Alibaba’s Jack Ma offers advice on how long to stay in your first job

I ask for one thing.
I ask for one thing.
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, had some unambiguous advice for young people attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, last week. Asked for his thoughts on what’s often described as a millennial habit of job-hopping early in one’s career, with the goal of scrambling up the ranks, Ma was blunt: Just don’t.

Your first job is your most important job, he said, and your priority for it ought to be finding the right mentor. “You should find a good boss that can teach you how to be a human being, how to do things right, how to do things properly,” he instructed, also arguing that the company’s size or prestige is less important.

“And stay there,” at that first job, he emphasized. “Give yourself a promise: ‘I will stay for three years.’”

What he learned by sticking it out

Ma, 54, drew this advice from an experience that he said changed him early in his own career.

When he was attending Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute, now known as Hangzhou Normal University, he was determined not to actually join the teaching profession. He was on track to become a high school English instructor. “I thought, ‘Argh, how can a boy be a teacher?” he said, self-mockingly, at Davos. But this was China during the Cultural Revolution. People who were trained for a particular occupation were expected to stay in that field, he explained.

On graduation day, as he left the school campus, luggage in tow, the president of his university stopped him at the gate and waved him over, according to Ma’s recollection. “I know where you will go,” the president said, referring to the teaching post he had assigned to Ma. “Promise me: Six years. Don’t leave,” he added.

Ma balked, as he remembers it, but he agreed.

“That promise, I kept,” Ma said in Davos. He stayed at his first job, teaching English at a university, for six years. Several great opportunities came his way in that time, he explained, but he said, “No, I promised.”

Ma learned how to be a good teacher, how to communicate with his students, and he “calmed down,” he said. At the end of six years, he left and launched his internet career, starting Alibaba with 17 other co-founders. Under Ma’s leadership, Alibaba grew rapidly, turning his life into an epic rags to riches tale. The company was worth $420 billion last year, when he announced he’d be stepping down as executive chairman in 2019.

The real cost of job hopping

Some research has debunked the argument that job-hopping can propel a person onward and upward more rapidly than would be possible by staying in one place. In one large study, for instance, Monika Hamori, a professor of human resources and organizations behavior at IE Business school, in Spain, reviewed the careers of 1,000 CEOs at the largest companies in Europe and the US. Writing in Harvard Business Review in 2010, she reported that those chief executives had, on average, worked for only three employers.

Looking at 14,000 non-CEO executives, she found that internal moves led to more promotions at a faster pace than departures. Companies may be more likely to promote internally because they’re familiar with the employee and their work, she suggested.

Ma’s advice, however, spoke to a more philosophical reason to stay in one place, one that’s not easily quantified: the need to get to know yourself as a professional and learn from other people when you’re in your 20s. That’s a time in life when the hubris of youth can make a person feel invulnerable and restless, he implied.

“I’ve seen a lot of disasters, a lot of problems,” he cautioned. When you’re in your 20s, you don’t know what you’re doing, he suggests. “You have a lot of ideas. You think you can do anything,” he said, “but you actually can do nothing.” It’s wiser to follow and learn from someone else. The trick is finding the right boss or mentor—and then sticking it out.