How Much Blame Does Jack Ma Deserve For His Broken Promise?

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma has broken his promise to create one million jobs

Jack Ma
Photo: vс.ru
Jack Ma

Ma himself would say "none." He argues that he had no choice because he made his commitment “based on friendly China-U.S. cooperation and the rational and objective premise of bilateral trade," he told Chinese news agency Xinhua on Wednesday. However, he added, "The current situation has already destroyed the original premise. There is no way to deliver the promise."

As I'll show, however, the problem isn't that circumstances changed. The problem was the promise he made. You should care about this because keeping your promises promotes success in your business (and everywhere else).

Let's begin with a cautionary tale that involves two unlikely bedfellows: Dr. Pepper and Guns N' Roses.

Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep

In 2008, the company that owned the Dr Pepper brand promised a free can of soda to everyone in America if the band Guns N' Roses released its long-delayed album, Chinese Democracy, that year. As I discuss in my book Ethical Intelligence: Five Principles for Untangling Your Toughest Problems at Work and Beyond, the company probably assumed that it was highly unlikely that the band would release the album that year. For a long time, frontman Axl Rose had said, “This is the year the album comes out,” and for years it never did.

You can imagine the discussion some Dr Pepper executives had had about their proposed offer for free sodas. “There’s no way that record is coming out now. We’ll get lots of free PR, sell a lot of our product and not have to worry about giving anything away.”

Keep The Promises You Make

I can envision jaws dropping at the company when Axl Rose released the album later that year. Dr Pepper was deluged with requests for complimentary drinks and couldn't meet the demand at first.  The website couldn't handle the traffic.

The company eventually made good on its promise. They might have found some way around it and still remain profitable. But they kept their word, and that shows high character.

Great companies and high-character leaders do what they say they’re going to do, even if it takes more time and resources than they had planned.

What Does This Have To Do With Jack Ma?

The problem with the chairman of Alibaba is that his original promise to create one million U.S. jobs was vague. Analysts were right to take issue with it when he made it in January 2017 following a meeting with President Trump in New York. For example, Sherisse Pham wrote on about Ma’s pledge:

That is a vague and misleading promise. Ma is not going to build factories. He is not planning to set up Alibaba operations centers that would employ tech savvy Americans. And he is not touting a big investment in the U.S. In other words, Ma isn't promising what most experts and economists would define as job creation. He's talking about stimulating trade by helping one million small businesses sell American goods to consumers in China and Asia.

The problem with Ma’s situation today isn’t that circumstances have changed, which might have required a change in his ability to keep his promise. The problem is that Ma’s promise was doomed from the start.

The Bottom Line

You can avoid what happened to Dr Pepper and Jack Ma by doing four things, ranked in increasing order of difficulty:

  • Avoid making unrealistic promises
  • Be clear about what you do promise
  • Be able to make good on your promises
  • Keep the promises you make

If you do all four consistently, you will please the people you serve, who will then tell their friends and colleagues that you’re a person of your word. That’s about the highest praise anyone can get.

Bruce Weinstein, Contributor
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