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Sean Zonneveld

Why do so many ambitious internationals choose to take weeks off work and fly to Sweden? Sean reveals what makes SSE’s Executive MBA program so special.

There is 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 Master's 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 Master's 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, 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 post-master's, but an Executive MBA is different. I wanted to broaden my horizons.”

And it helped him shine in his next 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. 

"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. 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 the Stockholm School of Economics.”

Another major advantage was that he would only have to take one week off work at a time, for a total of 10 weeks spread out over 18 months. The alternative programs would require him to be 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 are further along in their careers, 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 is glad he did.

"They asked if I wanted to do it when I was more mature, more senior," Sean says. "But actually, the Executive MBA at SSE 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 is 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 at the beginning that during the program weeks in Stockholm, I had to ensure I disconnected from all work-related stuff. I managed to do this the first two weeks, but by the third week, I caught myself emailing," he admits. "To make the program as fruitful as possible, disconnecting from the outside world is essential. It makes things 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 are 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 ensure that life happens for the people who come after us as well. I was skeptical 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 long class hours and late-night drinks on international field trips, students have the chance to bond and learn from each other's 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 Executive 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 that 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, both theoretical and practical, and then get to implement it to effect real-time change."

Halfway through the program, Sean took on a new role as Regional Sales Manager for the Benelux area. Once again, he was able to make an impact almost instantaneously. The region achieved 22 percent growth over just a few short months, largely thanks to what Sean had learned through the Executive MBA program.

In 2019, Sean changed jobs again and currently works as Global Vice President at o9 Solutions, a knowledge-powered analytics, planning, and learning platform for next-generation global enterprises.