The internet belongs to young people

Successful entrepreneurs are often more aware of their own limitations than less successful ones.

“The internet belongs to young people.” So says Jack Ma, the outgoing CEO of Alibaba, the Chinese domestic e-commerce powerhouse he founded in 1999. He’s going to hang around as Executive Chairman, but a year ago he began to hand over control to 9 internal leaders and he has taken something of a backseat since apparently only answering one or two of every 100 emails he receives and then often with a question “What do you think?” Maybe he’s been reading the “One Minute Manager”.

I was much struck by the story of this rather eccentric, but notable, business leader who has achieved so much in such a short period of time, as there are at least two things about it that really resonate with my personal experience. The first is that the internet really is a young person’s game and many established businesses, trying to adapt to this new networked world we now live in, could do much worse than jumping a generation, or two, in succession planning and put a “youngster” in the top job.

The second thing I like about what Jack had to say, in yesterday’s open letter to his staff, is that he seems to be aware of his own limitations. Although he has achieved much more, as a business leader, than many of us ever will he seems to think that others can now do things better than he can. As an avid observer of businesses, and business leaders, and from working with many very successful people over the years, I have noticed it is often the personal qualities of these people, more than anything else, which dictates just how successful their businesses are. The most successful ones are aware of and are able to control, their egos and they are very clear about what they are good at and when they need help.

For me, Jack’s letter is full of wise words: “The Internet belongs to young people. This year, most of the Alibaba leaders who were born in the 1960s will retreat from management and execution roles as we hand over leadership responsibility to colleagues from the 70s and 80s generations. Because, we believe that they understand the future better than us, and they have a better chance at seizing the future.”

Whilst “executive Chairman” still could be a very “bossy” role, from what Jack says he is really taking a backseat and if it is really for the reason he says, rather than to spend more time enjoying the fruits of his success, he is an admirable man and one that many people in similar positions could learn from; though the prospect of an IPO may keep him busy too. I just want to end on a rather inspirational line from his letter. “…..I see that Alibaba’s young people have better, more brilliant, dreams than mine, and they are more capable of building a future that belongs to them.” Great, eh?