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Michael Shangkuan of ‘Lingoda GmbH’: “Our vision is to become the world’s largest”

When leading a direct report or group, it’s about them and what they need to be successful. How do you empower and enable them? When assigning a given task or responsibility, understand their development and readiness level to take on the task. Then, flex your leadership style to their needs. For example, if someone has […]

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When leading a direct report or group, it’s about them and what they need to be successful. How do you empower and enable them? When assigning a given task or responsibility, understand their development and readiness level to take on the task. Then, flex your leadership style to their needs. For example, if someone has never done the task before, I’ll be directive and decide for them. If they have done it many times and are very confident in their abilities, I leave them on their own and let them decide. I have this takeaway from my experience at Procter & Gamble, this is a good tool called Situational Leadership.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Shangkuan.

Mike is an EdTech entrepreneur, fitness fanatic, and polyglot, speaking six languages, namely English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese. As a pioneer in language learning, he is the CEO of Lingoda GmbH, Europe’s leading online language school, where he is in charge of the company’s strategy and daily business. Previously, he held the position of CEO of Terra Education, a B-corp offering life-changing service learning summer programs to teens in Africa, South America, and Asia. Mike has lived in six countries across four continents. Less known, he is a former natural bodybuilder and competed at several international competitions. He is a graduate of Yale University and he holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I have had a passion for languages since my first French class in seventh grade. I speak six: English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, German, and French. I love language learning — as a way to understand others and as a challenge to learn and master. And it’s a life challenge to always get better at speaking, like playing the guitar or tennis.

I am Chinese-American. I am lucky to have been raised in a bilingual household. My parents are from Taiwan, so we spoke Mandarin already at home, and English at school, since I grew up in New Jersey. That’s why I learned both languages close to those I grew up speaking, like French and Spanish, and those that are very different, like Japanese. Each language is unique, reflecting the culture of its people.

I started my career without having a precise idea of what I wanted to do. I followed quite a regular path for a economics major. I graduated from Yale and went into banking and consulting. I learned a lot, but the hours were terrible. I wanted to do something more creative and actually run a business, instead of advising others. So, I went back to business school, and went to work at Procter & Gamble in marketing. I figured — if I could learn how to sell soap for 10 dollars, I could sell anything. Then, I had this moment when I realized that I didn’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life. I wanted to change the world in an area that I could uniquely do so. And it wasn’t going to happen by adding a new scent to a shampoo, although I tried to convince myself it could for a while. Earlier in my life, I have been lucky to travel to over 100 countries and live in eight countries across four continents, giving me a potpourri of experiences from the bizarre to the uplifting. This made me a better leader. So, I joined an education travel start-up as the Head of Marketing and Finance. I was the fifth employee. This was the best decision of my life. I love working in small teams, creating something totally new, making decisions and seeing how it turns out in the market. I was the CEO of that company for six years, and by the end we had figured out the model and it was more or less the same thing year after year. I wanted a new challenge, and to innovate even closer to my area of passion — language learning.

Here I am today. Leading Lingoda, the number one online trusted language school, which ranks among the top 10 companies globally in the language learning category according to Crunchbase. I could not find an environment more in line with my values. It is a truly international and diverse company: we have got over 100 people, who come from over 30 different countries and speak over 40 different languages. How cool is that?

On a personal note, I’m the first Chinese-American to run a German company. I am very proud of that.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Traditional language schools have been around for over a hundred years, and they have been teaching classes the same way. But the world has evolved, and they could do a much better job of meeting student needs. Because they have a fixed number of classes and teachers, they can offer limited options for their students.

‘’Want to take a B1 French class?’’ ‘’Sure, we’ve got one at 3pm on Thursday.’’

But most people, especially busy professionals, cannot do that consistently. So, we have turned language learning with live teachers on its head — offering classes anytime, anywhere. An experience that is as good, better even, than the one offered by traditional language schools since it fits the students’ schedules.

In a nutshell, Lingoda is disrupting the 60 billion dollars offline language school market by utilizing technology to bring the traditional language class experience online. Thanks to 24/7 online live classes with over 1,000 qualified, native-speaking teachers, and structured learning plans based on internationally recognized standards, Lingoda is providing an excellent learning experience with the maximum flexibility at an affordable cost.

There is no other language school that offers 450,000 live classes per year and has changed the lives of almost 50,000 people, enabling them to reach the next level in their professional or personal life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was working in Mexico. Every morning, all my colleagues would go around the room and kiss each other on the cheek. Every evening, before leaving, they’d do the same. I did neither, thinking it would be rude to interrupt people. After a month of coming and going without kissing and hugging, a group of colleagues took me out to coffee to ask me why I didn’t like them. It turns out they thought I was the one being rude. As an unwritten rule, my parents and I don’t hug or kiss, even when we say good-bye to each other at the airport and don’t plan on seeing each other again for a year. I’m Chinese-American. I’ve even lived in Japan, where people keep each other at arm’s length as a sign of respect. So, it’s really important to be aware of cultural differences. These experiences in different cultures in Asia, Latin America and Europe and in speaking several languages have helped me to be more flexible in my work style and aware of myself and others.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Emily Chang, my mentor at Procter & Gamble. She was two years senior to me. My parents raised me to be the good Chinese son: dependable, hard-working, and determined. The reality is that in the world, to affect positive change, it’s important to inspire. Emily taught me gravitas and how to influence people. I am an introvert and as a child, I was quiet, reserved, and studious. In the business world, that works in certain circumstances, but it’s also important to know how to excite people and deliver the message that you want your audience to remember. She coached me on how to do this with my presentations and in meetings.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

There are so many examples that are good. Innovation can be a positive for change. For example, what’s going on with electric vehicles, the sharing economy, personal computers toppling mainframes, video streaming, and most important online education, which is making opportunities more accessible and cheaper. There is also the “not so positive.” For example, some of the social media websites or apps that addict people with hits of dopamine, resulting in a waste of time, loneliness, even depression. I realized I was falling into this trap myself, so I have an evening “digital detox.” I lock my laptop and iPhone in a cabinet — it can all wait until the next day.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

This is a great question.

First and foremost, spend disproportionate money and time on what uniquely brings you joy. The rest — drop it or outsource it. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is to chase others’ dreams. An example is buying a big house that is beyond your means. The effort it takes to buy and maintain that house — i.e. working like a dog or taking a job you don’t like — isn’t worth it. Some of the things that bring you the biggest joy might not cost much, or anything at all. For me, what brings me the biggest joy is reading books, while I hate cleaning. So, I spend lots of money on my books and a cleaner. I live in a modest house. And I am happy. Not sure what uniquely brings you joy? Think about the three greatest moments in your life that fulfilled you and figure out what was behind that.

Second, search and reapply. I learned this from my first Marketing Director Diana Shaheen Lafley. When coming up with a business building idea, it’s never necessary to start from scratch. At Lingoda, we do this every day. For example, the Lingoda Marathon concept came from three insights. First, students want to learn but fail due to lack of motivation. Second, students like to learn with their friends and colleagues. Third, it takes thirty days to build a learning habit. Hard in the beginning, easier thereafter. We reapplied the Marathon concept from sports into language learning. It’s grown our business phenomenally and inspired hundreds of thousands of students to finally achieve their dream of mastering a language.

Third, when leading a direct report or group, it’s about them and what they need to be successful. How do you empower and enable them? When assigning a given task or responsibility, understand their development and readiness level to take on the task. Then, flex your leadership style to their needs. For example, if someone has never done the task before, I’ll be directive and decide for them. If they have done it many times and are very confident in their abilities, I leave them on their own and let them decide. I have this takeaway from my experience at Procter & Gamble, this is a good tool called Situational Leadership.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We are currently Europe’s largest pure play online language school. Our vision is to become the world’s largest.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Ray Dalio’s Principles. Ray Dalio is founder and CEO of one world’s largest hedge funds. I read every page and highlighted a lot. It’s helped in particular to set up my own operating principles and those of the company’s. There are so many good nuggets in there, too many to summarize in a sentence.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. “I know of no better life purpose than to perish in attempting the great and the impossible.” The question I have asked myself is “What am I going to do with my one life?” Each of us has something unique to contribute to the world — find it and go for it, in spite of your fears and doubts.

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. 🙂

All kids should be required and sponsored to travel (or at least connect) to a foreign country where the culture is significantly different from their own, before they turn 18. If that was a movement, I would call it #OpenMinds. The experiences will give them a new outlook on others and help them to become more empathetic to our commonalities and differences. Many of the world’s problems are due to misunderstandings and false assumptions.

Also, now that I live in a country like Germany, which has had a super-capable woman as its head for nearly sixteen years, more women in political leadership roles.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn, where I frequently post.

https://de.linkedin.com/in/michael-shangkuan-638243

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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