‘Keep thinking about how you can stay relevant’

Coen Swaanenburg, Vice President of Operations Control at KLM, is an inspiring Radboud Management Academy alumnus. His career shows that a lot is possible, providing you stay committed to your development. ‘You have control over your career.’

Coen Swaanenburg portret dichtbij

Development all starts with you; it’s important that you manage it yourself and take responsibility for your career 



Coen Swaanenburg

Current role

Vicepresident Operations Control at KLM

Previous education

Deeltijdmaster Bedrijfskunde bij Radboud Management Academy (part-time master of Business Administration)

What did you want to be as a child?

‘A soldier. The profession fascinated me hugely, even though no one in the family was in the army. I did whatever it took to become a soldier; I put together my curriculum in secondary school based on that goal. I was in the army for around 14 years. Then I noticed that, for me personally, I had gotten everything out of it that I could. It was time for something different. I’ve been working at KLM since 2001, where I ended up after a neighbour told me about them as an employer really enthusiastically. Working with people in a dynamic environment appealed to me tremendously.’

What does a Vice President of Operations Control do at KLM?

‘I’m responsible for KLM’s day-to-day operations. We currently fly to approximately 167 destinations around the world, with roughly the same number of aircraft. This means all kinds of things happen on the planes, with the planes and at the destinations themselves. The question that concerns us as a department is: ‘How do we ensure that we are doing as much as we can to deliver on the promises we make to customers?’ So: how do we ensure we get people from A to B in the promised way? I’m primarily responsible for the department’s development: where are we going as a team? What do technological developments mean for us? I also manage practical constraints: are there enough resources, such as aircraft and stewards, to deliver on what is promised to customers?’

Portret Coen Swaanenburg

You studied the ‘deeltijdmaster Bedrijfskunde’ (part-time master of Business Administration) at Radboud Management Academy. How did you end up doing this study?

‘I worked in a wide range of positions at KLM. I like to grow and stay mobile. Development all starts with you; it’s important that you manage it yourself and take responsibility for your career. Make sure you invest in yourself and that the people around you see you are developing. Sometimes, you might need to move further afield to spread your wings even wider. Educating yourself is part of that process.

I was trained well when I worked at defence, but from a military perspective. I learned to lead, but as you need to in the army. Leadership worked differently at KLM, and I attended courses and training programmes to add more variety to my skill set. It is also true that knowledge has an expiry date, and the world around us changes at breakneck speed. It’s important to stay relevant, and you have to put time and energy into doing so. I really wanted to do a Master’s; business administration seemed particularly fascinating. The study programme’s contents vary enormously from one university to another. Radboud University’s very people-oriented focus appealed to me. It fitted with how I wanted to lead and with my prior studies in organisational psychology.’

Did this study make you see things from a different perspective?

‘How do you view the quality of work and labour relations? These are questions that have stuck with me, even to this day. I often think about them if there are quality issues in the team. I made the switch to create more autonomy within the team, creating more freedom, at the current department about three years ago. It’s important to have a structure within a department, which people enjoy working in. That’s how you keep talent on board. We are also a learning organisation: we’re committed to safety and that is achievable particularly when people feel bold enough to admit their mistakes so everyone can learn from them. We assume people do not make mistakes intentionally. Daring to look at the process and identifying where it could be improved is of enormous value. So yes, I definitely see things from a different perspective now.’

How do you impact your environment? How is KLM contributing to making society more sustainable?

‘Sustainability is tremendously important in aviation. We are engaged in a wide variety of areas, such as cleaner engines, lower fuel consumption and smarter air travel. We also steer towards sustainability from our department. For instance, we do less ‘high speed flying’, where pilots accelerate if a plane seems like it will arrive at its destination later. You burn more fuel in that case, and therefore produce more CO2. Accordingly, we put more emphasis on punctuality so we don’t have to make up for lost time. We are very focused on using technical innovations to minimise environmental impact throughout KLM.’

Coen Swaanenburg portret

Do you have any advice for current students?

‘Make sure you stay sharp, even as you get further into your career. Technology moves at lightning speed, so keep thinking about how you stay relevant. Keep learning. There are always excuses not to do so, but you owe it to yourself and those around you to do so.'

Over the next five years, Nijmegen School of Management should focus on...

‘... the partnership between people and technological innovations. People work together a lot by themselves, but how will they work together with new technological developments: a partnership between people and machines? Technological developments are occurring at breakneck speed, and they cannot be ignored. I believe in the power of both people and machines, so cooperation seems both possible and necessary.’

Text: Kelly Janssen

Contact information

Organizational unit
Radboud Management Academy