leadership, Startup Advice

“Alibaba was never about Jack Ma”: Words of wisdom from Jack Ma’s retirement letter

Matthew Elmas /

Chinese e-commerce magnate Jack Ma will retire as chairman of Alibaba Group, the company he founded almost 20 years ago, in the next 12 months.

Having built Alibaba from a startup operation in his apartment to one of the largest companies in the world, Ma believes the company’s 20th birthday is the right time to pass on the torch.

In a letter penned to customers and shareholders, the business leader, known for delivering pearls of wisdom, has given some advice to his successor, Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang and the broader community.

Companies must move past their founders

Ma said he’s been working towards passing the torch on for the last decade, preparing the company for a changing of the guard that he hopes will serve as the bedrock for its success for the next century or more.

“No company can rely solely on its founders. Of all people, I should know that. Because of physical limits on one’s ability and energy, no one can shoulder the responsibilities of chairman and CEO forever,” Ma said.

“We believed the only way to solve the problem of corporate leadership succession was to develop a system of governance based on a unique culture and mechanisms for developing consistent talent and successors. For the last 10 years, we kept working on these ingredients.”

“Droves of talent”

Teachers want their students to “exceed them”, Ma said, so it’s only natural that Alibaba will turn to “droves of talent” coming through and into its business to drive it forward.

For Ma, what makes Alibaba is its mission, values and culture, not its founder.

“Over the years, in iterating our management model, we have experimented with and improved on the right balance between systems and individuals,” he said.

“Simply relying on individuals or blindly following a system will not solve our problems. To achieve long-term sustainable growth, you need the right balance among system, people and culture.”

What’s next for Jack Ma?

Ma doesn’t plan to sit on his laurels in retirement, and will continue his role as a founding partner in the Alibaba Partnership. He also wants to return to teaching.

“I still have lots of dreams to pursue,” he said.

“The world is big, and I am still young, so I want to try new things — because what if new dreams can be realised?”

“The one thing I can promise everyone is this: Alibaba was never about Jack Ma, but Jack Ma will forever belong to Alibaba.”

READ NOW: Why Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma avoided hiring high achievers

READ NOW: Jack Ma pledges to support small businesses as Alibaba opens first Australian headquarters

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Matthew Elmas

Matthew is the news editor at SmartCompany.

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