Articles
The Day Everything Changed
Kristina Zumpolle Flodin
Leadership Consultant Netherlands
Founder of Zumflow, Leadership Development. Kristina, 43, was born and raised just north of Stockholm. She moved to California when she was 16  and attended her junior and senior years of high school there. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts  degree with honors in International Business Studies from the European Business School (EBS) in  London, where she lived and worked for several years. In 2003, Kristina relocated to the  Netherlands and, in 2009, founded her company, Zumflow. She speaks Swedish, English, and Dutch. Enthusiastic and no-nonsense, Kristina works as a leadership consultant and develops and facilitates leadership programs across a variety of industries and countries. Her broad cultural and  professional experiences shape her expansive and inspirational style. Her mission is to help them  realize their full potential. Kristina continuously works to develop herself to be able to support the development of others. As her business and children, now 9, 12 and 13, are growing so fast, Kristina  feels she is on the cusp of a new phase of her life: an exciting time with plentiful opportunities.  Although she admits to sometimes feeling overwhelmed by how fast it’s all moving, she is  determined to stay curious and courageous – and enjoy the journey.

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    The Day Everything Changed

    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.