Nicola Mendelsohn CBE is an advertising powerhouse who is Facebook’s vice president of Europe, Middle East and Africa, the company’s most senior position outside the US. Nicola became president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in 2011; in 2014 she was one of GQ’s 100 Most Connected Women In Britain; she is 85th on The Jewish Chronicle’s Power 100 List; in 2015 she was named one of the Most Inspiring Women In European Tech by Inspiring Fifty; and she was awarded a CBE for services to the creative industries that same year. Here, she speaks about how she got to where she is today and the sisterhood that helped her, putting family first when your job demands are through the roof, and what she’s learnt since being diagnosed with incurable cancer.
I never had a grand plan. I always made sure that I was working in companies with people that I admired – companies where I was learning, being stretched and enjoying what I was doing.
At Facebook, no two days are the same. Before Covid, I was on a plane constantly, jumping around different countries, meeting with different groups of people. People are at the heart of everything I do, whether it’s the users of our platforms, working with politicians, connecting with business leaders large and small – I’m really passionate about helping women get on in business. But also, no two years are the same because there’s so much innovation and change in product development. There’s always surprises.
[Positive and energetic] leadership is something you can develop, it’s like a muscle. Being curious and always having that desire for new thinking, painting a vision of where you want to get to, embracing technology, embracing creativity, being thoughtful about people… Not enough is thought about the human side of leadership and that’s a change we’re seeing – especially during this crisis. Which leaders are showing up for their people at this time? Who’s demonstrating care and kindness and empathy? Those things really matter.
I’m on lockdown with my husband and four children, who are older. It’s actually been very special – I never expected to spend this much time with them. Parenting right now is different depending on what age your children are; if you’ve got kids under five that’s difficult because they can’t be left alone, but it’s challenging for older children not to be with their friends or not doing things like A levels.
I made different decisions at different points in my career in order to balance my family and work. Before I came to Facebook I worked for four days a week for 16 years. I didn’t think I could be a good mum, wife and good at work if I didn’t have that extra day. It meant I made some career sacrifices, but family were my priority and that’s how I squared that in my head.
It’s about challenging this idea of what is “normal”. My children only know our life together – that is their normal. “Normal” isn’t what Disney portrays with the perfect wife and dad; that’s not real for anybody now. One of my proudest-slash-surreal moments was when my youngest child came home and went, “It’s the weirdest thing, Tom’s mum doesn’t work!”
I used to pick my daughter up at the school gates on my day off and recently she told me she didn’t remember the days I didn’t, instead she remembered when I was there, the stuff we did together and how I would work two nights late so I could be at home two nights. In the greater scheme of things this stuff [mainly] matters to the mum – we put so much pressure on ourselves and sometimes we just have to not sweat the little things.
There’s so many different times a supportive sisterhood is useful: going for jobs; asking for a pay rise. Some of my girlfriends still role play with me ahead of big moments, making sure they’ve got their arguments worked out. One of my very close friends had literally not prepared for a salary review in 20 years! I told her that is not taking your job seriously, and if you don’t know your market worth, no one is going to take you seriously. Always practise difficult conversations: pitching; giving feedback. Get advice and share best practices with one and other.
You need people [as mentors] who are going to speak the truth to you. We do that with our friends, like getting advice on who we’re dating, but women have not been very good at understanding how to apply that in the workplace. We need that same group around but for work, from different places and backgrounds, and I do think you need different things at different stages of your career – you need different advice. You shouldn't be afraid to be able to swap one in and swap one out.
A mentor or coach isn’t going to wave a magic wand – you get the most out of them by having really thought through the issues that are on your mind. That way the mentor can respond better.
In November 2016 I was living a very full life, travelling all over the place, when I found out I have follicular lymphoma, an incurable blood cancer that you can live with. I decided I wasn’t going to have treatment until I needed it, then 18 months ago I did chemo and immunotherapy and that’s where I’m up to today.
You do go, “Oh, I need to re-evaluate everything,” but actually I realised I’d always practised that anyway – if something wasn’t right or I wasn’t happy I would address it and deal with it in the moment, so it didn’t change very much. I mean, I had a lousy diet and did absolutely no exercise – I did make those changes – but mainly I realised I needed to put my energies into dealing with this in a different way, so we set up a foundation to work toward finding a cure.
There’s never been a charity for follicular lymphoma. Women get misdiagnosed as the symptoms are similar to menopause, so on average people go around with blood cancer for about two years [without knowing]. We brought patients together through a Facebook group – the biggest follicular lymphoma community group in the world – where we swap best practices, new treatment ideas, coming clinical trials and support for the mental challenge of living with incurable cancer for sometimes 10-plus years.
I think I’ve got quicker at decision making. I was always pretty quick, but when you’re in a world where you literally have death stare you in the face it really makes you realise what’s important. I think I’ve become more empathetic with other people who are going through challenges that I thought I understood. It gives you a different understanding and connection.
Find A Mentor Who’s Right For You Think about what you're missing and then look around your network and see who the person is, male or female, that might actually match up. It might be that you don’t get the perfect one straight off – you might have to try it a couple of times.
How Do You Get A Mentor? Just ask! People shouldn’t be afraid of asking. Over my career people have been very generous with their time and they’ve really helped me.
Making The Most Of Your Mentor One thing to do with your mentor is to try vision writing: write your vision as if it's a year from now looking back on three buckets: your business life, your personal life and community matters (it’s proven that people who give back are more fulfilled and happy). Share your vision with your mentor – they’ll be the people who help you to actually make it happen.