How working as a teacher made Jack Ma a better businessman

Founder and Chairman of Alibaba Group, Jack Ma, gives a speech at the 'Ma Yun Rural Teachers Prize' on January 22th, 2018 in Sanya , Hainan province, China.
Wang HE | Getty Images News | Getty Images

You might not think there's much the classroom can teach you about the boardroom.

But, according to Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, starting out his career as a teacher is what made him into the world-renowned businessman he is today.

"The only thing that made me into a successful businessman is my teaching background," Ma said Thursday, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Tianjin, China.

Ma famously got rejected from 30 jobs before he decided to band together with a group of friends at the age of 29 to create his internet start-up.

At the time, he said, he "didn't know marketing," "had no idea of technology," and was "at a loss at my financial accounts."

But, he was able to bring one skill from his early career at an English teacher in China: The ability to identify and cultivate talent.

That, he said, has been central to his role in turning Alibaba into a multibillion-dollar e-commerce giant.

"Most of my time was spent on identifying talents to train them and cultivate them in AliGroup," he explained in comments that were translated into English by CNBC.

"My top pride was not our business model," he continued. "Instead, today, it's the hierarchy of our talent, the organizational structure, the cultural development."

Ma said that for almost two decades, the company has been working to develop that line of talent, and he now believes they're there. So much so, in fact, that he said he believes the company already has its "fifth generation of leaders" in the pipeline.

Last week, the 54-year-old announced that he would retire as chairman of Alibaba in 2019, making room for the company's current CEO Daniel Zhang to step in.

Zhang, who is Ma's 46-year-old protege, first joined Alibaba Group in 2007 as chief financial officer of its consumer-to-consumer marketplace Taobao.

Early on, Ma said he identified in Zhang two talents he himself lacks — "systematic thinking" and "sober mind" — which he said will be vital in driving the business forward.

He added that today, he and his 17 co-founders are portrayed as "very strong" business leaders, but he believes the company's future success lies with the next generation. Indeed, he said many of the founders, themselves job rejects, would not likely have met the company's requirements if they'd applied for jobs in Alibaba 20 years ago.

"Why we can make success today is not my own success, it's my team's success," said Ma.

"The newcomers are stronger than us in their knowledge, capabilities and skills. Once we give them time they will give us a new success," he said.

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