Podcast: Alibaba’s Former GC on His 14-year Journey at Alibaba and Company Culture – AliDay Special

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Podcast: Alibaba’s Former GC on His 14-year Journey at Alibaba and Company Culture – AliDay Special


Alizila’s Julie Huang: Welcome to Alicast. I’m Julie Huang from Alizila. For this episode, we’re turning inwards and putting the spotlight on us, Alibaba. That’s because today is AliDay, an annual celebration of Alibaba employees and their families that takes place on May 10th. We like to take this day to profile people in the company whom we call “Aliren.”  And we have a very special guest this year, our outgoing general counsel, Tim Steinert. Tim is a 14-year veteran of Alibaba. He joined in 2007 and has been instrumental in building the legal structure for the company, guiding Alibaba through ups and downs as it grew. Tim is retiring, but we couldn’t let him go without sharing some stories about his time at Alibaba and get some pearls of wisdom on how he navigated – and thrived – in a Chinese company. And since it is AliDay, we also get to hear his views as a former member of the Alibaba partnership on the culture that makes the company so unique. 

Thank you for joining us, Tim. I have to admit, I’ve often wanted to ask you these questions about your career here at Alibaba, and I’m thrilled I get to do so now. To start, can you give us an overview of your background, your career? You’re an American…where did you grow up and how did you end up as a successful corporate lawyer in Asia?

Alibaba’s Tim Steinert: I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Northeast of the U.S. I went to high school in New England and college in New England at Yale. I began my path to Asia at Yale. At that point, it was almost impossible for young Americans to go to Mainland China. So I went to Taiwan and I spent three years there teaching English and studying Chinese and working in a newspaper and having a lot of fun. I actually came to Hong Kong during that time and talked to a whole bunch of Americans who were working on China-related things, including lawyers. And I decided to go to law school. I had always thought about law school. And then, coming out of law school, I took a job in a law firm in Beijing. And then after that, I just continued on the treadmill of international law firm life, almost always doing work related to China.

Julie: So you’re on this very successful path working for the top law firms. And then you joined a company called Alibaba. How do you take a blind leap of faith and jump into the company?

Tim: I had worked about 17 years in law firms and I was sort of at the point partner, thinking I’m not as inspired by what I’m doing. I’d like to do something different. And I can take a chance. You know, as a lawyer, as a sort of an outside consultant, you’re helping companies get deals done and accomplish their goals. But you’re not part of the decision-making process. You’re not on the inside. You’re not the principal in that. So I was thinking about working in-house because I wanted to be closer to the action, I guess. At the time, Alibaba was preparing to list its B2B business. I had kept up contact with, uh, Joe Tsai who I first got to know in college. And he was someone who followed a similar path.  I knew him. I kept up with him. I worked for Alibaba as an outside consultant. And then one day he said, wow, you know, you’re doing all this work for Alibaba. Why don’t you join us? I was thinking about what kind of company if I was going to move out of the law firm world, what kind of company did I want to be part of. There is obviously a large number of Asia-based companies, but not many that have a strong company culture, a culture that respects the legal function and believes that the legal function is important. And after talking with Joe, I was convinced that Alibaba potentially was a company like that.

Julie: You’re a non-Chinese person who was joining a Chinese company at a senior level. I have to think that at that point, that wasn’t very common. So what were those early days like for you?

Tim: One of the things that interests me, of course, is the language and cultural differences. My Chinese language at the time was adequate, but it certainly improved very, very quickly. And you know, I continue to work on it every day. If you asked me what I hope people most appreciated about my contribution is international legal perspective on what is best for the company in order to make us successful as a truly global company.

Julie: There are probably a lot of people listening who would like to better understand what it means to be general counsel for a major corporation like Alibaba. So can you describe your job?

Tim: You know, like most other companies, large companies, the role of senior leaders in the company involves two main things. One is acting as a manager of people. It’s ensuring that your team has the proper support and resources and direction to do their job. And the second thing is from whichever area you’re in is to set the strategy of the team. In our case, it’s the legal strategy that obviously needs to support the strategy of the business as a whole.

Julie: The company is growing during this time. And to me, the general counsel always has to deal with a lot of problems and issues. You know, it could be a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. So how do keep it from not just being such a heavy job and it’s just full of problems?

Tim: For a company that’s moving as fast as ours, that’s always going to be the case no matter what. I don’t think legal is particularly special. If you’re outside of legal, a lot of what you see is the big things, the big litigation or the big investigations, the big incidents and stuff, but that’s only part of what we do. Most of the time, it’s helping business teams set up processes, make sure that their products comply with various laws, that risk management systems are in place and things like that. So I think anybody who’s in that kind of situation at any level has to learn how to compartmentalize. I think a lot of times it’s okay, I’ve got an issue, I’ve got to deal with it, but let’s think up a plan and get a team working on it and let them go work on it and then move to the next thing. Relying on the organization, relying on the team to work together to solve those problems rather than thinking that you should be the one to solve every little issue.

Julie: You were also a member of the Alibaba partnership and that’s quite an honor, how important is this group in shaping the Alibaba culture?

Tim: I think the partnership is absolutely essential to promoting Alibaba culture. It is the ultimate keeper of our culture, our values. What we talk about most of the time is all about a culture values organization. It’s not focused on business issues. And that’s one of the things that has kept me going at Alibaba all these years is that we’re a company that is driven by mission that by and large adheres to our values. And that the role of the partnership is as, as leaders ensuring that continues to be the case. That despite all of the business pressures, despite all of the international pressures and domestic pressures, that we stick to our mission, vision and values.

Julie: Did you recognize that early on that you were going to be one of these folks who really had to sort of help the company bridge East and West?

Tim: I think for me that was from college. I was interested in China. I studied Chinese history and read gazillion books about China, Chinese art, Chinese poetry. I even studied in law school; I studied Imperial Chinese law. I had a wonderful Chinese history professor named Jonathan Spence. I consciously thought of myself as someone who could add value by bringing an international perspective and helping to bridge through my experience and my own capabilities, helping to bridge East and West within Alibaba.

Julie: So now for young people coming out, the idea of working in Asia, especially in China for a Chinese company, it’s sort of happening. Would you advise these young people that you actually have to go as deep as you did in the culture, in the language in order to succeed?

Tim: This is a lawyer’s answer. It depends. Everybody has to start somewhere. Wherever it is, whatever level it’s at, you have to start.  You have to put in the grunt work for the job. If your choice is a foreign culture, then I, I think it goes without saying, and maybe it’s trite to say, but you need to invest yourself in the foreign culture, the history of the politics, the art and the language to maximize the opportunity to be successful if you’re going to work in that context.

Julie: When you meet new employees, um, joining Alibaba, what’s your advice to them?

Tim: What I always start with is what is our values? And I focus on what could be the toughest challenges for people joining the organization. You know, the two values I focus on are, are change, which I think is particularly challenging for lawyers because they are conservative by nature. Uh, that’s what they’re trained to be cautious, conservative, try to focus on consistency. And then the other is today’s best performance is tomorrow’s baseline. A lot of lawyers who joined the organization come from a more stable background where they’re given their work, they do their deals. And as long as they do what they’re asked to do every day, then they feel like they’re doing their job. For lawyers and others in Alibaba, I think it’s really important to remember that we constantly have to up our game to improve ourselves.  In order to demonstrate our value, we have to be creative. We have to show that we are as close to the frontline with our internal partners as possible to help them on their business journey. And that’s particularly challenging for a lot of lawyers coming in who are more used to sitting back and waiting for things to come to them rather than being proactive.

Julie: That’s a really good point. Is that your favorite value or do you have another one?

Tim: My favorite value is trust makes everything simple. I’ve invested my life in the rule of contract, in the rule of law, but I believe very firmly that without trust, without basic integrity behind a relationship, it doesn’t matter how much law, how many rules, how long the contract is. None of that matters if there’s no trust, if there’s not mutual respect between the two parties in a situation that underlies and enforces whatever’s written down on paper.

Julie: What will you miss most about Alibaba?

Tim: Well, without question, I will miss the people. It has been tremendously fulfilling to be able to work alongside people who are doing such wonderful things and who have invested so much energy and have been so committed to pushing our mission forward. Jack and others always talk about the old guys like me. Being an old guy in an organization that’s very young, that’s doing things that are a very new, cutting edge, I just feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of that with these people. And I’ve learned that you can only do great things if you work as a team with good people.

Julie: What will you miss least?

Tim: I will miss flying to Hangzhou at least: The travel time, having to spend so much time on the airplane and in hotels and so forth. In the COVID pandemic, we and other companies have learned. I think we’ve learned that we don’t need to travel as much as we thought we did. We’ve learned that you don’t have to be in the room. Now you can be in the virtual room for meetings. I think we’ve started to learn better, to be more disciplined with our meetings, to have schedules, to have better agendas and so forth. So I hope going forward we can continue that learning. If we’re going to really grow as a global company, we can’t depend on having in-person meetings all the time.

Julie: You must have a lot of memories of your time at the company. What stands out? Any good stories to share?

Tim: Lots of stories. One of the most exciting moments was almost was one of my first days when I joined and it was obviously a nervous time for me, but it was also a very important time for the company. It was when the B2B business was being taken public and really only senior management and this team knew that we were going to do this IPO. At that time, Alibaba was having annual meetings of all its employees and we could fit everybody into the Yellow Dragon Basketball Stadium in Hangzhou. We scheduled an annual meeting which annual meeting has all the ordinary songs and dance and so forth. But at that meeting, we also planned to announce that Alibaba was going to IPO.  So I knew it was coming and some of the people around me knew it was coming, but nobody else in the auditorium knew it was coming. So when Jack got up on stage and announced that yesterday we had filed to IPO in Hong Kong the B2B business, I looked around and watched the faces of all these people who had been working so hard at that point for eight years on Alibaba and just watch them erupt in excitement with that announcement. And that was basically my start at my Alibaba career. And it was very, very moving,

Julie: But then you also had years down the line, the big IPO in 2014, right? That didn’t top that?

Tim: In different ways. We had already done our B2B IPO and in fact, we’d already taken the B2B business private after that. So there was a lot of water under the bridge. The U.S. IPO of Alibaba Group was also a very exciting moment. Unlike, the B2B IPO which was an IPO in Hong Kong, this was an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange, the leading stock exchange in the world. It was much more of a global coming out for Alibaba as a company. And that was very exciting by itself, but it was also for me personally, it was also exciting. Of course, I worked very hard on the IPO with a lot of other people, but it was very exciting because here I was, an American, working as a senior executive in a Chinese company that was doing then the largest IPO in history, in my home country. So to be that one American face among that senior management outside the New York Stock Exchange was really cool.

Julie: So what’s next? How do you plan to spend your time post Alibaba?

Tim: It’s bittersweet, you know, leaving my team, leaving the partnership, leaving my friends, leaving the most important part of my legal career is really tough. Uh, on the other hand, I have a lot of things I’d like to do. I have my bucket list, everything from, I want to go into outer space to, I want to hike all the great hiking trails in the world. I want to fish at all the most beautiful places in the world. I want to write a book. I want to own a piece of a restaurant. I have a long list of things I want to do so I’m really excited. I do want to continue to be involved somehow in contributing my legal skills to organizations, but I haven’t figured out exactly how I’m going to do that.

Julie: I always say there’s something about this place that has kept me going. You must have those feelings too. How do you describe to someone what makes this place special?

Tim: Well, I think the most important thing is that we are a mission and values-driven company. Obviously, we all work to make a living, to make money, to support our families. And every job allows you to do that, but to have something more, to feel like you’re part of doing something good for society, doing something good for the world really is meaningful. So that sort of core value system is what has kept me going all these years,

Julie: We’re going to do something different. Let’s do a lightning round of quick questions. Are you ready? 

Tim: Probably not, but okay, go ahead.

Julie: What’s the one unexpected skill that has come in handy on the job and you can’t say Mandarin.

Tim: I wouldn’t say it’s unexpected, but I think it’s one that has been particularly helpful that may be unusual for people. And that is, I like to eat anything. Eating in a communal context is very important to Chinese culture. We all eat from the same bowls as opposed to Western culture, you have your own plate, your own food. So it’s particularly important that you are able to eat everything that’s put in front of you. You know, I constantly get comments. Can you eat this? Have you had that? And I’m fine. I can eat anything you put in front of me and that has helped, sort of as an icebreaker in my relationship with people in the company.

Julie: Next, in the last five years, what new belief behavior or habit has most improved your life?

Tim: I think the most important new thing that I’ve tried to use to help me handle all the balls in the air is practicing mindfulness meditation. I haven’t been as consistent as I should be or would like to be, but I have found that meditation has helped me help calm down during the day and also helped me calm down at night and be able to sleep better.

Julie: Lastly, if you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, metaphorically speaking, of course, getting a message out to billions or millions of people, what would it say and why?

Tim: I think it would say something like, “We are one.” I say that because whatever context you’re in, your future success depends on other people. The growth and success of the organization, the group, the country, the global community, if we work together is a win-win proposition. I feel very strongly that, the U.S. and China, China and the world have so much more to gain by working together to build our joint futures than by competing and standing separately.

Julie: Well, I hope in your post-Alibaba life, you continue to work on making that happen, still continue to be that bridge. That would be wonderful. 

Tim: I hope so.

Julie: Thank you so much for joining us. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Best of luck to you. I’m sure we’ll still see you around. Thank you so much for your service to Alibaba.

Tim: Thank you. Happy AliDay!

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