When I reflect on where I am today and how I got here, I can see my drive to help others is the product of growing up with dysfunctional family communication and experiencing first-hand the devastation of bankruptcy and a bitterly contested will. And who would have thought that an “expensive hobby” combined with a cheeky monkey and a chance encounter, would have led me here? But let’s start at the beginning.
It was 2008, and I found myself living in the Netherlands with my husband, Jan Mark, and two young children, Diederik, 2, and Oscar, 1. I never imagined I would end up in this country, but destiny had other plans for me. I was living and working in London when I met this tall blond Dutchman at a party after he flew over for the weekend.
When Jan Mark asked me to move to the Netherlands with him, I was excited about experiencing a new country, culture, and language. But it was by no means easy. I felt isolated not being able to understand what people around me were saying, even if it was just on the tram or in the supermarket. And although English was the corporate language of the company I was now working for, everyone on my floor was Dutch and hence spoke Dutch. It was also a new job, a new role, and a new industry for me, so it was difficult to be proactive. I felt very insecure, and my self confidence was decreasing by the day. Then I started to get physical symptoms and, after breaking down in her office, my doctor ordered me to take two weeks off. At first, I thought it was ridiculous and unnecessary: I was fine. However, with a lot of convincing from my husband and father-in-law, I took the doctor’s advice. I went back to Sweden and spent time with people who had known me all my life and helped me realize I was good as I was. I still wonder how I could have let myself get so negatively affected by work.
Slowly but surely, I managed to detach my self-worth from my work. And soon, my confidence in my abilities returned. I left the company and eventually ended up working for Cisco, where I could fully contribute and grow both myself and the business.
In the meantime, my husband proposed and we got married in Amsterdam on a crisp and sunny February day with family and friends from near and afar celebrating with us. Still one of the highlights of my life.
My department at Cisco moved to Copenhagen and, simultaneously, we decided to move to the suburbs.
So, I was 32 years old and had just resumed my career after having my second child. I was working three days a week at an executive search firm – but I wasn’t happy. I loved visiting companies so I could understand what made them tick and help them identify the right candidate for the right job, but I had to go through so many resumes. Finding the perfect candidate was an incredibly long process. It would take months to find the right one. And if just one person out of five decided they didn’t like the candidate for some reason, you’d have to start all over again. It was brutal. And I was totally bored, unfulfilled, unmotivated and, consequently, unproductive. One day, it dawned on me that the only reason I was there was so I had a job three days a week. As I stared at a fresh pile of resumes on my desk, I knew something had to change.
My ‘aha’ moment
I decided to try coaching to see if I could figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wouldn’t get my dream job the next day, but at least if I knew what it was, I could start working towards it. At the end of my first session with my coach, Willemien, I realized: I wanted her job!
I continued with regular sessions, carefully observing how Willemien worked. And as my last session ended, I knew I wanted to coach individuals and teams at international companies. Coming from an international background myself, I knew that’s where I could add value. As I thanked Willemien for all her help, she surprised me: “I really like your energy and would love to work with you! Let me know when you’re certified.”
Can I afford to make the change?
I couldn’t wait to take the next step and undergo training as a coach. But then, I realized I couldn’t afford it. I was still paying off my student loan from my degree at the European Business School in London. Amazingly, my husband offered to pay for it, saying he would support me if it was something I really wanted to do. I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise.
So, there I was, juggling children and coaching and continuing to work at my dead-end job at the executive search firm three days a week, all the time doubting whether I had made the right decision. I remember that time vividly. Two images would constantly play in my head. One was of an ambitious career woman. The other was of a calm, relaxed coach. It was an intense battle, but ultimately, the coach won.
Inspired by what I was learning, I tried to find a way to integrate it into my work at the executive search firm. The opportunity to combine coaching with searching for candidates was staring me in the face. Not only could I place people, but I could help onboard them and make sure they would succeed in their new roles. My bosses, however, couldn’t see the connection. When my six – month contract came up for renewal, we agreed it was probably best to part ways. When I look back now, I realize what a blessing in disguise that was.
Not another coach
To get certified as a coach, I discovered I needed to have several paying clients. I might as well start my own company, I thought. And just like magic, my inner saboteurs emerged:
I’m too young.
No one will take me seriously. I’m not smart enough.
Why start a company when it’s bound to fail?
I sought reassurance from others in my social circle, but I could almost see them thinking: “Oh no, not another coach!” Then one of them said to me, “Look at how many restaurants there are. Everyone has different tastes and different needs.” Exactly, I thought.
A working mom
In the beginning, it was very challenging being a working mom, especially one who was setting up her own business. I think my husband had expected to have a wife who would stay at home. That’s why, when I decided to go back to work after the birth of my second son, I arranged au pairs for the children and decided to pay for the childcare myself. After all, it was my choice to work, I thought. And by doing so, I felt I remained relevant. The feminist within was slowly emerging. Thankfully, I was entitled to a six-month subsidy from the government when, on February 1, 2009, I started my own business, Zumflow. But I had no financial support after that. And I barely survived. However, I was so happy to be making money for myself that I didn’t really care how little it was.
My husband also had his own company and would receive a fixed salary at the end of each month. Sometimes, we would look at each other and say: “We have two weeks until the end of the month and no money left. What can we sell on Marktplaats?”
I remember, too, having to cancel a holiday with friends that we’d both been looking forward to as we realized we simply couldn’t afford it. Our friends offered to lend us the money, but we didn’t see how we would be able to pay it back. Those were tough times, not least because our financial situation was completely at odds with the affluent area in which we lived and the circles we moved in. But I also appreciate that time in our life. My husband and I became very creative as a couple when it came to money-saving ideas, which only brought us closer together.
A chance encounter
Then destiny intervened again. One afternoon, around five o’clock, I was sitting in the cellar of an Italian restaurant eating pizza with my children. There was only one other family there, so we struck up a conversation. At one point, I asked the youthful grandmother if she worked, and it turned out she was vice president of human resources for a large American retailer. I asked her if she worked with coaches and trainers. When she replied she did, I told her about the training business I had just set up and cheekily asked if she might have time for a meeting. “Yes, of course,” she smiled.
Afterward, I phoned my former coach, Willemien, and told her we had our first potential client. Both of us were used to working with results-driven American companies, so this would be good practice for us. Willemien had worked in human resources for Nike for 11 years. And before the executive search firm, I had worked in sales for Cisco and Gartner. But while I saw this meeting as more of a “test run,” we actually walked away with a huge deal. My company, Zumflow, had its first proper client, and Willemien and I went full speed ahead, running workshops and coaching sessions together.
A bitter family feud
Then life threw me some fresh challenges. I became pregnant with my third child, a daughter we named Elsa. As I’d had three miscarriages by the time, I was 28, I didn’t take getting pregnant for granted – and I was delighted! But as my husband and I celebrated her imminent arrival, my grandmother died. And when her will was released, a bitter family feud erupted when my aunt and uncle contested it. The family split further when I didn’t take my father’s side: I wanted nothing to do with him financially. And I inadvertently became embroiled in an ongoing legal battle that would last for more than two years.
Then, while all of this was going on, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and a friend of mine was diagnosed with tongue cancer. I was soon spreading myself thin, trying to be there for everyone while the stress of the lawsuit was exhausting me. Although I really cared about my mother and friend, this is when I learned the importance of setting boundaries – something I had always struggled with. Now I had a family to take care of, my business and, of course, myself. And it all got to be too much.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
I remember sitting on the floor one day playing with my children and noticing I wasn’t “there” with them. My mind had wandered to the impending court case.
I realized I no longer wanted all this negative energy – and that I had the power to change things. So, I picked up the phone and called my aunt.
I hadn’t heard my aunt’s voice since my grandmother died two-and-a-half years earlier, and it was very nice to hear her again, especially as she, too, was now battling cancer. As we spoke, I could apply everything I learned from my coaching and training sessions, which elevated the communication. Of course, she was upset and let off steam. But I could truly listen to her. I was able to understand where she was coming from and didn’t engage in the blame/defend pattern prevalent in my family. One person would blame the other. The other would defend themselves. And repeat.
In the end, my aunt and I managed to find a win-win situation. It was the eve of the court case and I was just about to board a flight to Stockholm when I got a phone call saying that an agreement had been reached. That moment was such a massive victory for me. I savored the realization that I had come from such a toxic place to a place of understanding, compassion, and connection – and had walked away from that situation in a way that felt good for everyone.
No doubt what helped me most was learning about toxic behaviors: the blaming, the stonewalling, the defense, the contempt. All four were the norm when I grew up. But I came to realize that these behaviors got you nowhere and led only to short-term solutions with either a winner or a loser. Reading “Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box” by the Arbinger Institute also taught me how to be genuinely open to others’ points of view. I discovered it was possible to find long-term, win-win solutions when you understood that everyone has different perspectives but usually also the best intentions.
An expensive hobby
The next challenge arrived in 2014. Elsa has just started school, and I found myself at another crossroads. I realized I needed to get a full-time job so I could earn enough money – but the thought of it suffocated me. However, it was always in those moments of utter despair and hopelessness, when I was questioning what I should do, that the phone would ring and it would be a client. Somehow, I always seemed to get a “sign” telling me to keep going with my coaching and leadership development business.
However, although my husband had been very supportive of me at first, he started referring to my coaching as “an expensive hobby”. I was furious. But on the one hand, I have to admit: he was right. I wasn’t giving it my all. Only working half the week meant I was only putting in half the work. I had to give it 100 percent.
I also needed to work on my relationship with money. Something that was complex and rooted in early childhood. My mother had a fear of not having enough money when I was growing up. I would get into the shower and before I had barely put any soap on my body, she would shout at me to get out because it was too expensive. And then I had a father who would fly first class and was extremely generous – but had no clue about money. When he went bankrupt, we lost everything. Strangers came into our house and took away the carpets, the paintings…all we had! And the auction was the final nail in the coffin.
For the next six years, I struggled. At one point, I was working 54 hours a week while studying for my international business studies degree; I also had to lend money to my father because, of course, he didn’t have any. I got a stomach ulcer from all the stress and from trying to keep up appearances, as I didn’t want people to judge him. Now I realize I didn’t want people to judge me. That’s also when I came to understand that it wasn’t about what you had but who you were that mattered. The flower girl
Because I really enjoyed what I did, I would say, “Yes” to everyone and everything. I was doing so much work for free that I realized I had become “The Flower Girl.” Clients were constantly giving me flowers to thank me for my help. One day I came to a realization: I don’t need fricking flowers. I need money so I can pay my bills.
Later, when I discussed this dilemma with a colleague from Oxford Leadership, they told me how they tackled it. “I first make sure I do the work I need to do to pay the bills. Only then, do I give my time to charity.” That was great advice.
Then another colleague revealed how much they’d earned the previous year – double what I had. I thought to myself: If they can do it, so can I. That mindset is something that has also brought me to where I am today: not to compare myself to others but to be inspired by them.
As I mulled over the advice my colleagues had given me, I set about making a “vision board.” I stuck a number on it that was more than double my revenue from the year before. And that year, I made more than I had envisioned. It was the first time that I used a goal as a strategy, but not the last. Since then, my business has gone from strength to strength every year. And yes, my husband is really proud of me.
The cheeky monkey
And as for the cheeky monkey? Well, that was always in me. While earning my coaching degree, I discovered that my purpose in life was to be the authentic, loving, “cheeky monkey” who creates aliveness and connection, a connection of people with themselves and connection of people with others.
I should explain that I grew up with an English stepmother from the age of 4, and I could never keep my mouth shut. She would always call me a “cheeky monkey,” but in a negative way. So, I tried my best to suppress it, although I failed at it most of the time.
Similarly, when I first started working in London, my boss took me aside and said: “It’s great that you’re so direct with me, as I’m also Swedish, but it would be very helpful for you if you could learn to be more diplomatic.” It was true, I didn’t always tone it down. And when there was something that no one else would dare voice, I would always be the one to speak up.
However, when I started learning about coaching, I discovered that this cheeky monkey that I had been trying to suppress was actually an asset. It was, after all, my job to be a mirror to the client and reflect the truth. Finally, I had found the profession I fitted into, instead of always trying to fit in. The cheeky monkey also pops up now and again to remind me of the importance of playfulness in our lives and how we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.
A future goal
I’m probably not alone when I say one of my biggest role models is Oprah Winfrey. On my journey toward connecting people with themselves and with others, I discovered I secretly wanted to be the European Oprah.
I love how she has inspired millions to read and how she’s opened people’s minds. She allows people to look at things from different perspectives without being judgmental. And she’s able to have constructive conversations with anyone and everyone, yet somehow manages to stay true to herself – without compromising her values. Millions of viewers around the world learn these skills from her. I know now that I don’t want to be famous – freedom is far too important to me. But I do aspire to make a similarly significant impact. However, the immense reward I get from being part of influencing just one person’s life for the better, better in the sense of them being more fulfilled and happier with who they are, is what still drives me today.