Good morning! So today we’re with, Ms. Linda Belonje, and we’re interviewing for the Café Succé series of the Thai-Swedish Chamber of Commerce and so I’ll just be asking you a few questions.
So you had an international upbringing, do you think having a multicultural viewpoint gave you a unique advantage in your professional life and what advice would you give about working harmoniously with various cultures?
I mean first of all, I grew up as an expat child, so we lived in lots of different countries when I was younger and then I spent about six years in the Netherlands, which is my home country, when I went to university and a little bit after that. After that, I got the opportunity to come and work in Thailand and from there we went to Malaysia and back to Thailand again. So, I have worked and lived multiculturally for most of my life. It’s very hard to say how much of that has formed who I am because you don’t know what you don’t know and that you don’t know the life you haven’t led, but I think living in a multicultural society, and with my work here as well, which is very multicultural, I think it’s very important to be able to be that open-minded. So I think meeting people from different cultures, it really shows you that people can have different points of view, they can have different priorities, they can have different ways of approaching things and that is something that you become very attuned to. But on the other hand, I also think it’s much more important to see each person as an individual, so you can assume that people from certain nationalities have certain characteristics or certain qualities, but it’s very certainly not always true and it always, in our society, in our school here, people have such diverse backgrounds that they may have a Swedish passport, but actually have grown up in different countries and have never lived in Sweden. So, I think we were just chatting beforehand, you shouldn’t assume anything just based on somebody’s nationality. But sometimes it does give you that open-mindedness that you need and it gives you the insight in your brain that people may do things differently than you do and you can be okay with that. So, I think that that’s very, very valuable.
“…to not immediately dismiss what they’re saying, just because it doesn’t agree with what you’re thinking, but to keep open-minded about it and to think about it seriously.”
So what advice would you give about working harmoniously with various cultures?
First of all, you would assume that if you’re in a position to hire somebody, you hire people that you get along with, right? So you have a hiring policy where you don’t just hire somebody because of their skills or their nationality, but because you like them and you want to work with them. Which I think is, you know, pretty important. If you have that option and you’re actually in the position to hire people, you should hire people that you get along with, whatever their nationality is, because the personality is so much more important than the nationality, but even if you’re forced in a situation where you work with people that you may not necessarily have picked yourself, it’s the same whether you’re looking at different personalities because of who the person is or different personalities because of what their nationality and upbringing is. It doesn’t really matter where it’s come from. I think you should always be able to respect people for who they are and to listen to their opinions and I think everybody’s opinion is equally valuable and it’s what we teach the children here at school, you can have people with different opinions but everybody can still be right. It doesn’t mean there’s only one right answer. As long as people can explain why they think something, then you should take that into consideration because they may not be the only one thinking that way. So I think that helps and that gives you the advice, so that if you’re working with different people in whatever environment and whatever society, whether it’s multicultural or not, just to listen to people and to not immediately dismiss what they’re saying, just because it doesn’t agree with what you’re thinking, but to keep open-minded about it and to think about it seriously.
Thank you very much, that’s very insightful. Do you have any hobbies and do you think it’s important to have interests outside of work?
Yes, of course! I have yet to meet a person who is interested only in work. I mean first of all, I think your workplace should be a nice place and you should enjoy working. If you don’t enjoy your work, you’re not in the right place and some places of work, like here at KIS International School, we do a lot of stuff that are not really related to work. So we have the opportunity here to do boot camp after school or to do yoga and we have a few wellness weeks every year, where we get to experience different things, like I did a soap making class a few weeks ago. So, these are things that I think is important that in your place of work you don’t just focus on work all the time, but that you focus on developing yourself as a person and having good relationships with other colleagues, even the ones that you don’t mingle with everyday. So there’s quite a big focus on that here at school, but even outside of school, I have lots of friends outside of school, I have my family outside of school and I play sports and I think that’s very important. I think playing sports, for me, I play touch rugby. It’s not as violent as it sounds, it’s a non-contact form of rugby and it’s really good for fitness and I think if you have good fitness, it helps you keep a healthy mind as well and through the touch rugby, I also make lots of friends and I think it’s important to expand your horizons outside of your place of work.
“We feel that we need to be true to ourselves and to make the decisions based on what’s in the best interest of the students. So for me, having that balance of meeting your targets, but retaining that vision and mission, I think is very, very important…”
Wow, that’s amazing! How do you define success and would you consider yourself successful according to this definition?
I think there are different levels of success, so you can have personal success, you can have professional success, so it really depends on what you’re looking for and which context of success. So for me, personal success, I would define as happiness. You know, you can go back as far as to think what is the meaning of life, but I think happiness is a good one to aim for and I think people who are happy are successful because they have made the world and their situation into the type of situation where they want to be in and I think that’s a perfect definition for success. So if we look at that, yes, I am happy. So in my personal life, I feel that I am very successful. I have a lovely family, I have lovely friends, I like what I do, you know, I wake up every morning in a good mood, so for me, happiness is success. On a professional level, obviously you have certain professional goals that you want to reach. So for me, these goals, being responsible for the marketing and admissions of the school here, they tend to relate to enrolment numbers and types of enrolment of students and things like that. So for me, success professionally is whether we meet those targets, but also whether we meet them in the right way and maintaining true to our vision and our mission as a school because if we were to enrol those students, but not be true to ourselves, then I don’t feel we’re successful. So what I’m specifically thinking about is sometimes when you’re looking at a student to enrol in a school, you want to make sure that that student can be successful here at school. So that means that, for example, if a student is coming in in grade 10 and they don’t speak English well enough yet that we would recommend that they choose another school because at our school, students do the IB diploma in grade 11 and if these students don’t speak English well enough to be successful in the IB diploma, we would not be doing them any favours by enrolling them at our school. Even though we could, you know, take their money if we wanted to, but we don’t feel that way. We feel that we need to be true to ourselves and to make the decisions based on what’s in the best interest of the students. So for me, having that balance of meeting your targets, but retaining that vision and mission, I think is very, very important and that would be my definition for my own professional success.
And would you consider yourself successful in your professional life?
Yes! Yes, we have, we’ve done a really great job. When I joined the school about eleven and a half years ago, it was maybe around 350 students and every year we set our targets to grow a little bit and also to become more international with many more nationalities. So the school today, if I look at the numbers today, we have just over 760 students and we have 55 different nationalities represented here at school. So I think we’ve done a very, very good job. So, yes, I think that was a good definition.
What key event in your life led you on the path that you are on today?
I think the main one goes back to when I was a little child, when I was four years old, living in a little Dutch family, in a little Dutch village, in a little Dutch life and then my dad basically said “Hey, we’re going to move to England!” So we moved for my dad’s work to England and then we stayed there for four years and then we were back in Holland for four years and then we went to the Philippines and then to Germany and then my parents actually moved onto France, Brazil, the United States, when I went to university. So I think that was a key event because it really changed my lifestyle and I’m sure that if I had grown up and continued to live in that little village in Holland, I would be a totally different person than I am today. So I would say that was one of the key events.
“…in the end, we were able to, not just achieve our targets, but surpass our targets and to do it in the way that we feel comfortable with…”
Okay, so next question, so we’re at KIS International School today and at school, we are influenced significantly by our teachers, so who has been your greatest teacher and why?
I think along the way in life, everybody you meet, sort of, influences you a little bit, right? And then there are some people who influence you more, like I would say my parents would be the biggest, they’ve instilled my values and my attitudes. Your friends because they help you build confidence, they help you to understand who you are deep inside, but even people like your enemies where you think, oh, I don’t want to be like that person, they even influence you as well, right? On a professional level, I think my boss here at KIS, she has been an incredible mentor and she has always been a perfect role model. You know, I’ve always admired her in the sense that she’s fair and just, confident, always has the right solutions to questions and problems and in all of that, she’s always also just been a really, really nice person and I think she’s been a very, very strong role model and she’s taught me how to combine a lot of those characteristics and if anybody says, oh, you’re like her or you have some characteristics that are like her, I would be very flattered.
What has been the biggest challenge of your professional life and how did you cope with this challenge?
I think the biggest challenge was here at KIS. We did a community survey and asked, basically everybody in our community, what would be the next strategic steps for the school and the results were basically that everyone wanted us to grow a little bit, so we had two classes per grade level, all the way through from early years to grade 12, and basically it was then decided that we would become three classes per grade level. That also required investment in new buildings, changes in the current buildings, investment in the programme, investment in resources, investment in teachers and basically, this will not surprise you, but where the money comes from is through enrolment and admissions of a school. So it meant that there were certain ambitious targets that needed to be met with enrolments. So my biggest challenge was, first of all, to meet these targets because I was worried, what would happen if we don’t meet them, how disastrous would that be? And second of all, I was anxious about what I was talking about before, does that mean that we have to enrol students even if it’s not really in the best interest of the students? I was really worried about that. But luckily where we were, at that point in time, I mean the reason that we could expand was because we did have waitlists in some classes and the school had really gained in popularity, the reputation of the school had been very well established, people are learning about the school and understanding that it’s a very good school. Also the fact that the school runs the International Baccalaureate, the IB curricula, they are gaining in popularity. So there were a lot of things that were working in our favour. There were a number of things that were working against us, which is the fact that there were more and more new schools popping up and other schools expanding as well. So there was more and more competition in the market, but I feel, like I said, we were in a good position and I sort of went “Gulp! Okay, let’s do this!” So it was quite challenging and I was a little bit anxious about it. But we managed to put some systems in place, we developed some scholarships, which helped students to enrol at our school, even if they couldn’t afford it and we did a lot of marketing, a lot of promotion and in the end, we were able to, not just achieve our targets, but surpass our targets and to do it in the way that we feel comfortable with, within our vision and mission. And when we start in August, this academic year, we start the new academic year back again, we will have completed that transition and all of the classes, all of the grades then will have three classes. So, it was very challenging, yeah, but we overcame it, basically teamwork, you know, being open-minded with each other, listening to each other and it’s not something you can do alone. It’s not like the senior leadership team just says, hey, we need to enrol this many more students, but we have to have this discussion, like, what does this mean? How are we going to accommodate them? How can we support them? So through these discussions and through working together as a school, with everybody being on board with this expansion, that’s what made it possible to overcome the challenges.
“Well, we’re at a school and you’re teaching the young generation, so what key lessons would you wish to impart to the next generation?”
Oh, that’s great! So what are the three most important skills that have contributed to your success?
One of the things that I feel has been important to me is to trust my gut instinct. So when you’re a young professional and you’re just starting out, you have a bit of cockiness and you think you know everything and then you go through this stage where you realise “Oh My God! I know nothing!” and then you build it back up again and then you become this person who thinks, “Okay, I’ve learnt a lot. I may not know everything, but I’ve learnt a lot.” And then now having been in this position for twelve years, it means that I do know a lot. Right? And sometimes, there’s just this feeling that you can’t really pinpoint. So you’ve got this gut feeling and I’ve really learnt to listen to that because based on not just my education, but also my experience and being years in this job and what all my colleagues have taught me, I think this gut instinct is there for a reason and you should listen to it and then you should vocalise it, so you can actually put words to what it actually means and then you can make your decision based on that, but almost always you will go with your gut instinct and I’ve found that that’s been very helpful in my career. The second one is not compromising on your ethics and your morals and your values. So here at school, we have pretty strong procedures, the way that we do things and while in some respects, it can be restrictive, it’s also liberating because it’s easy to say no to requests that you really don’t feel comfortable accommodating because you can say this is not the way we do things, we do things this way and you can accept it that way or we’re not the right school for you. And also, it’s easier to justify when you do do things, you say, we have this policy that says we can do this and this and that and therefore we followed it. So it gives you basically that confidence and the motivation and the reasons to do things the right way. So I feel that’s very important and I feel that most organisations would benefit from having written down and approved ways of doing things, just so that everybody can feel comfortable doing things that way and if you want to change it, you need to have a discussion to say why you’re changing it and would it benefit everybody to change it. But, yeah, but with those strong ethics, it’s made it easier for me to deal with issues because you’ve got guidelines and I think it’s important to stick with those guidelines as well. Not that I don’t want to be flexible, but you can always be flexible and discuss it, but don’t do it yourself, do it with a whole team if you want to discuss how to be flexible and then you can change your policies based on that. So my third one would be, to be approachable. So like I mentioned before, my success professionally, isn’t my own success, it’s part of my team as well and I think it’s very important that your team feels your trust and that they can approach you and come to you with their suggestions and their recommendations and even the things that they’re worried about and I feel that my team has great ideas. They will suggest things to me, they will disagree with me when they feel I’m doing something wrong and they will help us move forward in the right direction and I think all of that makes me look better, just for having them and to listening to them and I think that’s a very important attribute as well.
You’ve accomplished a lot in your career, what further goals do you hope to achieve in the future and what motivates you to keep succeeding?
Happiness and success in work is the main motivator to keep succeeding. When you’re working for a brand that you believe in and that you have faith in and that you love, it’s very easy to be motivated to do your job everyday, especially if your job is marketing! I did work for a company before, where I didn’t really feel very passionate about the brand and I didn’t feel it was much different from any other brands and I didn’t work there very long, just because I couldn’t bring it up and I wasn’t emotionally invested in the brand. I think with KIS, for me, it’s very easy because I trust the school, I have faith in the school, I have evidence that the school works. My oldest daughter has graduated and is doing very well. My youngest one is about to graduate, so that makes it very easy to stay motivated to be successful, I think. My goals for the future, I would say, I wouldn’t mind trying to help another school expand from, you know, being somewhere at the start of their life to making them into something more established, at some point, not quite yet, but maybe at some point. And then I think, after that, my goal would be to do something completely different, where I would want to run an Airbnb in Portugal! And that would then slowly trickle into retirement, after that.
I hope you get to achieve your goals then!
I hope so too! Thanks!
“But there is no education without experience and there is no experience without education…”
Well, we’re at a school and you’re teaching the young generation, so what key lessons would you wish to impart to the next generation?
I think it’s important for the next generation to understand that there are many different forms of success and there are many, many different ways of getting there. I think the next generation shouldn’t focus on being rich or being famous or having a lot of material possessions. I wish that I could give them all that experience and that knowledge that that does not equal happiness, it does not equal success and actually, when we read the news, we find that a lot of rich and famous people are actually desperately unhappy, so! Get past that and try to find what makes you happy and what makes you successful. I do think, everybody in their lifetime will have jobs that they don’t like, they will have bosses that they don’t get along with, they will have problems that make them unhappy. That’s all part of growing up and it’s all part of becoming more experienced and becoming more professional and it’s okay, you know, you just deal with it, you get on with it, sometimes you just grin and bear it for a while and then you make decisions to change it and that helps form you as a person and I think it’s very important to realise that there is no easy way to do it. It does require a lot of hard work and unless you are very lucky in the lottery or something. Financial independence is really a product of working hard, maybe a little bit of luck and investing in yourself. So I think, basically in a nutshell, what it means is your life lies in your own hands and I know a lot of people have actually said that and we say it to the kids from three years old all the way up to eighteen years old and it’s quite amazing, how at some point, you see with which students it clicks, students stop making excuses, instead of saying, “Oh! I didn’t do my homework because of this and this and that, yeah, I should have done my homework!” So when students start realising that they’re in control of their destiny, I think that’s a very important and valuable lesson and most people will get it at some point or other. Some a little bit sooner than others!
So you’re responsible for your own future.
Exactly, exactly! Yeah.
So being part of an academic establishment, in terms of professional development, do you believe more in experience or education?
I think that experience and education go very much hand in hand. I think one is very much part of the other. When you’re looking at the International Baccalaureate programmes, the children here learn through doing things, through creating their own experiments, through doing their own research, through trying out things, failing and then reapplying it and then succeeding. So this is the experience that you’re giving them and that is what teaches them, that is what makes the education. I think if you look at it on a more general point of view, I think you need an education and just that piece of paper basically, to be able to have access to a lot of the experience, right? Like you wouldn’t get a job, internship, if you have no high school degree, for example, right? So having that education will give you access to the experiences and also having that education will help you make sense of the experiences and it will help you process that information from the experiences and make it into useful information that you then learn from. I think that’s what the education will do. But there is no education without experience and there is no experience without education because even education takes a lot of different forms as well.
Okay, thank you very much, that was an amazing interview, thank you! May I ask one last question?
A personal question?
How was your transition from an NGO to a business, was it a big difference?
Yes and no. So here the actual activities we’re doing is marketing, promoting the school, so, I mean, I’m helping people through the sales process, which is then admissions, so that’s quite similar. I think the differences would be that in the NGO, it was a much smaller group of people and really a lot more at stake because you’re trying to help people find a livelihood. Whereas here at school, there are other schools that people can go to if we can’t help them at this school and most people are relatively privileged, in that their parents can afford the fees to our school, so those were the differences. But I think the transition wasn’t too great because I think if you’re going to a business rather than a school, then it will be quite corporate-minded and quite different, but the school, in many respects, thinks about its students as their customers and it’s quite similar to what NGOs are trying to achieve, you’re trying to make a better future for the children, you’re trying to work that through. So at least the morals and values were quite similar, in that respect, so that made the transition quite easy.
Okay, well, thank you so much for today! That was great, thank you!
You’re very welcome!