‘I have a lot of powerful women’: Jack Ma just shared Alibaba’s secret to surviving a ‘terrible’ 20 years

“Women do better jobs,” Ma said. “Women care for others much more than men.”
Reuters
  • Alibaba’s former CEO, Jack Ma, has attributed the Chinese giant’s success to its large number of female employees.

  • Women comprise 34% of Alibaba’s senior leadership, and at one point, 47% of its total workforce.

  • “Men, when they’re under pressure, they talk about profit, they talk about competition. Women say: let’s stick to our mission, let’s stick to our values,” Ma said.

  • He added that he began succession planning when Alibaba was 5 years old.

  • He said the company “should never depend on Jack Ma”.

Analysts may have numerous theories about how Chinese giant Alibaba became successful, but for co-founder Jack Ma, the answer is clear and simple: women.

“Thirty-four per cent of the senior leadership of Alibaba is women. That’s the secret sauce of Alibaba’s success,” the retired CEO said at a dialogue session during the Forbes CEO Conference in Singapore on Tuesday (Oct 15).

Calling the past 20 years “a terrible period” for the company, Ma said Alibaba had weathered the rough patch thanks to female employees who stayed with the company to “fight for the things they believe in”.

“It’s very difficult to convince women of your vision and mission and values. Very difficult,” the billionaire said. “But when you successfully convince women (of) the vision, mission, they stick to it; they are loyal to it.”

“Men? Easy come, easy go,” he quipped, to laughter and applause from the audience.

Read also: After Alibaba, Jack Ma’s next project could be creating schools that teach children how to ‘be human’

Ma added women had, at one point, accounted for 47 per cent of the tech firm’s workforce. This figure has since fallen following the acquisition of several male-dominated companies, but the former head said he expected it to rise again.

“Men, when they’re under pressure, they talk about profit, they talk about competition,” Ma continued. “Women say: let’s stick to our mission, let’s stick to our values.”

“They always say that behind every successful man, there’s a successful woman, a powerful woman. I have a lot of powerful women standing behind me, and I’m always thankful.”

Read also: Almost half of Google’s management team is made up of women — here they are

Calling computers “cold”, the philanthropist added that he believed the people running them should be warm, kindhearted and careful.

“Women do better jobs (in this regard),” he continued. “Women care for others much more than men.”

Ma raised the example of how Alibaba’s female shoppers – who comprise 60 per cent of its customer base – often purchased items for husbands, parents, and children.

“Men only buy for themselves,” he added, to more laughter and applause.

“I believe that in the 21st century, if we have more women leaders, the world will be much more peaceful,” he added.

Read also: The billionaire CEO of Uniqlo — and the richest person in Japan — says a woman would be the best person to take over his job

Jack Ma started succession planning after 5 years as CEO

Ma performing on stage at his retirement party during Alibaba’s 20th anniversary.
Reuters

Ma, who left Alibaba’s reins to former chief operating officer Daniel Zhang, also spoke briefly at the event on his succession planning process.

He revealed that a venture capitalist called him unqualified and asked that he step down when the company suffered a “tough” initial five years.

“I said: ‘Yes, I will. But not today.’ Because the company was in trouble,” Ma told an enraptured audience.

“(I said) ‘One day, I’ll leave’. And that day, I started thinking: Who is the right person who can do better than I? That day, I started to think: I should prepare for my retirement,” he added.

“That day I decided: my 20 year (work) anniversary – September 10, 2019 – would be the day I leave.”

Read also: Inside Jack Ma’s 60,000-person retirement party, which was held in an Olympic stadium and featured employee performances that made Ma cry

The business magnate spent a year developing a system to discover and train the “right” future leaders for the company, which he said was inspired by various parliamentary systems, including the US’ and ancient Rome’s.

Alibaba’s system let staff step up and fight for the company’s mission, vision, and values, and had since created “a lot of leaders”, including current CEO Zhang and vice president Eric Pelletier, Ma added.

Read also: Meet Daniel Zhang, the workaholic who’s succeeding Jack Ma as Alibaba’s chairman and keeps such a low profile that he was once mistaken for a janitor in the company’s headquarters

He also warned companies not to depend on a single leader to survive, but on systems, culture and people – a lesson he learned by studying “great companies” in Japan and the US.

“You should never have a copy of Jack Ma. One Jack Ma is too much for the company, for the future, because this guy’s crazy,” he said.

“Jack Ma will get old, Jack Ma will get stupid, Jack Ma will get sick, get in a car accident, or whatever,” he added. “The company should never depend on Jack Ma.”

Read also: Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma — the richest person in China — is retiring with a net worth of $38 billion. Here’s his incredible rags-to-riches story.