Jack Ma is business magnate, investor, and philanthropist. He is the co-founder of Alibaba a multinational technology conglomerate and a global brand ambassador for Chinese business. Alibaba’s IPO raised US$25 billion, giving the company a market value of US$231 billion and, by far, then the largest IPO in world history. It is one of the top 10 most valuable corporations. With a net worth of $42.1 Billion (at time of writing), Jack Ma is one of the richest people in the world. So, what can we learn from Jack Ma’s leadership?
Failure is part of the journey
There was a time when Jack Ma couldn’t even get a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The early rejection taught him an important business lesson; you have to get used to failure. After college, Jack Ma applied for 30 jobs in his home city of Hangzhou, China. He was rejected from every single one of them. At KFC, 24 people applied for the job, says Ma, and while 23 were hired — he wasn’t one of them. The same thing happened when he tried to be a cop. This time four of five applicants were hired, all except Ma. He has said:
“If you cannot get used to failure — just like a boxer — if you can’t get used to [being] hit, how can you win?”
Failure is part and parcel of the journey to success. Even when he was applying to universities, Jack Ma was rejected by Harvard 10 times. In 2001 he tried to raise money for Alibaba from venture capitalists in the US and was also rejected by all of them. A good leader is able to overcome setbacks, learn from them and find a way to succeed.
Invest in the right people
Many people forget that Jack Ma was a university lecturer before he founded Alibaba and he has taken the approach of a teacher when running his business. He has said:
“There is no best people in the world that is ready for you. You find the right people, working together, training him, developing him, and he’s training you, developing you. Never ever think ‘Wow, that guy used to work in Google, Alibaba, or Facebook. He must be good’.”
One of the failings of many leaders is their inability to develop their team. They develop lazy habits and instead try and hire people to “hit the ground running” and then wonder why people, even people who have incredible CVs and achievements, fail. No matter where someone worked before, they did not work in your team. There will be different challenges to overcome, systems being used, and technology is of course evolving all the time. So, the only way to ensure continued success is to continuously learn and grow.
Learn to let go
Many leaders find it difficult to give up ownership so that others can take on additional responsibility. But the only way to secure sustainable, long-term success, is for leaders to be able to devolve decision-making across the organisation. This prevents an over-reliance on people at the top. Without doing this, eventually the business is no longer scalable, and the team cannot grow as there is only so much that one person can do. So, it is critical that a leader only makes decisions that only they can make and delegate the rest.
Although Jack Ma is a charismatic, high-profile leader, he has demonstrated the ability to devolve leadership responsibility across the organisation. He co-founded Alibaba in 1999 and handed over the CEO reins in 2013, taking on the role of executive chairman. Alibaba’s sprawling businesses are now managed by a network of senior leaders. The spirit of partnership, collaboration and taking responsibility has always been strong across the organisation, and Ma has long been renowned for his inclusive style of leadership. Without this approach to leadership, Alibaba would never have achieved the level of success it has.
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