Flemings in the UK: Peter Sioen on turning cultural differences into assets

Summary

In the fourth instalment of our series on Flemish people living in and working in the UK, we talk to Peter Sioen, a life coach who made the most of his move to London

Ahead of his time

As a young psychologist, Peter Sioen worked with homeless people in Brussels. Since moving from Flanders to London 12 years ago, he’s carved out a niche at the other end of the economy, coaching ambitious professionals in the City.

But lessons from those early days still inform his work. “It was fascinating to be in such a hands-on role,” he says of that first job, “but I began to feel slightly marginalised.”

He became involved in a European Commission project looking into health care and poverty, before moving to the railway operator NMBS, where he worked with management and unions to tackle stress and harassment among employees.

Then, with his British partner, he moved to London. “I went without a job, which was maybe not very clever,” he recalls.

And the Brits were rather confused by his CV. “I was proud of all my experiences and the versatility I had and wanted to continue working with conflict resolution, harassment and bullying,” he says. “But the UK professional world wasn’t really ready for it in the way other European countries were.”

From rags to riches

Not readily finding a job, he set up a coaching service within his partner’s company, offering support for ambitious individuals working in the City who felt stuck in a rut as a result of poor management, competition or discrimination.

He later set up his own company, providing psychological coaching and mediation services, and has written books about his experiences on the streets and in high finance.

People living in the London bubble can easily become blind to what happens in the world

- Peter Sioen

Sioen is from Ghent and lived in Brussels for 15 years, but even as a child, he dreamed of living in London. Having made the move, he took what was initially a stumbling block and turned it into a selling point.

“I definitely presented myself as a Belgian in London, as a token to show that my approach is different,” he says. “I didn’t shy away from pointing out that I come from another culture. I had to learn to highlight the differences and turn them into strengths to make my business case. It’s something I share with my clients: I try to find what makes them unique and original, what makes them stand out.”

Over the course of 25 years, he’s gone from working with young people living on the streets to a very different arena – supporting rich, ambitious professionals at the opposite end of the spectrum.

“I do feel that it’s part of the uniqueness I hope I bring to the table,” he says. “I’ve witnessed the other side of the economy, and that was partly what made me curious to go into this particular field. I really wanted to see the other extreme.”

Catching up with trends

Having worked with people who have absolutely nothing keeps him grounded, and helps him keep his clients grounded, too. “We talk about the bigger picture,” he says. “People living in the London bubble can easily become blind to what happens in the world, to the people sitting next to them on the Tube who have nothing.

“I have these memories of working with people who sleep rough, who shoot heroin, who prostitute themselves; they stay with me, and they live on in the conversations I have with my clients. It makes it worthwhile, and it gives me a sense of purpose.”

In a way, he says, “I’m still doing it for the people I met 25 years ago in Brussels. It’s the same economy, and it’s about trying to make the economy better for everyone.”

They speak only English, and these new trends very often develop in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France

- Peter Sioen

Twelve years ago, when he arrived in the UK, the country wasn’t ready for what was often seen as a “woolly” approach to conflict in business. Britain can be slow at catching up on trends, and there are various reasons, Sioen explains.

“They speak only English, and these new trends very often develop in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France,” he says. “When you speak various languages you’re open to all these influences. And Britain is a very independent country and doesn’t rely on influences from abroad.”

Has that mentality changed? Sioen has certainly seen the growth of the coaching market, dealing with stress in the workplace, and the atmosphere has noticeably shifted since the financial crisis of 2008. More and more companies are coming to realise the benefits of early-stage conflict resolution.

“I work with private individuals,” he says. “The typical client is between 28 and 38; they’re talented people who’ve done very well in education and have been mentored through an exciting job at major companies, always being looked after.”

But now, he says, their mentors are retiring and they no longer have the same advantages they’d got used to. “They have to start fending for themselves, and they find it difficult to fight those battles.”

Photo courtesy Peter Sioen