introducing melissa marijnen from professional rebel.
Professional Rebel uses unconventional training to empower young professionals in big companies. Founded in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, Melissa Marijnen and Linda Vermaat started showing corporates what innovation in startups was all about, and how they could leverage what the startup founders were telling them in their own businesses.
Knowing the value of the entrepreneurial mindset has driven Professional Rebel ever since, and today it’s implemented in their no-nonsense training programs that equip young professionals to become leaders and overcome anything. Overcoming, however, doesn’t come without its challenges, and Professional Rebel is well aware of the pains of entrepreneurship. But for them, it’s in uncertainty, risk and failure that growth is found.
We talked to Melissa about the characteristics that are essential to be professional and rebellious, the power of habits and why books are the best way to learn. We also talked to Teddy Uijttewaal – the new owner of Professional Rebel – about the rewards and challenges of training young professionals.
How was Professional Rebel started and why?
It was 2012. Recovery from the financial crisis was slow, and it was clear that the current way of doing business wasn’t sustainable anymore.
During that time, Linda Vermaat and I talked about starting a business in education, which would offer exciting ways to learn about entrepreneurship. It fitted the time perfectly, because corporate companies knew the old ways of doing business were outdated. We took corporate managers (on bikes) to visit innovative businesses, where we hosted Q&As with startup founders to tap into their personal and entrepreneurial learning curves.
Later on, our clients said they wanted more than just those inspirational visits. They needed ways to learn how to implement the mindset, skills and tools of those entrepreneurs. That’s how we started offering our first training programs in innovation, which were later supplemented with programs in growth leadership.
Could you talk a little about how the training you offer is unconventional and why that’s important?
The unconventional part was that we’ve never followed any existing method or system, but developed our own knowledge and tools based on what we learned from those innovative entrepreneurs. Also, our programs are all about experiencing first, theory second, and that helps increase muscle memory. That means when a participant is back in the office, they remember our training and can change their approach accordingly. Making our training applicable and usable to real situations is crucial.
And what are the BIG 5 and how do they fit into your training?
The BIG 5 are creativity, courage, curiosity, discipline and drive. These five in addition to focus – a sixth we’ve added recently – are essential for people to be both professional and rebellious.
Curiosity helps you open your mind, and understand others, the business and the product. Without discipline, the execution will wither, so you need people to not just do the fun stuff, but also the hard and tedious stuff to accomplish their goals. Courage you need to communicate what you want to communicate, instead of what others expect to hear from you. Creativity is the foundation of innovative thinking, which is essentially problem solving. And without drive – your intrinsic motivation – you’ll just sit there collecting money. And that’s not fulfilling. With drive, however, you feel energized every time you do your work.
Why do you think young professionals within larger organizations can sometimes struggle to adopt a growth mindset and develop leadership skills?
Young professionals often underestimate the need to be professional before they can become rebellious. In other words, you need to focus on your craft and on your job to get the results you want and more. That’s the core. Take on difficult assignments, challenge yourself. Get to know the business, the products, the clients, the industry, the organization, the departments, your direct and indirect colleagues. Then after becoming professional, you can start challenging the organization by inviting in innovative ways of thinking and working.
We feel that young professionals need to be made aware of this in a matter of fact way, rather than through the pampering approach we often see. An encouraging kick is more effective than a soft nudge.
What’s the most rewarding part of training young professionals?
Teddy: We believe in trying, failing, getting back on your feet and preparing for a new challenge. Our training is a call to courage. We’re not taking young professionals by the hand and telling them what they will be facing. In uncertainty, risk and vulnerability, you’ll find growth.
So, when we see the young professionals we work with take on that approach and grow from it, that’s the most rewarding part. Seeing them demonstrate the courage to take the next step in their personal and professional growth is invaluable.
We’re teaching our trainees to not wait for permission to lead, but to start leading now. The root of insecurity is craving the approval of others – it gives others the power to inflate or deflate our self-esteem. So, when a trainee goes out of their comfort zone and dares to lead, we celebrate that moment. It’s about acknowledging your worth and consciously creating that next step.
And what’s the most challenging part?
Teddy: Well, there are always two sides to the coin. Because of the pandemic, we had to switch from physical training to online training. Between all the content and tech, you have to ensure that your participants are fully engaged, which is tough. Facilitating a virtual workshop requires new skills – it’s easy to start lecturing instead of training.
And at the beginning of this year, it was frustrating for the trainees to not be in the same room as each other. They really value and enjoy each other's presence, especially since most of them work for different companies in The Netherlands, so it’s rare for them to have such intimate, cross-organization training.
They also share their struggles and their highs and lows. They connect. We know we can’t create an identical connection in our online programs, but via break-out rooms, interactive games and by using a workbook that they are all working from during the training, we’re building new and deeper ways to connect online.
You describe yourself as a habit expert. Why are habits powerful? Why do you believe in them?
The genius part of habits is that you train yourself using positive behaviors that become easier the longer you do them. Habits also improve your life more and more as you continue that habit – this is called the compound effect.
For example, if you want to be more focused, it’s advised to start your day with a short meditation. Research has shown that this increases your concentration. The first day you try it, it will be a conscious effort, even difficult. On the thirtieth day, however, you’ll be used to it, and the threshold to practice will have decreased tremendously. After ninety days it will be like brushing your teeth. Habits: automated behaviors that help you perform and feel better.
And how is your belief in habits incorporated into the training Professional Rebel offer?
We call it the ‘wax on, wax off’ method. By repeating the same assignments and lessons over time, participants will remember what they need to do when they’re not in the program anymore but in a real-world situation. Just like the Karate Kid, who first had to paint the fence and wax the cars. Later on, those lessons kicked in when he had to do karate.
Aside from Professional Rebel, you’re a keen reader and have even started a book club. What value do you find in reading specifically and how can we find more time in our busy lives to read?
Reading books is an exceptionally powerful way of learning. It’s as if somebody is talking to you for twelve hours using the best storytelling techniques, combined with real-life examples and easy to understand methods and models.
Saying that, what you get from reading depends on your effort and intention; reading fiction for enjoyment is completely different than reading non-fiction to develop your business. So, reading is tied to intention, and that connects back to what I said before about the importance of drive. If you’re intrinsically motivated, you will remember much more.
A trick I use is to read during breakfast. This way I combine reading with a daily habit. In turn, that helps increase the likelihood of persevering that reading habit. Another ‘cheat’ is that I also listen to books (with Audible) whilst commuting or riding my bike.
I also read a lot of fiction at night instead of looking at my phone, which I leave in the living room. Since implementing this habit, I sleep better, wake up happier and am less addicted to my phone.
Do you have a favorite book you’ve read recently?
In the @Instaboekenclub we just read The Culture Map, which I enjoyed very much. It’s about how to work harmoniously with international, multicultural teams, so it’s relevant for both ambitious entrepreneurs and the current times.
One big lesson I took from it was that we’re programmed to view our own way of doing things – for example giving feedback directly – as the best and most effective way. It’s our default setting. With this in mind, we have to be actively curious about other ways of thinking and doing, and that includes how things are done in other cultures. If we do this, we open ourselves up to a world of possibilities.
What are three habits entrepreneurs should create?
First, I recommend asking your team and clients for feedback frequently. Make it a habit. For example, every first Monday of the month, send a client a quick email with “Hey, how are you? I wanted to check if there is anything we could do better. And if you have any other challenges I (or my network) could help you with, please let me know.” Do this every month and it will strengthen your relationship with your client and dramatically improve your services. Also, ask your team a similar question every week.
Second, start a mindful habit, like meditation or breathing exercises or walking or simply staring out of the window. By doing this you will give your subconscious brain the time and space to help your conscious brain. Do this at least once a day.
Third, invest in your learning. I know being an entrepreneur is an intensive, personal development program in itself, but make a habit of taking in other perspectives, theories, ideas and skills from acknowledged trainers and experts. It’ll help you become more effective, creative and satisfied.