As you might imagine, leading one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies comes with its challenges. Since becoming Alibaba’s CEO in May 2015, I’ve had to adopt a handful of strategies to help me overcome them each day.
Some are more tactical, like rethinking the company’s approach to meetings, a difference that even our founder Jack Ma has noticed since I came on board. Other strategies I’ve learned to embrace deal with bigger-picture issues–like how to make tough calls and take action when the path forward is unclear. Here are six of the approaches to leadership that I’ve found serve me best.
I’m a strong believer in efficient communication, so I ask my teams to share all the relevant presentation materials with me before each meeting. In general, I’ve found that meetings are among the worst formats for sharing information. They’re best when they’re kept short. I try to get all the facts lined up before the meeting and use the meeting itself for discussion, debates, and decision making. That way we can use the time together to look for weaknesses in our strategy or line of thinking.
Typically, I start out with some basic questions that let me poke around and see if the person presenting actually knows their stuff. If he or she can respond to some of my random questioning right up front, then it’s a good sign they’ve done their homework. Those who flounder generally haven’t thought everything through thoroughly. When I get the sense that’s the case, I’ll usually press forward with some additional questions so we can get straight to uncovering any holes in our approach.
All my meetings have to have minutes and action items. Meetings without actionable outcomes are useless. I’ve found that lecture-style meetings can be helpful–but only sparingly; hosting them once or twice a year is sufficient. On a day-to-day basis, meetings aren’t the place for getting everyone up to speed. They’re for finding your weak points and debating how to fix them.
I face tough decisions every day. In fact, the easy ones often don’t make it to my desk at all. As such, I try to devote my energy to making the types of challenging decisions that nobody else in the organization can. Even if a decision will result in controversy, a final call has to be made. And having the courage to make it, and to bear that responsibility, is really important.
But for any team, the greatest fear shouldn’t be whether a decision turns out to be wrong. You can always course-correct if things don’t work out. The real fear is in the state of paralysis that results when you can’t make a decision at all.
Leaders have to have the courage to be decisive, even if that means making imperfect choices. In some cases, there isn’t always a clear right or wrong. I’ve found that if you have resolve, almost anything is possible–all roads really do lead to Rome, even if some turn out bumpier than others. The key is just to keep moving forward.
In fact, the adage that “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” makes logical sense but doesn’t always work out in practice. In my experience, innovators don’t often have the luxury of waiting to identify the shortest distance between two points. Sure, the CFO can work out the numbers and precise projections, but if you hesitate to act until everything’s figured out, you might have surrendered your first-mover advantage.
It isn’t easy to set plans into motion when they aren’t fully formed yet, but that’s often necessary. When the plan isn’t entirely clear, you need to rely on your intuition. Most people, after all, want to get things right, and leaders need to have faith in their teams if they want to make progress. I expect of all our managers in the company to have the courage to create opportunity–which includes the courage to bear whatever risks accompany it.
Speaking of which, I’ve found that the most decisive action often comes from the front lines. If everything has to be decided through central command, then many opportunities will be lost. Managers need the leeway to make decisions independently.
Sometimes coordination can be counterproductive; you don’t need teams to align if they don’t have common goals. That’s like binding the legs of two people headed in different directions. We want to make work as straightforward as possible. If an issue can be resolved by one department, there’s no need to involve a second.
The internet and mobile communication have really opened up management possibilities in this regard, allowing teams to work as parts of highly efficient networks. At the 11.11 Single’s Day headquarters this year, there were no more than 10 people on the ground, because nowadays everyone doesn’t have to be in the same room in order to communicate effectively. A leader doesn’t have to stay at headquarters, and neither do the staff. People are all links in the same universal communications chain. They can be everywhere without being anywhere specifically.
The iPhone redefined the mobile phone, making a touchscreen interface the norm. That’s one of my favorite examples of how a single innovation can change everything. The future isn’t invented by analyzing the past. Leaders have to be fearless in questioning what we think we know. After all, true innovation has no past, only a future.
That doesn’t mean wiping the slate clean completely, though. “Restructuring” is a word I use often. I believe in rearranging a company’s existing building blocks in order to create new ways of doing things. Simple addition and subtraction doesn’t cut it. What we want is to create a multiplier effect–to restructure a business so a chemical reaction can take place, bringing about something new, something more.
That’s what we’re trying to do at Alibaba in retailing. The landscape has evolved beyond merely meeting customers’ needs. Now it’s about creating new demand, and to do that, we need to find ways to stimulate latent, yet-to-be-discovered consumption demand.
To this day, the thing people always care most about during our 11.11 Single’s Day Global Shopping Festival continues to be the final GMV (gross merchandise volume) number. Every year people ask me for an estimate, but I always decline, even if it’s Jack Ma asking. My mantra is, “The house never places bets.”
When the GMV ticker on the 11.11 monitor reached 118.8 billion yuan ($17.5 billion USD), I was pretty pleased. In fact, I would’ve been happy even if it hadn’t gone any higher. In 2012, our total GMV was 19.1 billion yuan ($3.1 billion USD), and a lot of people came up to me afterward to say we should’ve done more to hit the 20 billion mark. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaving a little bit on the table for next time. Everyone has their own measure of success, and for me, the most important thing is how much of the progress made is translated to day-to-day operations.
Similarly, a company’s stock price is often used as the metric for judging a CEO’s performance. But to me, this number isn’t important. If all I do is obsess over Alibaba’s stock prices, then the business will be compromised and decisions will be made for the wrong reasons. A low stock price doesn’t necessarily reflect a bad situation, while a skyrocketing stock price is probably more optimistic than it should be.
I believe it’s far more important to recognize that the market has its own logic, and to accept it. We need to have faith that the ultimate measure of success isn’t reflected in these ups and downs but in the long-term value we’re creating. And long-term value can’t be fully expressed by just a single number.
Work stress is inevitable, but no matter what challenges the day may throw at you, it’s crucial to get a good night’s sleep. In fact, perhaps my biggest competitive advantage is that I’m able to sleep no matter what. I have a knack for falling asleep and waking up naturally when I need to without an alarm clock.
But even if that doesn’t come easily to you, you still need good quality sleep. Every effective leader needs to sustain the clarity and energy to make tough decisions and plan for the future–to dream big, day in and day out. After all, as Alibaba’s CEO, it’s my duty to dream.
Daniel Zhang is CEO of Alibaba Group and inventor of Alibaba’s 11.11 “Singles Day” Global Shopping Festival.