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Jack Ma built a business empire helping the masses — half a billion of them at the last count. Alibaba brought ecommerce to everyone, from small businesses trading on its online marketplace, to shoppers who use its Alipay service to buy groceries with a swipe of a smartphone.
When it comes to hiring senior executives, however, Mr Ma’s company is focusing on an elite group — those who have studied at the world’s top business schools. Business development managers from Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou are touring campuses, meeting careers teams at the China Europe International Business School (Ceibs) in Shanghai, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois, and the London School of Economics in the UK. The message is clear: Alibaba is eager to hire graduates from masters in management courses and MBA programmes.
This marks a change for Mr Ma who, despite completing the chief executive programme at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing in 2006, has in the past been critical of MBA graduates in interviews. But his new interest reflects the fact that Alibaba now has global impact, with a listing on the New York Stock Exchange.
The company was founded in 1999 by Mr Ma from his apartment in Hangzhou. The company now has more than 50,000 people on the payroll.
One entry point for MBAs is the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy, a one-year scheme for graduates with at least three years’ work experience. Those hired move between roles in Alibaba divisions, interspersed with classroom teaching on Alibaba’s culture, and field trips ranging from visits to logistics hubs to see how deliveries are managed, to exploring China’s original Silk Road trading route on a trek through the Gobi desert. Competition for AGLA places is tough. More than 3,000 people applied for 30 places on the first programme, which started in 2016. This year applications doubled for the same number of places.
The first cohort of AGLA participants finished their 12 months in October and are about to be sent on assignments all over the world. The group included staff from 14 countries.
Half have returned to their home nations to work at the local offices of Alibaba, helping the company embed its culture across a fast-growing global footprint. The other half will be involved in global business units based in the company’s China headquarters.
Among them is Wilson Tseng, an Iese Business School MBA graduate, born in Barcelona to Taiwanese parents. He is working in London, where he had previously lived, on the business development team for Alibaba Cloud.
He says his abilities to prioritise and execute plans, learnt on his MBA, have proved valuable to Alibaba. “Work is not always straightforward, so results can only be achieved by knowing how to work with different people in a co-operative way,” Mr Tseng says.
The number of applicants for the Alibaba Global Leadership Academy training scheme in 2016 — only 30 places were available.
Brian Wong, an American MBA graduate who grew up in Silicon Valley, created the AGLA programme. But he points out that there are other ways for MBAs to find a role. “We just hired 44 business development people for our cloud-related services,” Mr Wong says. “A number of those are MBAs.”
Business school graduates can improve their chances if they have work experience in fields such as logistics, ecommerce and finance. It also helps if they are flexible. “It’s important not to think that just because you have an MBA, you’re instantly valuable,” says Mr Wong. “You have to think about how to adapt those skills.”
Alibaba has not always been so keen on hiring staff with formal qualifications. Mr Wong recalls Mr Ma warning him that he was making a mistake when he left the company in 2001 for an MBA course at Wharton. And he admits that he had to “unlearn” many of the case study lessons about how companies should be run when he returned.
Mr Wong’s plan with the AGLA was to bring MBA skills to the senior management team, while encouraging business school graduates to take risks by putting them in charge of projects.
“Jack [Ma] used to say the people he disliked most were professional managers and MBAs, because they are really good at doing what they are told, but rarely do they take chances,” Mr Wong says. “But if you flip it, the great thing about MBAs is they have very structured thinking and they have got strong analytical skills.”
MBAs are also good at attracting other talented people through their alumni networks, he says.
Recruits such as Mr Tseng are the company’s young cultural ambassadors, according to Mr Wong. “When we talk about leadership at Alibaba, a lot of it relates to grit and resilience, and that resilience only comes from experience — life experience,” he adds.
“Jack says the best way to identify a leader is to throw them in the battlefield and see who comes back alive.”
Alibaba in numbers
- 50,092 employees worldwide
- $474bn market capitalisation
- 549m active users of the company’s retail marketplaces via smartphones in China
- $8.3bn of revenue generated in the last quarter, a 61 per cent increase year-on-year
- $25.3bn spent during the company’s 11.11 shopping festival
- Over 140,000 brands participated in the 11.11 event