Engage to succeed

Much has been written about Alibaba and its recent US$25 billion initial public offering – the world’s largest ever. Less has been said about what the leaders of other large companies, might learn from the extraordinary rise of the Chinese e-commerce giant.

Perhaps the biggest lesson lies in the intensity with which Alibaba’s leaders have engaged their customers, their employees, and the broader public. Chairman Jack Ma has cultivated the profile of a rock star. He is equally at home on public platforms punting solutions to social challenges as he is at meeting and mingling with consumers.

Not every corporate leader wishes to be, or should be, such a public personality. But Ma’s success can be attributed in part to his embrace of the hyper-connected spirit of the times, fuelled by social media, mobile technology, and 24/7 news cycles.

Such connectedness comes naturally to the under-30 “digital natives”, who command an increasing share of consumer spend, talent and public opinion. They expect big companies and public authorities to be as connected, engaged and rapidly responsive as they are. However, most of today’s leaders come from a different generation – and often assume that public engagement can be carefully managed through periodic “push” communications, rather than a continuous dialogue.

Those days have gone. The new generation of talent and consumers has massive choices; the power equation has shifted from the boss to the employee and customer.

For corporate leaders, the message is clear: engagement is not a choice. Reshape your organisation to make it responsive to the new generation of customers and employees who live and shop with their always-on mobile devices – or risk losing out to nimble new players.

Leaders need to foster a culture of openness and engagement across their organisations, encouraging their best people to experiment with new ways of connecting with customers and talent. Most of all, leaders need the courage to change themselves – and engage more often and more profoundly than ever.

This article is republished with kind permission of the South China Morning Post where Catherine Zhu is a regular contributor.

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