As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Caplan, President of North America B2B at Alibaba Group. John joined Alibaba Group in 2018 to lead the growth of the B2B business in North America.
John is a leader with 20 years of experience as a Founder, CEO, and President/CMO. He is an entrepreneur with a track record of transformational innovation and results.
Prior to joining Alibaba, John was Founder & CEO at OpenSky, where is was responsible for building a world class ecommerce platform with a team that leveraged technology to unlock the growth potential of small businesses. OpenSky was acquired by Alibaba Group.
Before OpenSky, John was CEO at Ford Models, the largest and most successful global fashion talent firm, with operations in 50 countries and across every aspect of the talent industry. He led the successful digital transformation and modernization of the fashion services industry and created the Ford Models Media business.
Previously, John served as the CMO & President of About.com.
John has a B.A. in English from the University of Rochester.
Thank you so much for doing this with us John! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for speaking with me! My passion is building businesses and leading teams, which brought me to my role today of working with an amazing team that is committed to making it easy for small businesses around the world to do business with one another. We’re building the Alibaba.com platform, with millions of businesses using it every day in 190 countries, driving the growth of communities and businesses around the world.
I come from a family of business builders and entrepreneurs. I guess you could say growing companies is in my DNA. In the early 1900’s, my grandfather and his brothers started a high-end jewelry company that continues to thrive today, so I grew up learning about being customer-first, building teamwork, trusting and having the determination (and resilience) to succeed. For the past decade, I’ve been building companies designed to help small businesses. First, I helped connect businesses with content creators at OpenSky, a company I founded, and now at Alibaba.com where we work each day to help customers unlock their growth potential through global B2B ecommerce.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Working at Alibaba.com is thrilling. The organization is all about values and putting customers first. What’s been particularly interesting is the team of diverse and global thrill-seeking entrepreneurs that have joined our team as we drive the healthy disruption of our business. We’ve had 10,000 face-to-face discussions with U.S. SMB owners, travelled 400,000 miles in 12 months, made a make-shift menorah to celebrate Passover in the lobby of a Sheraton in Hangzhou, and danced on stage for 100,000 Alibaba team-members when we celebrated our 20th anniversary. Every day is an adventure!
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Since we started at Alibaba.com, which is one of the world’s largest B2B ecommerce platforms, we’ve been on an incredible journey in the U.S. Last July, we opened access for U.S. small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to sell to Alibaba.com’s over 10 million buyers with new platform capabilities. Now, businesses across the country are able to find buyers in 190 different countries and access the $23.9 trillion global B2B ecommerce opportunity, which allows them to stay competitive in today’s digital age.
To help companies understand that opportunity, we’re bringing on partners like Chambers and industry groups, and we’re traveling around the country to meet businesses face-to-face at Build Up events. These are a sort of “meet up” networking and educational events where businesses can get help directly from Alibaba.com experts in order to better access the tools, services, and demand available on our platform. Since the announcement, we’ve connected with more than 10,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs around the country, and we’re looking forward to continuing these important and beneficial conversations with U.S. B2B SMBs who are so important to the U.S. economy.
To continue spotlighting the B2B companies that are often underreported and underappreciated, we recently launched B2B Tuesday. This is an initiative to not only celebrates these companies, but also supports them. Every Tuesday, we share insights and resources to help U.S. B2B businesses grow — we feature B2B success stories, educational content, new platform offerings, in-person events, and more.
Alibaba.com is built for B2B business, and our marketplace and the work we do is so important to help these businesses not only survive but thrive in the U.S. and global economies.
Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
That’s such an unfortunate statistic. Wow, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy, but it’s not really surprising. I think leaders have a responsibility to create a work environment that is transparent, supportive and challenging. At the same time, employees should commit to company goals and equally to their own growth and professional development. We have an Alibaba Group value that is “If not me, who? If not now, when?” and I think this speaks to the individual responsibility we all have to our companies, ourselves and our communities. For me, happiness is making an impact and being “on the field.” Failures happen, but happiness comes from doing.
I’d also add that trust and teamwork drive happiness. I work with remarkable people — people that I learn from, challenge me, and share a dream for helping businesses thrive.
We live in a completely digital world that previous generations did not have any access to. We live in a world where we are set up to constantly compare ourselves with others, where we are distracted by all the cool apps and technologies that our phones and the Internet have to offer, and where we don’t always take enough time for our personal development.
I think happiness starts with the mindset. Each morning, I try to remind myself of what I feel grateful for, what’s important, and to be open-minded for what the day will bring. I think it’s imperative for all individuals to minimize the many distractions by narrowing their focus, both professionally and personally.
For me, I compartmentalize workplace stress and personal stress because I don’t want one dominating the other. I also make sure I make time every single day to do personal activities that I enjoy, such as going on long walks and making dinner with my family. It’s these small, but meaningful things that make me happy and translate to my happiness at work.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
Based on my experience, an unhappy workforce will overcome all else — it will impact company productivity, company profitability and employee health and wellbeing. But it all comes down to companies either not setting and living meaningful values or not being true to them. For instance, at Alibaba.com, the value we hold near and dear is a customer-first orientation. Our goal is to make it easy for SMBs to do business anywhere, so by putting these customers at the center of our work, everything we do is to serve their needs and to help them create success. The clarity of this as our priority means we’re all aligned on our purpose. We may disagree on the approach but never on what is most important. That alignment cultivates happiness.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
1. Care about the people you work with, not fake care — It’s imperative for managers and executives to really care deeply about the people they work with; they should be interested in and be aware of the lives of their team members. People that really know each other, who love to work together and share the same dream can do great work. Statistically, employees who feel appreciated feel much better about their work. Managers play a huge role in how employees feel not only every single day, but about their entire job generally — and this is something they cannot take lightly. It’s a huge but rewarding responsibility.
2. Have weekly 1:1 meetings with each team member — Managers should meet their team once a week to discuss progress, goals, and any problems they may be facing. It’s beneficial when managers are equipped with questions for the meetings, such as “What are your obstacles? What help do you need?” These questions will help guide and ensure each team member’s success. I’m constantly thinking about how I can help my employees grow in their career and programs or initiatives that we can create to guide them there.
3. Be transparent — Fostering an environment of open communication is key for a successful and impactful work culture. At Alibaba.com, we’re transparent about the business, including our strategy, business and personnel decisions, so that each employee feels 100% part of the business. We live by the saying, “Trust makes everything simple,” so we host weekly town halls where employees discuss anything that’s on their mind — these town halls are also a way for the whole company to come together and align on goals.
4. Have an appetite to get things done — Managers who have grit and an appetite to achieve results will positively impact their employees. We live by the motto, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” For me personally, I work best and am happiest when I’m surrounded by employees who have an appetite to get things done. With this, managers should not ask their team to do something if they would never do it themselves.
5. Surround yourself with diverse employees — Folks who are diverse and have diverse outlooks are able to bring creativity to solutions for customers. It’s important that all employees can be their authentic selves, because differences and diverse backgrounds create a strong and well-rounded company and culture. For example, our global team consists of people from China and the U.S. to Europe and Africa, and this diversity has allowed us to transform from a “Yellow Pages” business to an end-to-end trade platform that manages the entire transaction chain between buyers and sellers. We work to ensure our diverse team can be true to themselves and empower them to be changemakers, allowing us to be different but come together and work toward common goals.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
I’m not sure there is a one size fits all answer to this question. But for me, I care about building businesses with teammates who are diverse, creative and hungry for making an impact. By working with the team who is helping Alibaba.com globalize, we’re learning about cultural similarities and differences between people all over the world and learning about how to develop, motivate and modernize a workforce. Perhaps the most basic change would be to encourage leaders to listen more and speak less. Generally, our teams know where and how to bring to life genuine customer value.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I care about our people. I care about our customers. I believe that we can all always improve, personally and professionally, and therefore, I’m really big on 360 feedback. At Alibaba.com, we all have bi-annual reviews with direct supervisors and weekly one-on-ones. My colleagues and I also have a transparent, partnership approach with feedback. If a colleague is doing great work, the partnership is quick to compliment and if someone is struggling, we’re quick to help. We’re all super supportive of one another and work towards the same bottom line goals.
I also love to collaborate — I work with brilliant people and love learning and building with them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
The founding team at OpenSky — specifically, my partner, Kevin Ambrosini who is brilliant, patient and great to work with. We have too many stories — one day we’ll write a book about the journey.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have always been an entrepreneur and have had the privilege to work with so many incredible people. For me, it’s important to help other entrepreneurs and businesses achieve their goals. At Alibaba.com, our mission is to be an ally to SMBs and make it easier for them to do business all over the world. And because of this, everyone in our office is committed to educating SMBs on the opportunity through B2B Tuesday content and hosting in-person and online Build up events all to help these businesses thrive in the digital age. It’s imperative to me that I’m constantly giving back and helping other entrepreneurs every way I can.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is: “If the sun and moon should doubt, they’d go out.” This quote is important to me because I constantly focus on believing, but at the same time, I think that one must work to achieve.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We are part of our global community. I hope that we all learn more about people and cultures that feel “foreign.” Every time I do this, I am better for it.