 40 to 50 hours, employees’ total output over an extended period of time will drop below the level it had been in shorter working weeks. I’ll wager that if his successor, Daniel Zhang, reduces the working hours expected of employees, Alibaba’s overall output and productivity could improve even further. 

Know when to change

As Ma himself said: "The world is big, and I am still young, so I want to try new things." So do customers.

David Blair is global CEO of FITCH.


Image credit: JD Lasica vis Flickr (Creative Commons)


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