Compete with yourself and other tips for leaders from Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang

Daniel Zhang
Daniel Zhang, chief executive officer of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., speaks during a news conference in Shanghai, China.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

Running the world's largest retail commerce company in a very dynamic market comes with its challenges. Since becoming Alibaba Group CEO in 2015, I've developed a set of leadership principles to guide me and my team. They help us think about big bets like creating 11.11 — the world's largest shopping event — or envisioning our "New Retail" strategy to carry Alibaba and our partners into the future. These principles also help keep us focused on what's important when we think about competition, hiring talent and making hard decisions.

1. Management is not leadership

I differentiate between 'managers' and 'leaders.' A manager runs a business and gets expected results – those are the key performance indicators. But a leader's mission is to lead the team, not just to get results. A leader also crafts the future. What we want at Alibaba are leaders. The company would not have chosen me as the CEO if I were just a manager.

2. Compete with yourself

Fierce competition in business isn't a bad thing. It's a lucky thing. You need to be awake at all times, even when you're sleeping. You have to always learn and innovate. The worst possible scenario is a market or sector with a supposed, uncontested 'top dog.' If you think you have no competition, you'll soon be proved wrong.

You must also be willing to outwit and outthink your own best products and services. I like to say: "If we don't kill our old selves, then we'll be killed by our rivals." You have to have the courage to reinvent yourself.

3. Study the future, not the past

Our success in the future will be determined by the blueprint we draw today. Consider results in the long term, not just the near term. Don't miss out on future opportunities or risk doing something shortsighted. If you only consider near-term results, you won't consider how things will change and you'll miss out on critical opportunities.

4. Know when to go all-in, and don't be afraid to do it

Leaders must be decisive and "all-in," like players of the poker game Texas Hold'em. If you don't know how to go all-in, you can't play that game well. It is the same in business. At the critical moment, you need to be willing to lose it all ­to win big.

5. Buy, don't bet

If you're going to win a race, it's more important to buy a horse than just bet on it. At Alibaba, for instance, we choose to acquire a company rather than take a minority stake when it comes to important strategic projects that require real synergies and integration.

We do this because making an acquisition is a responsibility and a commitment. Those who don't want to share responsibility, and just want to invest, need to bet on several horses. They spread out their risk, but never fully commit to any one horse. We don't do things that way. If you give me your horse, it becomes our horse. It's my responsibility to make sure that steed runs well.

6. Find people who truly see the big picture

There's a Chinese poem that reads: "You can't see the mountain from the mountain." In other words, a mountain doesn't look like a mountain while you are climbing it. It looks like rock and trail. For a full picture, you have to find distance or find people who can give you a different point of view.

Jack Ma shares his perspective with me over our long talks. Even though both of us spend a lot of time on the road, it's still very important to find time to share our different points of view.

7. Hire adventurers, not employees

Some job hunters want only that – a job and a paycheck. They think in the short-term. Those with an appetite for adventure, on the other hand, are comfortable with risk and change. These people want to build things and make their mark.

When I talk to candidates for leadership roles, I say, "Let's embark on an interesting adventure together. After 20 or 30 years, you can tell your grandkids about it."

I'll also add, "If you're just looking for stability, then don't come here. I can't guarantee that you'll succeed, but I can guarantee you'll have an adventure." This approach always helps me find the risk takers and those with fresh thinking.

Daniel Zhang is the Chief Executive Officer of Alibaba Group, one of the world's largest retail commerce companies.

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