Stay optimistic despite US-China trade war and nurture talent, Alibaba executive Joe Tsai tells fresh grads at Education University of Hong Kong

  • Executive vice-chairman Tsai pays tribute to the teaching profession and explains why good teachers also make great business leaders
PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 10:46pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 10:15am

Good teachers make great business leaders as they feel a responsibility to nurture others who are better than themselves and know when to step aside, said Alibaba executive vice-chairman Joe Tsai as he rallied fresh graduates at the Education University of Hong Kong on Friday.

Speaking to hundreds of students and guests at the graduation ceremony, Tsai encouraged the youngsters to be optimistic about the future and “always seize that teaching moment to make others better”.

Tsai, who was giving a thank-you address after receiving an honorary degree from the university, paid tribute to the teaching profession and described what he saw as the key attributes of a good teacher that would stand businesses and their leaders in good stead.

“Organisations improve only when you have leaders who possess the self-awareness and humility to identify and give young, smart people the opportunities to shine,” he said.

“Develop young people and then step aside. True leadership is about never taking credit for the success of your team. By the same token, when great teachers are asked to explain the secrets of their success in developing great students, they will say all they did was unlock the potential.”

He related his own personal story of joining e-commerce giant Alibaba after visiting an apartment in Hangzhou, China, which the then fledgling firm was operating out of.

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“I met a great teacher by the name of Jack Ma,” he said of the life-changing visit.

“Alibaba is a story of teachers. It is a story of teachers who became leaders. It is a story of leaders who begot more leaders.”

Alibaba executive chairman Ma was sitting in the front row as Tsai went on stage to receive his doctorate.

Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

Tsai said among the lessons he and the leaders of Alibaba had learned as the company expanded was that business leaders should be personally invested in staff development.

In addition to “grading” people, Tsai said, good teachers were able to communicate well, which was a valuable trait in business leaders because they must “evangelise the company’s mission, vision and values” for employees, providing them with a clear sense of direction and ethical standards.

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Tsai also emphasised that teachers were willing to spend time and effort bettering their students. He compared this with improving the abilities of employees in a business.

“The leaders who pay attention and invest personal time to develop their people will achieve more,” Tsai said, “because with the support of a better team, you can scale your business to new heights.”

Humility was the third characteristic Tsai found outstanding in good teachers. Likewise, he believed good leaders would hire staff better than they were.

Tsai concluded his speech by encouraging graduates to remain optimistic despite the ongoing US-China trade war.

“I am optimistic about your future because you possess the talent to lift up others,” Tsai said.

Earlier this year Ma revealed he would be stepping down as Alibaba executive chairman, and he unveiled a succession strategy for grooming a generation of younger executives to take over the reins of Asia’s most valuable company.

Alibaba chief executive officer Daniel Zhang is set to succeed Ma in September next year.

In a letter to staff, Ma said: “Teachers always want their students to exceed them, so the responsible thing to do – for me and the company – is to let younger, more talented people take over in leadership roles so that they inherit our mission of making it easy to do business anywhere.”

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Tsai, who grew up in Taiwan, is known for his philanthropic initiatives, including donations through the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation to his alma mater, Lawrenceville School in the US state of New Jersey.

The Education University conferred honorary doctorates on five individuals for their contributions to their fields in advancing education and social progress at its 24th congregation on Friday.

The other recipients were former Hong Kong Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong, former Lingnan University president Edward Chen Kwan-yiu, Jardine Matheson Holdings deputy managing director Dr Pang Yiu-kai, and Professor Christopher Day, a leading scholar in the global education sector. They did not speak at the ceremony.