Tom Shugg is the Co-founder and CEO of Meg Languages. Founded in 2012, Meg Languages is focused on leveraging technology to create Global Citizens. Teaching languages underpins a core component of Meg’s offering and Meg currently teaches Mandarin and Spanish to more than 50,000 students every week.
Going Global is our ethos and the Meg team is represented globally by an enthusiastic and highly skilled team, dedicated to providing students with unique learning opportunities.
When not working, Tom can be found floating in the ocean somewhere clinging to a 6ft piece of fibreglass.
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Table of Contents
Let’s start with a brief introduction first. Introduce yourself to our readers.
Tom Shugg: My name is Tom Shugg, I’m 37 years old and despite having grown up in Melbourne I’ve spent most of my adult life living and working in China. I’d consider myself a fluent mandarin speaker now but it was my long, difficult journey in becoming so that served as the inspiration for Meg Languages.
Meg Languages was bootstrapped by myself and my business partner but over the course of 10 years has now established itself as one of the world’s largest providers of language programs to schools globally.
I now live with my partner and kids on Victoria’s Surf Coast which allows me to prioritise lifestyle whilst continuing to develop the business.
Our audience is interested to know about how you got started in the first place. Did you always want to become a CEO or was it something you were led to? Our readers would love to know your story!
Tom Shugg: I always wanted to be a business owner first and foremost and the CEO role naturally evolved from there. I think the desire to be a business owner and a CEO goes hand in hand. It requires a great deal of commitment and the ability to take an idea from its inception to full realisation. In the early days of starting a business you are naturally doing all roles because you don’t have the resources. As you start to invest more into the business and bring on new people, your role as a business owner starts to transition to supporting team members with the execution of the business strategy and the people management aspect of things.
When it’s early days and you and your business partner are working off your Mum’s dining table, titles like “CEO” can seem a little lofty and self aggrandizing but as our business has evolved to employ 70 staff globally so have the responsibilities and leadership requirements of the CEO role. It’s been an exciting journey!
“Selfmade” is a myth. We all received help, no doubt you love to show appreciation to those who supported you when the going got tough, who has been your most important professional inspiration?
Tom Shugg: I was lucky to grow up with supportive parents and my Dad has run his own business my whole life which definitely inspired me in some way.
I met my business partner in Primary School when we were about 10 years old. Even back then we would talk about starting a business together one day. Him and I are complete polar opposites, I would best describe our different attributes to the business as front of house and back of house but it is a partnership that absolutely works and has stood the test of time. Our approach to problems can be very different and this is often a blessing as when I’m stressed about something he will approach it with a different perspective and reassure me and vice versa. We have had to lean on each other a lot over the years both personally and professionally and our partnership has been the largest contributing factor to our success so far. I would describe our partnership as my most important professional inspiration.
I know business partnerships can be an absolute nightmare for many people and everyone has a horror story about partnerships going wrong but my advice for anyone wanting to start a business would be to strongly consider who they could partner with to broaden their skill set and share the journey with, because, damn, it will be tough at times.
How did your journey lead you to become a CEO? What difficulties did you face along the way and what did you learn from them?
Tom Shugg: Sometimes the hardest part of being a CEO is recognising that the buck stops with you and you need to be completely accountable for everything that happens within your business. In a practical sense, it means if any uncomfortable conversations need to happen then you can be assured that you need to be a part of them. You need to straddle this border between stakeholder management and team management and represent the commercial interests of the company in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the culture within the team that we work so hard to build.
Sometimes I think it would be nice to have one of those jobs that you can get away with watching cat videos on youtube most of the day but there is a confidence that comes with a mindset that allows you to run towards problems or discomfort so you can overcome them. This needs to be the CEO mindset.
As our company grew and grew so did the role of the CEO so it happened organically to some degree but the nature of the role means you are always learning.
Tell us about your company. What does your business do and what are your responsibilities as a CEO?
Tom Shugg: The mission of Meg Languages is to create Global Competency within schools.
Meg achieves this in a number of ways but at it’s core we provide Mandarin and Spanish language programs to schools all over the world.
We manage a team of language teachers in China and Latin America respectively and we broadcast these teachers in classrooms at the same times each week for live and interactive language lessons.
There is a global shortage of language educators out there with many schools struggling to attract and retain teaching talent. Our Mandarin and Spanish programs provide schools with long term reassurance that they can have a language program within their curriculum that isn’t at the mercy of retaining a current member of staff.
My responsibilities as a CEO are broad but ensure that our operational departments are recruiting and training our teachers to the highest possible standard and that the quality of our product is consistently high across different geographies. From the growth perspective, I focus on sales and marketing of our current programs within established markets as well as work with the team to develop new products and expand into new markets. There are a lot of spinning plates and a lot of timezones to contend with but a beautiful thing when everyone is in sync!
What does CEO stand for? Beyond the dictionary definition, how would you define it?
Tom Shugg: Chief Problem Solver? Chief Morale Booster?
As a CEO within a small company, I define the role as needing to be acutely aware of what is happening within all arms of the business and making sure that you are doing your best to foster a great working culture. We are a people business and our product is only as strong as the people delivering it so the CEO role puts you in charge of people, in charge of morale, stretching yourself inside out to ward off discontent and keep a very diverse group of people excited in the belief of your collective mission.
When you first became a CEO, how was it different from what you expected? What surprised you?
Tom Shugg: In the beginning, as a business owner of a tiny business with no employees, the role of CEO was not comparable to what a corporate CEO would expect. A bootstrapped business with a marketing budget of $1.50 doesn’t require a huge amount of executive input. However, the role has expanded organically over time in step with the growth in our business.
What surprised me the most is that as CEO, there came a point where I was no longer doing the day to day grunt work that I had been doing for many years but the priority then moved to managing the team in completing work on your behalf. You have to retrain yourself that your time is better spent stepping away from some tasks and focusing more on high level developments that operate on a much longer strategy timeline. No longer do you work all day to achieve a particular result, you are now working towards results that won’t be able to be measured until 12-24 months from now. That requires some adjustment on the individual level.
There are many schools of thought as to what a CEO’s core roles and responsibilities are. Based on your experience, what are the main things a CEO should focus on? Explain and please share examples or stories to illustrate your vision.
Tom Shugg: The CEO should focus on the development of company culture. Your team needs to believe in you and what you’re all trying to do as a collective. This goes beyond a simple term like ‘leadership’, this is a mission that inspires your team and keeps them motivated. Having this belief goes the other way too because clients are attracted to a company that is confident in what they’re trying to achieve and they want to attach themselves to this same sense of belief.
This has been a key focus of mine over the previous years. In the crudest sense Meg Languages might describe itself as a provider of language programs….schools can have Spanish or they can have Mandarin…badda bing, badda boom. When you break that down further though you realise that what comes with learning a language is an important sense about the world around you and where you stand in it. A language can open up knowledge and curiosity in the world around us and set someone’s life on a remarkable path as it did for me.
By honing in on what Meg Languages actually does, our team and our clients are able to really understand the value in creating Global Citizens and how the net benefit to society can be immense. The CEO needs to extract the ethos of their company and product and cast a light on it that inspires both team members and stakeholders alike.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Tom Shugg: The pandemic introduced an extreme amount of uncertainty into our business as it did for most businesses around the world and with this came a lot of difficult decisions. Prior to the pandemic we had decided to develop a number of new products and push into new markets and the team had been dedicating a lot of time and energy into making that possible.
However, the pandemic changed the market conditions and forced me as CEO to push pause on so much hard work.
The pause meant we had to go back to our core business and really focus on what we could do best in light of so many schools around the world being immersed in complete panic.
The pause had the ability to really take the wind out of the sails of our team who had been working on special projects for some time. However, in the end, the opposite was true. By having to strip back to basics just to keep things afloat, our team had the chance to really reflect on what we do well and how we can help schools on so many different levels.
The past two years have been difficult for these pandemic related reasons but our team has adapted and for the most part, schools – our key clients -have adapted to whatever the ‘new normal’ looks like in their country.
How would you define success? Does it mean generating a certain amount of wealth, gaining a certain level of popularity, or helping a certain number of people?
Tom Shugg: Success is best measured by purpose. Your own sense of purpose and the sense of purpose you can instil in others. As our business has grown, I have taken the most satisfaction out of people that we meet along the journey who in time, approach us and say, I really like what you guys are doing and I would like to be a part of it. That is a measure of success and means your company is going in the right direction.
Some leadership skills are innate while others can be learned. What leadership skills do you possess innately and what skills have you cultivated over the years as a CEO?
Tom Shugg: I’ve always had the ability to get excited about an idea and then spread that excitement amongst people who can help me to make that happen. I think that comes from a natural place for me, the same way I couldn’t get people excited about something that didn’t do the same for me.
The ability to share ideas with others and get their emotional buy in is what started me on my business journey and journey as a CEO.
Over the years I have cultivated more of an ability to look at things with a birds eye view. I have a natural inclination to look at what’s right in front of me and tackle it but as a CEO, I’ve had to learn to look at things with more of a long term lens and focus my energies accordingly.
The other is time management! Not a natural trait for me but something I have had to get better at over the years.
How did your role as a CEO help your business overcome challenges caused by the pandemic? Explain with practical examples.
Tom Shugg: As mentioned earlier, the pandemic really forced us to focus on the bread and butter of our business, our core products and how we can enhance them. Our language programs are based on live delivery with one of our team in China or Latin America but the pandemic compelled us to create pre-recorded videos of all of our lessons and a digital database of program resources to combat challenges around not all students having equitable access to devices during the learning from home period.
It was something we had on our long term pipeline of projects but the nature of the pandemic forced our hand into creating it earlier than expected. It filled an immediate need at the time but has now equipped us with a superior product that can better serve our schools.
Do you have any advice for aspiring CEOs and future leaders? What advice would you give a CEO that is just starting out on their journey?
Tom Shugg: Don’t let your ego gobble you up. Don’t be too proud for any job and make every effort to understand the minutiae of the business from point A to point Z. Only then can you develop the required empathy to build a healthy team culture and a thriving business.
You will also make lots of mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up, just learn from them and aim to be a better CEO every day.
Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge with our readers! They would also like to know, what is one skill that you’ve always wanted to acquire but never really could?
Tom Shugg: I wish I’d spent a little less time playing X-box and a little more time learning how to write code and program!
It wasn’t really on my radar when I was at University but in terms of a skill for the future I think it is right up there with learning a language.
Before we finish things off, we have one final question for you. If you wrote a book about your life today, what would the title be?
Tom Shugg: Ha it would either be “A Long Way to Go” or “If you’re reading this, you must have literally read all the other books”!
Jerome Knyszewski, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Tom Shugg for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Tom Shugg or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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