There’s one thing that becomes clear about Sean Zonneveld within five minutes of meeting him. He doesn’t like to be bored.
"I finished my Executive Masters in Finance Control when I was 26. It was basically the first time in my life I had weekends off... and after six months of that, I just had to do something else!"
By that point in his life, the driven Dutchman had already completed an eight-year auditor training program, worked at KPMG, earned his Masters degree in accounting, and become a controller. But he wasn’t about to stop there.
“I became Head of Finance for the ICT firm and set up the whole finance department, but working there was a bit too static for me," Sean recalls. "So then I started working as a supply chain analyst at Navico, a marine electronics company. After nine months there, I was promoted and became Global Sales Excellence Manager."
That was when Sean began to realize that a commercial role - rather than finance - might be his calling. He was hungry for growth, for a new challenge and new opportunities.
“I had been in finance for something like eight years consecutively, but I didn’t want to be done studying,” he says. "I had already done a postmasters, but an Executive MBA is different. I wanted to broaden my horizons.”
And broaden them he did. Now, at 29, he’s moments away from finishing his Executive MBA at the Stockholm School of Economics - and it helped him shine in his new role, boosting the company’s US retail sales by almost 30 percent in just a year.
The Siren Song of Stockholm
But why did a Dutchman who frequently worked in the US choose to do an Executive MBA in Stockholm?
Sean considered studying in the US - but with a relationship at home in the Netherlands, it seemed a bit too far to manage. Scandinavia, on the other hand...
"I've always liked Scandinavians, it’s in the same time zone, and it’s just a one or two-hour flight. I could fly there and stay at a hotel,” he says. And as he began researching business schools in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, a winner quickly emerged.
"I liked the strong focus on innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership at Stockholm School of Economics.”
Another major advantage was that he would only have to take one week off of work at a time, for a total of 10 weeks spread out over 18 months. The alternative programs would require him being away for two weeks at a time - which he knew wasn't possible with his workload. "One week was way easier to manage."
He applied to the program in Stockholm and was admitted - although before starting, he was advised to consider if the timing was really right. Most people apply for the program when they’re farther along in their career, and Sean would be one of the youngest in the class, by an average of 10 years.
Not one to turn down a new challenge, Sean said yes. And he’s glad he did.
"They asked if I wanted to do it when I was more mature, more senior," Sean says. "But actually, the SSE MBA really helped me become more mature and more experienced. I became a better person, in terms of soft skills, general business knowledge, and networking."
That’s not to say it was easy. Sean struggled at times to let go of work and focus on classes - which is essential in the program.
“They warned me in the beginning that when you are in Stockholm, during the program weeks, you have to make sure you disconnect from all the work-related stuff. Which I was able to do the first two weeks, and then the third week, I caught myself emailing," he admits. "In order to make the program as fruitful as possible, you have to disconnect from the outside world. It makes it so much easier. But it was a real challenge for me."
Gradually, he learned to do things differently - and he thrived.
Making a real impact - today and tomorrow
Sean found that he had just as much expertise to contribute as his older, more senior peers, and discovered a new interest for aspects of business he had written off earlier.
"A major focus of the program is Corporate Social Responsibility, which I wasn't a big fan of in the beginning. I viewed it as a necessary evil, because so many companies report on those things and pretend they're doing CSR when actually they aren't," Sean explains. "But it became evident to me that it's not a necessary evil - it's just necessary. To make sure that life happens for the people who come after us, as well. I was sceptical at first...but I loved that class!"
He also loved the network, consisting of 48 students from 19 different countries.
“That was one of the most important things for me,” he says. “The network you get out of this is incredible. It exceeded my expectations.”
Through both long class hours and late-night drinks on the international field trips, students have the chance to bond and learn from each others’ diverse expertise, building long-lasting connections.
But perhaps best of all, he was still making an impact at work, seeing the results of his studies in real-time.
"One of the major projects we do in the SSE MBA program is a ChangeLive project, about implementing a change within a company," Sean explains. “The program gives you a very strong theoretical background about change processes, people’s behavior, and managing change, and they give you quite an extensive amount of tools and framework to work with."
At the time Sean was working on implementing a data-driven sales approach in the US - so he knew immediately that the project was going to be closely tied to real life.
"It was hugely useful. I invested a lot in that course," he says. "The studies and work tied together very well."
That’s the great thing about the Stockholm School of Economics in a nutshell, he says: It’s relevant and hands-on. Students learn every aspect of business management, theoretical and practical, and then get to implement it to make a real-time change. Halfway through the program Sean took on a new role, as Regional Sales Manager for the Benelux area - and again, he was able to make an impact almost instantaneously. The region has already achieved 22 percent growth over just a few short months, thanks largely to what Sean has learned through the SSE MBA program.
“It’s been highly valuable, and highly fun and rewarding,” Sean remarks. “It was definitely worth it!”
The 18-month program has flown by, and now Sean has just one week of the program left - and he admits he has mixed feelings about what happens next.
"It feels good to be almost there - but also a bit scary. What am I going to do with my freetime? Maybe I’ll start my own company," he muses.
“Hopefully I don’t get bored. I hate being bored.”