Successful companies know that in order to grow they must consistently innovate. And to truly innovate, leaders must lead with an innovative mindset. An innovative mindset allows leaders and workers alike to take small steps to create big impact. One of the most important aspects of innovation is building a learning culture. What is a learning culture? Let’s take a look at a company that truly embraces it, Chinese multinational ecommerce and tech company, Alibaba.

AlibabaFounded in 1999 by just 18 people, Alibaba is led by Jack Ma. Jack Ma is a former English teacher. The company grabbed global attention in 2014 when it’s IPO became the largest ever. Today, Alibaba is worth more than Walmart. And more than 150 million people shop on TaoBao, it’s online shopping site, every day.

Recently I was coaching a senior executive at Alibaba. I asked her for a list of stakeholders to contact for feedback interviews on her behalf. When I received the list, I was both puzzled and intrigued. There were no actual names on the list. Each was a nickname, like Wise Monk or Flying Tiger. She explained that each new hire at Alibaba is asked to choose a nickname from Chinese Kung Fu novels. That name is then used in all company communications, email, documents, performance reviews. Even founder Jack Ma goes by Feng Qingyang. It’s an old swordsmen. Well, but why? I was intrigued and curious. She told me the company does this to inspire and reinforce a warrior mindset in each employee. Be humble, don’t be complacent, keep fighting.

At Alibaba, everyone is a student. They refer to each other as classmates and call Jack Ma their teacher. The corporate campus feels like exactly like that. It’s like a college campus. Alibaba embodies a learning culture, the first step to leading with an innovative mindset. There are three ways to creating a learning culture.

1. Encourage bottom-up innovation. Not long ago Alibaba set out to create a rival to WeChat, a chatting app with one billion monthly users. After much investment in talent and time, Alibaba’s rival chatting app launched and failed. But some of the staff that worked on that project could not just walk away. They needed to know why it failed. With Alibaba’s leadership providing its blessing and support, this team kept working. They eventually launched Ding Talk, an enterprise platform that enables transparent communication and collaboration. It is especially popular among virtual teams. Today it has over one 100 million users. This is a good example of bottom-up innovation. Letting ideas and inspiration flow from not just the top of the company, but from all directions.

2. Model curiosity. Curiosity leads to innovation, but curiosity can only flourish when it is encouraged and modeled by leaders. When a leader demonstrates curiosity by asking questions and seeking information, they’re viewed as more competent. They inspire trust and build stronger relationships. They promote meaningful connections and creativity. They tell their team, “You don’t have to pretend to know everything.”

Toyota models curiosity with its Five Why’s approach. This is how it works. When confronted with a challenge employees are encouraged to ask why. Once they’ve received an answer they’re asked to investigate further by asking why once more. And again, and again, until it’s asked five times. This practice helps employees innovate by encouraging them to challenge existing perspectives.

3. Celebrate innovation. Encouraging innovation means celebrating it in all forms. Tech company Agilent Technologies makes this a key element of their business strategy. Every 18 months, Agilent runs a company-wide competition called Agilent innovates. Employees and teams across the company are encouraged to enter the contest with an innovation, whether it’s for new products or solutions or a process improvement. The innovations are judged on originality and business impact with the final round judged by CEO staff. The contest is embraced with enthusiasm from C-suite down. A program like Agilent Innovates unites the company in excitement and enthusiasm for innovation. It sends the message that everyone’s contributions are valued. And it contributes to a learning culture because it celebrates the outcome of curiosity and learning called innovation.

Leaders can build a learning culture by encouraging bottom-up innovation, modeling curiosity and celebrating innovation.

Saving FaceMy book, Saving Face illustrates how we can honor face to create positive first impressions, avoid causing others to lose face, and, most importantly, help others save face to build trust and lasting relationships inside and outside the workplace.

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