“Culture Acts Like a Catalyst”, Alibaba CEO Says Values are Key to Success

April Davis By April Davis | 29 Mar 2019

Speaking to senior management at Alibaba’s New Retail-powered supermarket chain, Hema, Alibaba’s CEO said expansion depends on a strong company culture.

Most retailers will operate under a core set of business values, but according to Alibaba Group’s CEO, Daniel Zhang, having a few plaques on the wall isn’t enough to inspire workers to live up to company values. This is something that has rung true within Alibaba, with Zhang saying the business’s success has stemmed from its values-driven corporate culture.

“As Alibaba grows, we need to return to basics. Values shouldn’t be words written on plaques on the wall. Values should become part of the way we think and act automatically,” Zhang said.

Citing the rapid growth of Hema, also known as Freshippo, Zhang says that the brand’s technology-driven approach to grocery shopping has become more and more popular since the chain was first launched four years ago. While the company has delivered on its original goal of establishing an innovative business model and establishing operational efficiencies, a strong culture that has neatly aligned with Alibaba’s core values has reportedly been integral to the brand’s success.

“Culture acts like a catalyst, it’s the glue that brings everything together,” he said. “This has to be top priority for everyone from headquarters on down to the stores themselves.”

The values that have underpinned and driven the strong company culture that Zhang boasts about include taking a customer-first approach and developing teams of people who can relate to one another and work together in a positive professional environment.

“Before realising good corporate culture, you have to first be a good person,” Zhang said. “This is the starting point.”

This is something he emphasised starts at the top and ripples down through an organisation. To kick goals, Zhang believes that managers need to remain true to their speech and actions. Humility, is one of the biggest aspects management teams need to consider to achieve this. For instance, he dislikes the use of the word ‘boss’ as he says a simpler, more transparent team structure that doesn’t refer to ‘higher-ups’ is more empowering for all staff.

“Go back to the basics of being human, starting with our team. Only by doing this can we spread this value throughout the different levels of the organisation, one by one,” he said.

By going back to basics, Zhang says companies need to remember that people are people, not assets or commodities. Speaking to senior management within Alibaba’s growing supermarket business, he said management should always be investing in staff, giving them opportunities to learn and grow and establishing a strong sense of loyalty. This can reportedly be achieved by having a combination of formal training programs and benefits in place, as well as having some “heart”, as Zhang put it.

“You have to be flexible to relate and resonate with other people. I believe that having heart allows people to better connect, which builds stronger teams,” he said.

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