Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, retired earlier this month after nearly 20 years at the top of the entrepreneurship world. A couple of years ago, someone asked Ma for his secret to Alibaba's success. He answered, "Women."
According to him, men make companies grow bigger, but women cause companies to do better. But there are other lessons we can take from Ma's extraordinary career, too.
Here are three things Jack Ma, the richest man in China, can teach us about how entrepreneurs can climb to the top and stay there.
1. Build these two key traits into your employees.
Ma believed every employee at Alibaba should exemplify two key traits: loyalty and motivation.
Originally, loyalty referred to the legal obligation a citizen had to the sovereign of the nation. You were either loyal or you lost your head. Later, when companies referred to their loyal people, they meant those employees who hung around for 20 years and didn't defect to the competition.
In modern times, though, loyalty means something different. It refers to faithfulness. Faithful employees carry out their duties with zeal and integrity. They want your company to win almost as much as you want it to win, so they'll do the hard work and take the necessary risks to make it happen.
Motivated employees may or may not be your loudest cheerleaders. But they are always the people who get the work done. They feel engaged and empowered to do their jobs, and they believe their opinions matter.
When I wanted to motivate employees, I gave them meaningful work, made them responsible for the outcome, and always kept them informed of the results of their work. Loyal and motivated employees may not stay 20 years at your company, but they will give you many years of value while they're there.
2. Be authentic to yourself, even if you're not the traditional CEO.
Inspiring. Influential. Quirky. Business observers are still looking for just the right adjective to apply to Ma. His leadership style is so unusual that it's hard to pin down. One thing we know for sure, though, however you define style, Jack Ma's got plenty of it.
He spits out one-liners, wears outlandish outfits, and even sings karaoke with his employees. He once gave each team member a can of silly string and told them to have fun with it. Ma appears as comfortable crooning into a mic as he does debating the future of Artificial Intelligence with the likes of Elon Musk.
I'm not trying to copy Ma's sense of style, but I am working very hard to develop my unique brand. For me, it's not flashy clothes or singing karaoke. And I have yet to give anyone a can of silly string.
My style is more being open and honest and borderline offensive, even if it's controversial. That's just me. You don't want to imitate, though. Find your own style and wear it proudly. Your team and your investors will appreciate you being comfortable in your own skin.
3. Perfect the art of persuasion. Then rely on it.
Ma didn't start out as anybody's idea of a potentially successful entrepreneur. He grew up in a modest home in Huangzhou, got rejected as an applicant by KFC, and had his application to Harvard denied ten times.
Ma finally landed a job as an English teacher making $12 an hour. From there, he persuaded his friends to work their butts off for his new idea--that a Chinese company could make money on the internet and that capitalism could work in communist-led China.
He was right, of course. But his original team didn't know that. What made them jump on board with his idea? Ma was persuasive. As easy as it might sound, persuasion is actually an art. It involves blending specificity with general ideas, balancing confidence and humility, and introducing counterintuitive concepts while saying things people will agree with.
Most importantly, persuasive leaders connect with their listeners. People believe this is a leader who understands their problems and opportunities, who cares about them, and who has a good plan for the future.
Jack Ma may be stepping down, but the story of his remarkable life will inspire generations of entrepreneurs. Be one of them.