About This Episode
Over the last two decades, technology has evolved and become a big part of our everyday lives. Brian Wong, our guest for this episode of Brilliant Thoughts, a SUCCESS magazine podcast, worked with Alibaba, one of the largest e-commerce companies in the world, for almost 20 years, and has been one of the company's earliest employees ever since the company was just a startup.
As a Chinese American who was raised in the Bay Area of California and worked in China during the height of the technology race, Brian gained a lot of knowledge. He learned about the rivalry and how the tech industries in Asia and the West interact, how technology has changed and shaped our lives and the way we work, as well as the Eastern philosophies (such as Daoism and Buddhism), mindsets, and psychologies that are frequently mentioned in leadership and self-development talks.
He wrote The Tao of Alibaba as a way to share that experience as well as “the management principles that guided the big decisions that were made that resulted in the creation of one of the largest e-commerce companies—or the largest e-commerce company—in the world,” Brian says.
It also discusses how the tech sector and the ecosystem it created have had a significant impact on regions like Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as how technology contributes to the development of more inclusive paradigms, the creation of jobs for the population, and the creation of chances for those who have historically been excluded from the mainstream economy to become active participants who can influence the sector.
We live in a time when there are tensions between the US and China, but with China becoming a fierce competitor in the global tech landscape, what are some things the Western world can learn from our Eastern counterparts in terms of philosophies and running a successful and fast-growing business?
Brian stresses the importance of the three biggest universal principles in every business worldwide: having a clear vision, mission, and set of values in an organization.
One thing that successful companies that have been around for decades or over a hundred years have in common is having a very clear purpose as to why their organization exists.
“And that's something that's constantly brought up and reminded to the employees or the people working there live and breathe that purpose,” Brian says.
That vision provides a clear picture of what the mission looks like in a very concrete form, which helps everyone in the organization grasp how they can each work on making that purpose a reality. And the set of values is the set of principles by which everyone is expected to go about their work and make decisions.
When vision, mission, and values align and everyone in the company takes complete ownership of them, the organization comes to life. It becomes a living, breathing organism that can evolve and adapt through any changes that the world around it and the society it belongs to undergo, and that is how companies thrive through significant transitions in the long run.
That is how Alibaba managed to grow and evolve over the past 20 years, despite being in the fastest-growing economy and the fastest-growing industry at the time.
Their mission to help small businesses and make it easy to do business anywhere has helped them evolve from an e-commerce platform to improving payment, logistics, and cloud computing, which are all geared toward helping small businesses reach both local and international consumers.
Part of a leader’s role is to set the direction of the organization and cast a vision that everyone in the company is aligned with. But what sets apart a great leader is the way he empowers the people around him to make the vision a reality.
Over the years that Brian worked with Alibaba, he learned a lot from the founder’s leadership style.
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, was a teacher with no background in tech or business, but he was able to bring in people with the abilities necessary to realize the company’s purpose. Attracting the right talent and creating an environment that gives them a sense of ownership of the organization’s purpose is not an easy feat.
It takes showing a lot of trust and respect, both for the individual’s abilities and potential for growth, and trusting them enough to involve them in the decision-making process.
It also involves the willingness to embrace failure. By creating a culture where it is okay to fail and keep trying and learning from that failure, people are more motivated to think of creative ways to provide solutions for the problems they are trying to solve.
“I think that creates a much more dynamic environment that motivates people because they feel like it's on them to achieve what it is that we all agree on,” Brian says.
But creating this dynamic environment is easier said than done.
Meetings can become quite chaotic when everyone is involved in the decision-making process, and discussions can get quite heated. While some would say that this method is inefficient, in a way, it becomes more effective.
“…in the end, once you battled it out and you argued and you came to a decision, then everybody got behind that decision full force and just made it happen. There was no questioning of that afterwards,” Brian shares. “There is a level of efficiency where you get the entire team behind something and they go 110% after that process is done.”
The procedure may seem chaotic at first, but it guarantees a thorough discussion that takes into account many different points of view and fosters trust among members of your organization. Because everyone has provided their input and all things have been taken into consideration, what has been agreed on is something that everybody is on board with.
The longer that dynamic and trust are built, the better your team works as a whole over time, and even those heated discussions become more fluid and efficient in the long run.
Leading without leading is a very courageous style of leadership. But it ensures that your company runs smoothly even when you are not in the control room to pilot it, and everyone believes that the decision made is the right way forward and can focus on giving it their all.
In one of his movies, Bruce Lee said a beautiful quote that Brian feels is a perfect reflection of the Eastern philosophy of Daoism: “Don't think, feel. It's like a finger pointing to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger. You'll miss all the heavenly glory.”
The same philosophy applies to businesses. We tend to get so focused on the how that we lose sight of the why and miss the bigger picture.
All these metrics—profitability, growing your consumer base, and meeting your quarterly targets—are important, but Brian says that “[if] you're forgetting the greater purpose of the organization and what we talked about, the mission, then you're essentially missing the most important part of why you're at the organization.”
Success goes beyond KPIs. It is the why that fuels innovation and provides the motivation—the spirit of creating something from nothing. And his experience with Alibaba is a testament to that.
During its founding, China had a per capita income of $800 and 8 million internet users online, which is significantly low for a country with a huge population. Jack was an English teacher with no background in tech or business, and the company’s mission was to help small businesses—any regular entrepreneur would think that the odds of the company succeeding are stacked against them.
But today, China has over a billion internet users online, with a per capita income that has increased to $10,000, and Alibaba is now one of the largest internet companies in the world. All because of their dedication to the mission, which sparked a global and national innovation that made it possible for rural residents and small businesses to participate actively in the nation's mainstream economy.
If they were focused solely on making money, they wouldn’t be motivated to think of creative ways to serve and include the marginalized and disenfranchised.
Going beyond KPIs and focusing on the bigger purpose allowed the company to go to the root of the problems they were trying to solve for the local markets, and their KPIs served only as a means to measure whether they were making an impact or not and how big that impact was on their consumers' lives.
One of the six values of Alibaba is “embrace change” which has evolved over the years to “change is constant.” The ability to embrace change and the willingness to adapt to these changes at the drop of a dime helped the company be more agile and successful.
We frequently find change to be inconvenient, but we must learn to accept it because everything will continue to change in the future. These changes also present opportunities for you and your company to expand.
One of the reasons why Alibaba has been a successful player in the tech industry is because they look at the role of their industry as a part of a larger ecosystem in society. In any country, the culture is not a monolith. These cultures contain embedded microcultures, and it is crucial to comprehend this diversity and how it interacts with society.
Your business isn't isolated from that ecosystem. It plays a role in that ecosystem alongside the private sector and the government.
“I actually think that there are lessons to be learned in terms of how government plays a role with the private sector and then the role that private sector plays to actually help society as a whole,” Brian shares.
His book, The Tao of Alibaba, highlights one of the most prominent Eastern philosophies, and according to Brian, what defines the characteristics of Eastern philosophy is its holistic approach. Daoism talks about balance, the yin and yang being opposing forces, and how there is unity in those contradictions.
Through adopting a holistic viewpoint, Alibaba established a positive ecosystem within the company that fits in well as a component of a larger ecosystem in society.
Today, 52% of China’s retail is done through e-commerce. Alibaba, being one of the largest players in that industry, made it possible for small businesses to become players in that market through the technology they created.
They made it possible by lowering the barriers to entry by educating small business owners on why the Internet matters to their companies and creating a system that is simple enough for even those in rural areas to navigate and understand.
But the government also plays a role in that. “The role that government plays is by funding infrastructure, by creating a fertile environment where these digital businesses can actually thrive,” Brian says.
Because both the government and private sector worked hand-in-hand, China was able to lower logistics and transportation costs, resulting in more efficient business transactions and cheaper products.
This holistic approach is something that the Western world can learn a lot from, and hopefully opens doors to better innovation and a healthier, more competitive global industry.
Follow Brian Wong
You can also get a copy of his book, The Tao of Alibaba, on Amazon now!
DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.