The Jack Ma Style
Stirring speeches, surprising sartorial choices, and a bottomless reserve of panache – the personal charisma of Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma is part of what makes his e-commerce company one of China's rising stars.
The Jack Ma StyleBy Benjamin Chiang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 442 )
Anyone who has even gotten a glimpse of Jack Ma has been left with a strong impression.
Ma is so slight of build that some have described him as ET, but when he speaks, people snap to attention.
"A man's intellect is always in inverse proportion to his appearance," says Ma, the first Chinese entrepreneur to make the cover of Forbes magazine, in describing his own remarkable achievements.
In China, Ma is seen by small- and medium-sized enterprises as an entrepreneurial hero. His story – blossoming from an ordinary English teacher into the builder of the world's biggest e-commerce platform – continues to inspire average citizens to dream of launching their own businesses.
Whenever he appears at a forum, the audience overflows with the owners of small enterprises desperate for success. "I want to be as successful as Jack Ma," is the refrain of many ticketless individuals who squeeze into forum venues to pick up some wisdom from the icon they all want to emulate.
A Jack Ma speech stirs the emotions of the listeners, like a motivational sales meeting or an evangelical rally, except in Ma's case, the faith everyone adheres to is the "religion of Alibaba."
The Alibaba Group chairman, known for his colorful body language, captivates audiences with pearls of wisdom as he paces back and forth on the stage. It's a performance that invariably earns him thunderous applause.
"Within the Alibaba team, Ma is definitely the person most prone to boasting and stirring others up," says Guo Guangchang, the chairman of Shanghai-based Fosun International.
When communicating internally, Ma also specializes in creating a special atmosphere to accentuate the impact of the message.
One of the most recent examples came at the beginning of this year, when over 1,000 employees of the Alibaba Group's third-party online payment platform Alipay gathered with anticipation for the company's year-end party. Upon arrival, they were stunned to be greeted by a pitch black venue and the recorded voices of complaining customers. "Awful, really awful, awful beyond belief," Ma said as soon as he took to the stage, immediately and harshly chastising the employees for Alipay's poor customer service.
It was a shocking lesson for the rapidly growing Alipay team, but one demanding that they recognize an operational threat that could undermine the online payment portal's strong growth.
Idealist and Pragmatist
Aside from his eloquence, Ma has a knack for using his attire to communicate the message he wants to deliver to a particular audience. Ma rarely wears a suit, preferring white shirts and casual pants. His rolled up sleeves "signify that ‘I'm working hard together with everybody else' instead of acting like a bourgeois who's above it all. It immediately draws SME customers closer," observes an Alibaba customer from Hong Kong.
The biggest impression most people have of Ma is that he's an extremely effective communicator, but they rarely see his pragmatic side.
"Ma is a combination of idealist and pragmatist. Once a direction is set, he will pursue it to the end," is how Alipay CEO Shao Xiaofeng describes him.
Known for his provocative tongue, Ma can easily give people the feeling that he's full of hot air, but when he's running a business, he's not the least bit impetuous, always making sure not to overextend himself. In all of his start-up businesses, only after he first tests the waters does he get fully involved and commit overwhelming resources to the venture.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
♦ 46 years old
♦ Graduate of the Foreign Languages Department of Hangzhou Teachers College (now Hangzhou Normal University)
♦ Previously taught at the Hangzhou Institute of Electronic Engineering (now Hangzhou Dianzi University); later joined China's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation and was responsible for online trading of products on its website.
♦ In 1999, Ma founded Alibaba.com with 17 other partners and an initial investment of 500,000 yuan. He has long served as chairman and CEO of the Alibaba Group and is a member of the APEC Business Advisory Council.