What does it take to thrive? As an individual, a team or an organization? This is a question we as AGLA members are continually asking ourselves as we push to lead Alibaba’s globalization mission. We came some way to finding an answer during a day of deep self-reflection and introspection at the Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou.
The AGLA team and Chinese colleagues were fortunate enough to participate in a one day workshop led by Joey Hubbard, a former collegiate American Football player, and current Director of Trainings at Thrive, an organization founded by Ariana Huffington to help end stress and burnout in the workplace and allow employees and companies to focus on well-being and high-performance. Joey cut a charismatic and affectionate figure who has worked with many famous personalities, including Maradona, and more recently Uber’s Travis Kalanick to help them find direction and leadership in their respective careers.
Broadly speaking Thrive bases its philosophy of high performance and well-being around four core values; Body, Mind, Heart and Soul. During the workshop we understood these to signify the following:
Body: Physically energized and ready to perform
Mind: Mentally focused and in the present
Heart: A sense of belonging
Soul: A sense of deeper mission
Each AGLA member was tasked with identifying the area that they are strongest in and the area that they are weakest in, then discussing with other members who found themselves in the same position. Interestingly, Body was the category that saw most AGLA self-describe as their strongest area, with the other three areas showing a fairly equal number of AGLAs self-describing as weak. In a way this makes sense, for many of us, myself included, we are still in the process of developing the deeper leadership philosophy that will guide us through our careers and the Thrive workshop was an important step in that process. One of the other things that the workshop made me realize was the value of taking more time for self-reflection and self-improvement and that I should build this more into my daily or weekly routine. Some of the other things that the thrive workshop touched on included the need for sleep and ways to improve sleep, meditation and its ability to make people more mindful, and exercise and its relation to both physical and mental performance.
While taking a whole day for self-reflection, self-criticism and self-improvement is a rare luxury for people working in most professions, Alibaba is a place that actively encourages these activities. The most obvious way is through a weekly report that all employees must write to summarize and reflect on their week at work, but Alibaba also has a well-defined philosophy that encourages employees to think deeply about the principles that guide their careers. I was surprised by how much the Thrive values seemed to align with these principles and the way Alibaba thinks about high-performance, in particular, leadership. Similar to the Thrive solution I described above, leadership and high performance in Alibaba is also prescribed around a set of core values. A leader in Alibaba should excel in three areas, namely, 心力 (xin li), 体力 (ti li) and 脑力 (nao li).
While somewhat difficult to translate, these values can be broadly understood as corresponding to the following:
心力: Passion and belief in the work you do (Thrive principle: heart and soul)
体力: Physical strength to move at the necessary speed (Thrive principle: body)
脑力: Intellectual strength necessary to constantly learn and adapt (Thrive principle: mind)
Working at Alibaba can be a challenging experience. We are continually pushing the boundary in terms of delivering the best experience for the users of our platform. Each of the above qualities is therefore vital for someone to be successful at the company. The passion and believe helps to keep you motivated even in the face of the most difficult challenges. The physical strength allows you to carry out projects with the requisite speed demanded by our users and the intellectual ability allows us to adapt to the constantly changing external and internal environment that is a hallmark of operating at the forefront of technological innovation. For the AGLA, we will also need to continue developing these qualities if we are deliver Alibaba’s mission of making it easy to do business anywhere.
Interestingly, however, when I talk to Chinese colleagues, they often mention that the English translation of the leadership principles do not quite seem to do justice to the deep meaning of the Chinese characters. Indeed, the Alibaba principles do seem to be rooted firmly in Chinese philosophy, history and culture. And here one can also find other guidance for how to lead and how to leave a lasting legacy. In June, the AGLA class visited 北京大学 (Beijing Daxue/Peking University or Beida for short) the most revered institution in China when it comes to liberal arts education. There we had the opportunity to learn more about Chinese philosophy from a leading professor, however, it was a translation of 三不朽 (the three immortalities) by Hu Shih, a former Chancellor of Peking University that most caught my eye. Describing the three immortalities as Worth, Work, Words, Chancellor Shih laid out another framework by which we can understand high-performance (thriving) and one which seems to align closely with the Alibaba philosophy in terms of describing high-performance and leadership as something deeper than the simple actions an individual, team or organization takes.
Whatever the case may be, we as AGLA are fortunate to be working in an environment that gives us space for deep self-reflection as we seek to answer the question, what does it take to thrive?
Gary Topp is a graduate of the University of Chicago; he lives and breathes economics. He has previously worked on economic development issues at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and for CGAP at the World Bank.
 Note the three immortalities were originally coined by Shu Sun Bao in the Warring States Period to describe the type of life that could lead one to leave a lasting legacy (immortality).