Daniel Zhang had his work cut out for him taking over from Jack Ma as chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. He recently revealed one of his top strategies for keeping the company at the top of its game.
In a September interview with McKinsey Quarterly, Zhang said he does a self-evaluation every Chinese New Year to assess the number of ideas and businesses he initiated in the past year. The point of this process, Zhang said, is to focus on new opportunities, and not necessarily the immediate performance.
"Today they may be new ideas — very tiny, very small — but they may become much bigger in the future. Maybe they will become a main business for Alibaba," Zhang said in the interview.
His inspiration for some of these ideas come from customer pain points. That's how Zhang hatched the idea for Alibaba's Freshippo retail stores. He said traditional e-commerce companies couldn't deliver fresh produce to customers on demand.
"It's not like you can deliver fresh fish to a customer's home while she is still in the office," Zhang said.
Freshippo's physical grocery stores were developed to address that. After shoppers visit the high-tech store, their grocery lists are saved in the Freshippo app. In the future, they can have the same items delivered to their homes instead, as fast as 30 minutes.
While Zhang says he gives Alibaba employees the opportunity to test new ideas, he's "very tough" once a decision has been made, and wants his teams to deliver concrete results.
"While I speak softly, I always make the tough decisions," he said.
Zhang, who's been CEO since 2015, stepped up to the chairman role after co-founder Jack Ma retired last month.
Their leadership styles seem in contrast as Ma is typically cast as the eccentric visionary, while Zhang is seen as being more calm and collected.
But despite those personality differences, Zhang is also credited with some of Alibaba's major hits like the "11:11 Global Shopping Festival," a 24-hour sales promotion. Last year, sales on that day hit a record high of $30.8 billion.
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