Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang recently spoke to senior managers at Freshippo (also known as Hema), Alibaba’s New Retail-powered supermarket chain, about the importance of a values-driven corporate culture – especially as Alibaba and its businesses expand at break-neck speeds.
“As Alibaba grows, we need to return to basics. Values shouldn’t be words written on plaques on the wall. Values should become part of the way we think and act” automatically, Zhang said in Shanghai on March 13.
Freshippo, known as “Hema” in Chinese, is a perfect example of that rapid growth. Its technology-driven approach to grocery shopping has soared in popularity among Chinese consumers since it first launched in 2015. But while Freshippo has delivered innovative business models and operational efficiencies to help it carve out a share of the China grocery market, Zhang said that a strong company culture, and one aligned with Alibaba values, would be imperative for that success to continue.
“Culture acts like a catalyst, it’s the glue that brings everything together,” he said. “This has to be top priority for everyone from headquarters on down to the stores themselves.”
In addition to emphasizing the importance of building a culture at Freshippo, Zhang spent time discussing the values he thought should underpin and drive that culture. Here are the top takeaways:
If anything will slow growth for Freshippo, and Alibaba as a whole, it’s lack of focus on the customer, Zhang said.
Therefore, putting customers first should be a reflex for managers, something that is engrained in their subconscious. That attitude will then work its way throughout the entire organization, influencing the employees who engage with customers on the front lines of Freshippo’s business: the stores themselves.
“Let’s take this opportunity to install ‘Customer First’ as the basis for our culture,” Zhang said.
Culture Starts With the Individual
“Before realizing good corporate culture, you have to first be a good person,” Zhang said. “This is the starting point.”
This is especially true for senior management, as culture is something that typically starts at the top of an organization and works its way down to the employees. So, managers must remain true to right speech and action. If Alibaba believes in creating value for society and improving people’s lives, then Freshippo managers should be examples of that to have a positive influence on their teams.
Chief among those values is humility, Zhang said. For that reason, he urged the audience to not use the term “boss.” Instead, they should maintain a simple and transparent working structure, one without special privileges for higher-ups, in order to include and empower the entire staff. The best way to teach this to employees is for managers to not calling those above them “boss,” either.
“Go back to the basics of being human, starting with our team,” Zhang said. “Only by doing this can we spread this value throughout the different levels of the organization, one by one.”
Treat People Like People
People are not means to an end for a business, Zhang said. Management should provide opportunities for employees to grow their skill sets and careers. That investment in staff is good for the organization as well employees, and it creates a sense of loyalty that will keep those employees engaged even in challenging times for the company.
Moreover, Zhang said it was necessary to have formal systems in place to support talent development, such as training programs and other benefits. But some more-intangible measures are also necessary, such as having heart, he said.
“You have to be flexible to relate and resonate with other people,” Zhang said. “I believe that having heart allows people to better connect,” which builds stronger teams.
Zhang also shared the following maxims for management: