Alibaba Group’s values, the fundamental beliefs upon which the company’s business and behaviors are based, were created when the tiny Hangzhou upstart was still just a startup. Management knew early on that they and their growing staff needed more motivation for running a business than making money.
“A company has to have mission beyond making just profits,” Executive Vice Chairman Joe Tsai says. “A company has to have belief that they’re trying to do something that’s really a higher calling.”
Over the past two decades, those values have been changed to suit a fast-moving company, but an ethos of purpose has always remained. Now, they’re getting updated again as the company turns 20. Alibaba says it to wants to keep pace with the many rapid changes happening as Alibaba continues to go global, entering new markets and new businesses – and inviting new employees to join. There are about 100,000 staff worldwide.
WATCH: Alibaba Leaders Explain the Six New Values
“Because of the values we have succeeded over the last 20 years,” Zhang says. “But today the world is changing very, very fast. So, looking ahead, if we want to continue our success, we need something different. We need something new which can empower us to continue our success on the next journey.”
The previous six values were customers first, trust, integrity, teamwork, embrace change and passion. The first of those – “customers first” – is being carried forward, while the sentiment behind some of the others is as well. What follows are explanations of the new values, with explanations and anecdotes from Alibaba leaders. All quotes in this article were edited for clarity and length.
Customers First, Employees Second, Shareholders Third
Understanding and addressing the needs and pain points of our customers is our most-important responsibility. Only by creating sustained customer value can our employees grow and shareholders achieve long-term benefit.
It’s true – this was already a core Alibaba value. But management said it was so integral to the company’s mission that it had to stay. Chief Financial Officer Maggie Zhou explains:
“In 2007, 2008, that’s the ‘economic winter.’ A lot of SMEs [focused on exports] were impacted. After many, many rounds of discussions, we decided to cut our product price by 60%, to try and help these exporters. This was truly based on ‘customer first.’ Investors were all very shocked. That main product accounts for 60%-70% of our total revenue. And people were panicking. The rationale is very simple: it’s that we need to help. Without these SMEs, we’re going to go out of business, so customer must be the first.”
Tsai explains, “What we’re saying to the shareholders is that if you take care of your customers, they’re happy. And if you take care of your employees, they’re working very hard to create the value, then the company will naturally have value. So, it’s that logical progression.”
Trust Makes Things Simple
Trust is precious and must be constantly nurtured and protected. We want our Aliren to continue to be straightforward, standing up for the right values and relying on one another via trust.
Alibaba Group General Counsel Timothy Steinart: “Why does trust make things simple? Because without trust, it doesn’t matter how many rules you have. It doesn’t matter how many hard assets you have. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your products may appear. People just won’t be your customers.”
For Ant Financial CEO Eric Jing, trust inside the company among staff is just as important: “The trust and transparency we build inside the company makes us a much more efficient organization.”
Change Is the Only Constant
The world is changing even if we are not. Embracing change, either by changing oneself or fostering change in the company, is a unique part of our DNA and must be valued.
“We used to say ’embrace change.’ It’s like the boss telling all of the team to change for the sake of changing, or the team says, Well, you’ve just moved the goal posts on me, so that’s why you want me to change,” says Tsai.
“We thought that rather than creating a command from the boss to the employee, we wanted to describe the circumstances for every person that works in the company. Our circumstance is that we work in a fast-changing environment, and the only constant is change,” he says.
Today’s Best Performance Is Tomorrow’s Baseline
This onward-and-upward approach has helped Alibaba survive our most challenging moments and thrive when we are ahead. Alibaba spirit means we need to constantly challenge and motivate ourselves and strive to exceed normal parameters.
“That might be a little bit daunting to people, because it feels like ‘I achieved great results, and you want me to do better,'” Tsai notes. “Well, here’s the thing: Everybody around you is getting better. Your competitors are getting better. Your customers every year are expecting better and better service. So, you have to get better. We’re telling our employees, Don’t be complacent, always find ways to improve. You’re looking up – you’re not looking behind in the rearview mirror and saying, ‘Well, I did a great job.'”
If Not Now, When? If Not Me, Who?
This was a tagline in Alibaba’s very first job advertisement. It’s still how we want our employees to view themselves as owners of the business. This gives them a sense of purpose and drive.
Jane Jiang, employee number 13 and current deputy chief people officer, says she loves this value “because I can feel two significant messages from this sentence: The first one, you have full confidence in yourself. You can do good things for your team, for your company, for your customer, sometimes even for society.”
“And the second message is that sometimes you have to take some responsibility for other people,” she continues. “Maybe sometimes you’re not ready for the challenge, but just keep confidence in yourself.”
Work Happily, Live Seriously
Work is for now, but life is forever. We want our employees to treat life seriously when they work and enjoy work as one enjoys life. We respect the work-life balance decisions of every individual.
“We always think we have to work seriously, and live happily, but it’s exactly the opposite,” says Tsai. Rather, Alibaba employees should enjoy work as they enjoy their lives, and treat life as seriously as they do their work.
The refreshed values follow Alibaba’s recent restatement of its mission and vision statements. The original mission of “to make it easy to do business anywhere” has been updated to include “in the digital era.” The vision has been revised to say Alibaba wants to be a “good company” that will last for 102 years, emphasizing the importance it places on being a force for good in the world.
Zhang says he wants the new values to help unite all Alibaba employees, even though they may live out the values in different ways.
“Today, we have people from all over the world, and we share the same platform, we share the same vision,” he says. “And it’s a time for us to work together to share the new values.”