If you're a young person, starting out in your first job, what's the most important thing to do? According to Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, it may not be what you think. He advises this: Find a job with a good boss and stay put. For at least three years.
That advice may sound all wrong to today's job-hopping young people. Especially knowing that unemployment is at an all-time low, opportunity for advancement may be at an all-time high, and that the skills you learn on the job can quickly translate into higher compensation when you move on to the next one. Even so, don't do it, he says. Resist the temptation to pursue the next opportunity until you've spent some real time where you are. Ma gave this advice at the recent Davos Economic Forum, where he was asked about the common habit of job-hopping among young people.
Why is Ma handing out this advice? Because it's what worked for him. As a youth, he learned English early and looked for opportunities to practice. Eventually, after several tries, he got into college and studied at what is now Hangzhou Normal University. At the time, in China, young people were slotted into careers early, based on what they were studying, which meant Ma was headed for a career as a high school English teacher.
The only problem was, he didn't want to be one. "I thought, 'Argh, how can a boy be a teacher?'" he told the audience. Fortunately, as it turned out, the president of the university had an inkling of what Ma was thinking. And so, on graduation day as Ma was leaving the campus for good, the president pulled him over. He knew that Ma was going to a good job, having slotted him into it himself. And so he extracted a promise: "Six years. Don't leave."
Ma didn't want to make that promise, but he did. And he stuck with it, even when some great job opportunities arose. In the long run, he was much better off. He said he learned to be a good teacher, and a good communicator. Also, he calmed down. In your 20s, he explained, you think you know everything and can do anything. "You actually can do nothing," he said. By the time the six years were up, he had learned a lot and developed some maturity. Those were important assets.
After the six years were up, Ma began exploring other opportunities, and learned about the internet, where he soon discovered China's presence was paltry compared to many other countries. He first created a website building company, then briefly headed a tech company for the Chinese government. And then he quit to co-found Alibaba.
Today, he credits that early experience with some of his success, and he says it brought him more value than moving jobs and racking up promotions ever could have. That's why he advised young people that your first job is your most important job, "Give yourself a promise--I will stay for three years." It doesn't matter whether the company is prestigious is or how big or small it is, he said, as long as your boss or mentor is someone you can really learn from, he added. "Find a good boss that can teach you how to be a human being," he said. "How to do things right."