Commentary: What Jack Ma Can Teach All of Us About the Key to Success

December 22, 2017, 3:50 PM UTC

I was fortunate to attend the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou, China earlier this month and, as I reflected on the many high-level discussions that took place around the theme of “Openness and Innovation: Shaping the Global Economy,” it occurred to me that the discussions began to share a common idea: that in order to progress the way we do business and interact together, we must first and foremost be inclusive.

Gone are the days where companies grow in isolation in their own industry, watching competitors from afar and trying to out-hire, out-produce, and out-expand them. To be successful now, companies must take an approach that connects people, ideas, and opportunities from all sides. In other words, the key to success today is being inclusive—which means bringing together a diverse leadership and workforce to promote and encourage a range of thoughts and ideas that could propel the company forward in a new way.

It also means being inclusive with customers, creating a two-way dialogue and enabling customers to be a part of solutions. And it means, ironically, inclusion with competitors—not just learning from them, but creating opportunities to partner and work together to create circumstances that benefit the consumer (and the world), not just the business.

There were many conversations at the Fortune Global Forum that underscored this way of thinking. Below are a few ways I believe organizations can create a more inclusive model, and strengthen their business by expanding their ability to connect and include others in the process:

Put people before technology

When we think about an inclusive mindset, it goes for including people in that vision as much as it does technology. Jack Ma, founder of the Asian e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba (BABA), said it best during the forum when he said, “As a business, it’s not about empowering ourselves. It’s about the legacy we leave to the world for human beings.” And, while artificial intelligence will be a part of that legacy, he noted during a discussion with Alan Murray, president of Fortune and chief content officer of Time Inc, that, at the end of the day, we need to “make sure that machine learning is improving human lives.”

That means understanding that, while human beings will benefit from technology, it will take people to understand the value of decisions and the impact they will have on others. He then coined the term “LQ” (“love quotient”) in discussing that people will always win over computers, as computers can have high IQ (intelligence quotient), i.e., learn and not forget, but they will not be able to master EQ (“emotional quotient”) or LQ—all ultimately critical to success.

Re-define the meaning of competitor

Having an inclusive mindset means thinking about and looking at competition differently. First, the lines of competitors have become increasingly blurry, with technology at the center of nearly every business, and companies competing with those they never before had considered (i.e., Amazon (AMZN)). New categories are also being defined, such as “mobility” rather than “automotive” and “airline.”

Second, when businesses think inclusively, they start to look across industries for opportunities to partner, align, and grow stronger, filling in their gaps. As Erik Fyrwald, CEO of Swiss agricultural group Syngenta International, commented at the Fortune Global Forum, “Look at who is best these days and aim to work with them.” This means looking vertically and horizontally, not just at what is right in front of you.

Diverse perspectives lead to better decisions

“Diversity is and must be a source of strength,” said Justin Trudeau, Canadian prime minister, during his discussion with Nancy Gibbs of Time. He went on to talk about how important it is to have a diverse bench of leadership to ensure more sound decision-making, rather than having one person from the “diverse group” represent his or her entire population.

Trudeau added that it’s a mistake to “lock someone into a representative narrative,” and that leadership should aim to “have people share a full range of experiences” from diverse populations if they want to open their capacity to be truly creative. He went on to say that diversity of thought, experiences, and approaches were essential for organizations to be able to respond to a rapidly shifting world.

As discussed at the Fortune Global Forum, the future of technology, AI, mobility, and a changing workforce are all important components of innovation and the progression of our society. But my biggest takeaway was that none of these advancements will be successful in the long run if done without inclusion. Openness leads to innovation, and we cannot be innovative in the products we make, the approach we take to business, or the way we work and live if we operate in isolation.

I am looking forward to seeing how this inclusive mindset continues to grow and play out across leadership and business strategy—especially as we look into the new year toward Davos, which will focus on strengthening global cooperation and inclusivity across regions and industries, as well as how organizations communicate differently with customers to empower those around them to be agents of the change, not merely products of it.

Kathy Bloomgarden is CEO of Ruder Finn.

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