Call Me Ali-anna Grande: What Dancing for 60,000 People Taught Me About Leadership at Alibaba
Exactly a week ago, I performed for an audience of 60,000 people in Hangzhou’s Olympic Sports Stadium. Yes, l was basically Arianna Grande, or Ali-anna as I joke to myself. Except, I’m not a pop star. I am however a 5-month old employee of Alibaba and last week was our company’s biggest celebration ever. In one epic night, we commemorated 20 years of Alibaba’s existence, the ascent of Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang and the retirement of our beloved founder Jack Ma (Teacher Ma). Funnily enough, it was Teacher Ma’s birthday and also China’s Teacher’s Day.
Back to the important bit. Holy smokes, I performed for 60,000 people! In an Olympic-sized stadium! Now, a lot of newbies in Alibaba especially foreigners find the tradition of performing at huge parties a bit strange, to say the least. Dancing is not part of the job! But I thought to myself, “when else am I going to get this opportunity?” The Filipino kid in me woke up and stepped on stage. We’re just born to crave the spotlight (thanks to our parents whose latent dreams of becoming superstars were foisted upon us as hapless children).
Despite some initial reservations, I put my game face on and made sure to add some glitter too!
Performing at these parties is no joke. It takes a lot of commitment. Our 3.5-minute performance took 2 months to prepare for 3 days a week, 2 hours each day. The last few days before the actual performance, we spent 8–12 hours inside the stadium running through the entire program. This gave me a lot of time in between dancing to just think and reflect. I came to the realization that this experience taught me a great deal about leadership.
Leaders need to unite their staff
The question in a lot of peoples’ minds: why have ginormous get-togethers where employees are encouraged to prep full-on production numbers while upper management dresses up in over-the-top costumes in their own song and dance showstoppers? Why go through all that trouble?
Having gone through the entire process, I think there is a practical reason. Alibaba is huge, approximately 100,000 employees globally. When a company becomes too large, there is a propensity to feel disconnected from one another. When I was working at a 300-man advertising agency, I already felt lost. We were split into 3 floors and I never bothered to get to know people outside of my direct working group. Having a massive event like this forces people to go out of their way to meet others and make new friends. It creates a shared experience for large swaths of people. When it’s done and over with, you’ll have the happy memory to refer back to, like a timestamp of your life at Alibaba.
Leaders need to lead by example
Yes, Alibaba leaders need to meet their KPIs but they should also go up on stage to dance and sing. Why? Because it’s truly empowering to see the head of your organization do something to entertain everyone else. It takes a lot of humility for a person so high up the corporate ladder to put themselves in front of blaring spotlights to be scrutinized by all. Jack Ma is famous for setting the trend on outlandish costumes — ninja, princess, rockstar, he’s done it all. I think he loves the showmanship but it also tells me that he’s not afraid to make fun of himself, especially if it brings joy to others. That is incredible leadership confidence.
Leaders should not be afraid to learn new skills
One of the most striking things during the parade was this woman walking on stilts. My friend said that she was the CCO- Chief Customer Officer. I don’t think anyone is born with the desire to walk on stilts, she had to learn it. All 2,500 performers that night stretched not just their commitment but their talents to make the party happen. I’m a Staff Content Strategist and usually, I direct the flow of content but all I did that night was direct my gaze at the audience with the widest smile I could manage. Because that night, I was a hand-flapping, foot-twirling, backup dancer.
Most of us are deskbound employees but we transformed ourselves into singers, rappers, models, and comedians. Some employees took roles behind the stage or inside mascots. This isn’t part of our job scope but we did it pride. Learning new things and stretching out of your comfort zone should be part and parcel of leading in this day and age.
Leaders make their message known through others
Being the only one who could not understand Chinese, I was lost in my dance group. My teacher, a semi-celebrity in Tiktok, chanted instructions and gave individual pointers in Mandarin. Not being able to understand it, I fell behind. But! This allowed me to see things from a new perspective. Leadership does not need to commanded verbally, it is more important to be able to communicate your intent through the rest of the group. I watched her direct and correct other people and through a lot of repetition, I was able to perfect the steps. She also encouraged those around me to help me get up to speed. Those who did became my dance besties.
So, I’m pleased that I got to reflect but more importantly, I got to dance! Being in that arena and seeing the crowds above, I felt as though I was connected with everyone. I couldn’t have known more than 40 people in Alibaba by name but during the ceremony, we were chanting the same tunes, pulsating to the same beat, with our jaws dropping at the same key moments. It was epic and I will remember it always. Thank you, Alibaba and happy belated birthday!