Thinking the Unthinkable logo Thinking the Unthinkable logo

Jack Ma on 21st Century Leadership, Education and Purpose

by Nik Gowing & Chris Langdon

Filed under Future of Work / Next Gen / Diversity of Thinking

Jack Ma founded Alibaba in his small apartment in Hangzhou, China 20 years ago. The company is now one of the largest and most successful in the world. Alibaba is bigger than Amazon, and made over $38bn in sales in just 24 hours on “singles day” earlier this month.

How did he do it? What are his lessons for all entrepreneurs? Thinking the Unthinkable founder Nik Gowing led a one hour discussion with Jack at the Kiev International Economic Forum on November 8th.

Jack has now stepped back from day-to-day oversight of the company he created. His personal mission now is to promote new attitudes to leadership and education.

Here are highlights from the candid conversation and responses to an audience of 800.

A mistake is the best fertiliser for tomorrow’s success

Now that he has new time and energy to reflect, one of Jack’s new projects is to write a book : “The 1001 mistakes of Alibaba”. Unlike many leaders, Ma speaks remarkably frankly about his mistakes. The lessons he learned – often painfully – have made Alibaba what it is today. “We made more mistakes than anybody can imagine. We made mistakes on raising capital. We made mistakes on management. We made mistakes in HR.” But he emphasised the importance of resilience in leaders’ attitudes towards making mistakes. “Only when you give up is it a failure. If you don’t give up it’s just a mistake. Mistakes are the best fertilisers for tomorrow’s success.”.

I call myself CEO: Chief Education Officer

Jack consistently emphasised that success for Alibaba came from developing and investing talent from within the company. While at Alibaba he called himself “the CEO – the chief education officer”. He built on the skills he learned teaching English at a Chinese University. Should growing companies look externally for new talent or grow from within? “When your company is only a tractor, don’t try to buy a Boeing 747 engine. Great people are always in your company. Spend the time training them, and invest in them.”.

A big company doesn’t just mean big money, it means big responsibility

Alibaba being one of the largest companies in the world is not an achievement he would repeat. He “would try to make my company not such a big size”. Instead, Ma believes companies must be focussed not on their size, but on their social purpose. This reflects the vital new role rapidly being realised by enlightened companies, but not enough of them. “A big company doesn’t just mean big money, but big responsibility”, Jack told Nik. Rather than solely focussing on profits “Being a good company means you take care of your employees, you take care of customers. You’re respected, but not because you’re rich.”

We should make our kids more creative

Central to Ma’s new projects is to help drive change for innovation and inspiration across education systems. This will ensure future generations are equipped for an age of disruption, AI and increased machine learning. He urged strongly that students must be encouraged to be “creative, constructive, innovative, and independent thinkers.”. To achieve this he emphasised the importance of activities like music, painting and sports. This will “make people like people, not like machines”.

Leave a comment