Five of Alibaba's senior leaders attend the group's 2016 11.11 Global Shopping Festival Launch Press Conference in Kowloon Bay.
South China Morning Post | Getty Images
Power Players

The 3 culture traits that shaped Alibaba's $697 billion business


Culture is critical for any company, and often means the difference between a business that inspires and one that simply functions.

That social side of business has come under increasing scrutiny lately, not least because of the coronavirus pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests, as employers' treatment of staff and customers has come to the fore.

Getting it right is, therefore, a key challenge and a major opportunity for big business and new start-ups, according to the co-founder of Chinese technology giant Alibaba Group, Joe Tsai, who recently shared three traits he believes have been instrumental in shaping the culture of his 21-year-old, $697 billion company.

Mission, vision and values

Speaking during a recent interview on entrepreneurship, the executive vice chairman and director of Alibaba's entrepreneur fund, said those traits could be surmised as mission, vision and values. 

"At Alibaba, culture means first that you have a mission," said Tsai. "There's a reason for the company to exist other than just making profits."

"Second, you establish a vision for the future. What do you want the company to be? Where do you want the company to be? And those could be five-year or ten-year targets for the company," he continued.

Joe Tsai, Executive Vice Chairman of Alibaba Group, attends the signing ceremony between Alibaba and Pac-12 on September 10, 2015 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province of China.
VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

"The third is values. What values do you live by? How do you want your employees to live both in and outside of the office? These three things at Alibaba form our culture."

Alibaba launched in 1999, first as a business-to-business e-commerce platform. Today, the multi-pronged tech giant offers a breadth of products and services, ranging from cloud computing and entertainment to payment services. But still, the company has the same mission, said Tsai: "To make it easy to do business anywhere ... to help out the little guy."

That mission was born out of fellow co-founder and former CEO Jack Ma's affiliation with a culture known as "Xia Yi" made famous by famed martial arts novelist Jin Yong. The term roughly translates as a sense of justice and helping out the weak.

Building culture at scale

Once that culture is established, it's a case of instilling it across the business with the right people, said Tsai. 

For Alibaba in the early days, that was easy. With 18 co-founders, there were plenty of people "evangelizing (the) mission" to new employees, said Tsai. But now with an international staff of around 120,000, hiring right is critical.

"As you scale your business, you should be spending more time on people," he noted.

"I think it's identifying the right people and putting them in the right place to do the right things. People are the biggest challenge, but getting the people aspects right is also the most rewarding. As an entrepreneur, you want to be very focused on people — making sure that they buy into the company culture and developing them continuously so they're more valuable every year to your business."

Being the boss, you want to have that keen sense of who's the right person for the right job.
Joe Tsai
executive vice chairman, Alibaba Group

That doesn't only mean finding the right people for your business, but also identifying the best role for them, said Tsai.

"At Alibaba, we've always said there's no best talent. There's the right talent, in the right place, at the right time," he said.

Great leaders should, therefore, help people move into positions in which they can excel, he continued.

"Being the boss, you want to have that keen sense of who's the right person for the right job," he said, noting that personality traits can be a great indicator of suitability.

"If people come into an organization and present negative energy, that's bad," said Tsai. "You want to get rid of that negative energy quickly because it can affect other team members. But people who can bring in positive energy will motivate and inspire their teammates."

Don't miss: Why Alibaba's Jack Ma says your first job is the most important

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