Back yourself up and stay true to yourself! I remember already in high school listening to keynote speakers highlighting, how they have developed their business combining their strengths and passions. I already had my idea three years ago but was lacking the courage to take the leap to become an entrepreneur. Also, when you find out what you love to do, stick to it and don’t let other people persuade you to do something else.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tanja Saarinen, a cultural intelligence coach and a travel empowerer who inspires people to embrace new cultures and explore the world. The idea for a company specializing in cultural intelligence and travel coaching started forming when she was temporarily laid-off and found herself pondering, how to combine her vast travel experience and leadership skills. Now, she thrives to encourage curiosity and expand people’s horizon.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born in a small town in Finland, yet I always felt attracted to different cultures, languages, and traditions. When I was seven, I decided that there are three things in life I wanted to accomplish; work in Disneyland Paris, be an exchange student, and travel across Australia for a year. I was 24-years old when I had achieved all that. So you could say that when I put my heart and soul into something, I will work hard to make it into reality and that is the way it has been since I was a little girl!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the quote ‘’Big things have small beginnings” by Michael Fassbender. To me, it represents growth and the possibility to develop anything into something bigger. It has been a reminder me for example at the beginning of a thesis process that the whole thesis doesn’t magically appear with its 60 written pages but it actually requires hours of research and hard work. Or in the case of my company that I allow myself to grow with the company. Every great company started small before becoming something great!
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
An excellent question! I think one of the most impactful books has been The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. I used to listen to her book whenever I went for a long walk and even extended the walk to 10km just to listen to one more chapter! I really like her approach to cultures and cross-cultural management, what resonated with me the most, was how she, as an expert, also made cultural mistakes. That shows me that even though you are highly skilled at something and have made your career about it, you can still stumble now and then, and learn from those experiences. To me, one of the most important messages about cultural intelligence is that having a high CQ doesn’t mean you have to know every culture in the world, it is becoming aware of your environment and surroundings where you have, for example, misinterpreted a situation or realized that you have done something impolite. Being culturally intelligent means you can acknowledge and adapt your behavior accordingly.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I’ve always loved traveling, yet I knew I didn’t want to work in the traditional travel industry, for example in a travel agency, so life took me to a career in customer service even though I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management. I worked in customer service and sales for over ten years and during that time, I also worked abroad in France and Australia. When I decided to settle in Finland, I first landed a job as a sales manager and a year later as a guest experience supervisor where I was in charge of the daily operations, shift planning, and HR-related topics.
I really love working in a leadership role and see how the team members develop their skills and discover their potential. I find leadership challenging as well since sometimes you needed to make hard decisions and have heartbreaking conversations. My experience as a manager has been like a deep dive into every aspect of leadership and a roller coaster of emotions. If I have managed to impact someone’s career development and even growth as a human being, I feel I have succeeded as a leader. Therefore, in January 2020 I started pursuing a Master’s degree in Business Administration, specializing in leading business transformation. I truly love to study again and I have gained so much more knowledge regarding different leadership approaches and theories.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
In April, I was temporarily laid-off from my job as a manager. I have always been quite active in my life, so after a few weeks of listening to audiobooks about self-development, and watching webinars on how to take advantage of your furlough time, I decided to resuscitate a business idea I had already three years ago; I wanted to help other people to pursue their travel dreams but also to bring a different perspective than what a travel agency could help with. During my years of traveling to over 40 countries, I understood the power of travel and how it can be a tool to develop your strengths and weaknesses. However, realizing how much traveling and new cultures had thought me took ten years! Therefore, I decided to help other people to travel by coaching self-leadership skills.
In May, I officially became a self-proprietor and launched my business. People who heard about my services found it very interesting as a concept, however, I soon realized the pandemic was here to stay making people hesitant to travel. Hence, I needed to see the business with a new perspective and pivot my original idea. The solution was right under my nose; I understood that many immigrants are misunderstood in their workplaces and many Finnish companies were lacking the skills set to lead multicultural teams. For example, my Mexican boyfriend had been working in a Finnish company for almost a decade, yet the company was still having meetings where they only spoke Finnish, knowing that he wouldn’t understand a word. I have heard so many other cases like that; accomplished foreigners sending resumes with their real names without receiving interviews, yet as soon as they had swapped their name into Finnish, they had received an invitation for an interview. Also, I felt that even though Finland as a country came across as very developed and innovative, we didn’t know how to turn all that diversity to our advantage.
So, I decided to change that and expanded my business to coaching cultural intelligence. What I do now, is to coach companies, leaders, and individuals to understand different cultural dimensions, and how their own culture is affecting their behavior and perception of the world. When you understand different cultural backgrounds and each individual’s uniqueness, you will have a diverse, creative, and motivated team excited to exceed their goals. When you know yourself, and more importantly, you know how to lead yourself and you are aware of your own biases, you can interact with other cultures more effortlessly! Once you are not that restricted on stereotypes, the world will become your oyster and you will gain much more meaningful insights into cultures and heritages.
So, in the end, I needed to revise my business plan only after a month, but it only expanded my opportunities!
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
I was on the hunt for finding relevant sources for one of the courses in my MBA studies when I came across an article about six trades in inclusive leadership. One of the six trades was cultural intelligence and the further I read the article, the more excited I got. After finishing that article, I realized that was something I wanted to learn and teach other people, and that I actually had the skillset to do so! I had strong travel experience; I had traveled to over 40 countries, worked and studied abroad, even done volunteer work in Argentina. I have a bachelor’s degree in Hospitality Management and am on my way to obtain an MBA. And to top it off, I also have quite a vast working experience. After that short reflection, I felt that this what I’m meant to do.
How are things going with this new initiative?
I absolutely love what I do! Cultural intelligence and traveling in general, are topics that I could talk about for hours. I have had the honor to be a guest lecturer at one of the best universities in Mexico and the opportunity to obtain a certificate amongst the first in Finland to use a scientifically proven instrument that will give insight into how your brain works when working and studying something challenging. So I am very excited about where I will find myself next!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That person is my partner. Five years ago, I could have never imagined myself being an entrepreneur! He has been standing by my side since the very beginning, and he has pushed me to develop my ideas even further. He has been the one challenging me to think outside the box, and he has also helped with the finances and bureaucracy side of the business. There have been many times when he has second-guessed my ideas, and I have disagreed with him, yet after sleeping over it, I have realized that he was right. Moreover, he supported my decision to leave the full-time job even though it meant, that financially we would have a tighter budget.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
We had just gone through the worst part of the lockdown and after months without seeing almost anyone, I had a chat with my friend. We shared our experiences and thoughts regarding all the craziness that had been happening when she suddenly said something I did not expect to hear. She said that she had been following me on social media during this time of isolation, and she had never seen me so happy. At that moment I realized how true that was! I had spent months doing something that I love, that gives me energy and that I truly enjoy. The special something was working for my own company and talking about traveling and cultural intelligence. If there is something you want, go for it!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
First of all, social media is a jungle where you can get lost very easily! I have spent numerous hours trying to figure out what sort of posts work in different media but honestly, I still don’t know the secret! Whenever I feel I’m getting a grasp on it, the algorithm and rules change. What I learned was not to get frustrated if the post you thought was great receives zero engagement, and the post you created in a heartbeat gains massive views. That has happened to me more than once!
Second, think before acting. In the beginning, I made a lot of decisions in the heat of the moment, and realized later they weren’t the right ones for me or the company. So before committing to new partnerships, strategies, or bigger decisions, I sleep over it and rely on my intuition. Remember that your intuition is probably right even though you are trying to fight it with logic.
Third, back yourself up and stay true to yourself! I remember already in high school listening to keynote speakers highlighting, how they have developed their business combining their strengths and passions. I already had my idea three years ago but was lacking the courage to take the leap to become an entrepreneur. Also, when you find out what you love to do, stick to it and don’t let other people persuade you to do something else.
Moreover, there is also a lot of bureaucracy involved and I wish, I had someone to guide me through those times, instead of finding everything out by myself. However, now I actually have learned everything by heart and have been able to share my knowledge with other entrepreneurs. Just a few days ago, a dear friend asked me how I always have the answers to everything; I replied that I am excellent at googling and gathering information!
Lastly, have a vision of what you want to accomplish! I needed to modify my strategy quite a lot because I went with the flow without having a clear vision of my business. Now that I know what I want to do, it is a lot easier to create a cohesive brand that is in line with my values and what I want to offer.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
Especially when coming from a ‘’being’’ culture, finding a balance between work and free time is really important to me. In general, people who have a tendency towards the being culture, usually aim to work to live, instead of living to work. Therefore, one of the best ways for me to relax is to go out in the nature with my dog hiking and enjoy long walks. Breathing the clean air and seeing how happy my dog is, gives me so much energy! I always put my phone in silent mode and I listen to an audiobook, music, or just the sounds of nature. It has been scientifically proven that music helps you to concentrate and relax. So just choose your favorite song and sing along! You can also try to make your body move; go to the gym or go dancing. For the majority of people, moving your body releases endorphins which makes you feel happy. So engage with something you like whether it is reading, cooking or playing with your dog!
Moreover, breathing exercises are one of the easiest ways for me to relax the body. So next time you are about have a difficult conversation with your partner or you have had a busy day, just inhale a few times deeply and you feel your body relaxed instantly. However, I understand that some days are just more stressful than others. If I still feel anxious during the day or in the evening, I do a short meditation to calm my mind. After mediation, I usually notice that the problems are not that big, or even better, I come up with the solution. Apps like Simple Habit and Headspace are excellent for 5min guided meditation.
Lastly, don’t isolate yourself too much since there are many ways to stay connected with your friends and family! Give a call to your friend or arrange an online meeting with your loved ones. If the circumstances allow, have an outdoor picnic with your family. I know meeting people online just isn’t the same but at least you will feel the human connection!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It would definitely be a movement to inspire people to travel outside their comfort zone! As humans, we tend to behave in a way that we find the most comfortable for ourselves, and often, that results in that we see the other persons behaving in a ‘’wrong way’’ only because that way is new or strange to us. Too often people refrain to travel destinations where the religion is far from their own or the stereotypes have overpowered their beliefs of what the place is like. If people would have the opportunity to understand the reasons behind the other person’s actions, I believe the world would be a more tolerant place.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have lunch with Erin Meyer! It would be fascinating to discuss her books, different cultural dimensions and compare experiences. I am writing my master thesis regarding the cultural intelligence so I think she could give excellent perspectives and insights.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’d love to hear from your readers! If you want to know more about cultural intelligence and get travel tips, you can follow my company on Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin @numinoscoaching or visit my website www.numinoscoaching.com for more information. You can also connect with me personally in LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/tanja-saarinen/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank YOU! It was my pleasure!