Facebook's Nicole Tan on mentoring women and creating opportunities around it

Nicole Tan (pictured), Facebook Malaysia's country director, is no stranger to being in leadership positions. Prior to joining Facebook as country director in 2016, Tan led the team at J. Walter Thompson (JWT) Malaysia for approximately three years as managing director. Before that, she managed the Nokia business for JWT's Greater China team, leading multi-agency teams to develop insight-driven creative content for online and offline channels.

Armed with over 20 years of industry experience in the FMCG, tech and automotive sectors, Tan's rise to the top has been challenging yet fulfilling. In this latest International Women's Day (IWD) series featuring female industry leaders, Tan tells A+M why it is important to be an ally regardless of gender and dishes out tips for ambitious women.

A+M: What has been the toughest thing about being a female boss?
Tan: I think being a good leader has nothing to do with gender but more of what values you hold, what culture you build and what examples you set. I think what is tough for a leader is to consistently bring conscious leadership and keep learning and challenging ourselves as leaders.

A+M: In general, employees aren’t always the nicest to opinionated female leaders, how do you deal with this?
Tan: Leading by example has been a core driver in how I've built teams and our working culture at Facebook Malaysia. One thing I learnt is that we can manage these biases and not accept this behavior by being an ally regardless of gender. An ally is someone who supports, empowers and stands up for someone or a group of people. Essentially, if you see something, say something.

A+M: What are some of the biggest challenges women on top in the ad/marketing world face?
Tan: The idea to assimilate and adopt masculine styles of management or the need to be aggressive and demanding still crops up when women become leaders. The stigma, in order to be heard and taken seriously or feel included in predominantly male circles where decisions are made, still rules. I remember feeling gratified when someone described me as having more balls than more male colleagues. Sometimes, women criticism can be worse – I’m sure everyone has a #meangirls story. And over time it can be easy to accept this as “part of the game”.

I’ve learnt since to stay true to your authentic leadership regardless of gender and raise your own bar and not others.
It has a lot to do with creating an environment that allows women to feel courageous and have the self esteem and confidence to make decisions and have opinions.

It is also important to build a network of women helping women and getting men involved too – it can be one of the strongest forces at all stages in a women's career path development.

A+M: A tip for ambitious women?
Tan: I think the best thing a women leader can do is to focus on being a good leader and being an ally to others. As women leaders, we have the power to exemplify what good leadership looks like and in light of IWD, I want to raise awareness of how we can be more supportive of other women at the workplace.

Here are some of my tips:

  • While you don't necessarily always have all the answers, always be there when they need someone to talk to and ask for advice.

  • Be extra sensitive and considerate on how working mothers are juggling with multiple hats.

  • Support her ambitions. Be the one that says I believe you can. When women succeed we all win.

  • Always think of grooming future generation of female leaders and support their ambition to be successful, for example helping them to build a network of support system.

A+M: Diversity means different things to different people. What’s your definition on diversity and its importance in managing a team or business?
Tan: Diversity is core to our culture at Facebook in order to enable us to build better products, make better decisions and help bring the world closer together. Personally, when it comes to promoting diversity in my team, I always put myself as an advocate more than a leader. On top of being able to recognise their emotions, appreciating input and suggestions from all, getting to know them deeper at a personal level, I feel it's important for my team to see me as their source of empowerment and encouragement.
A team works best when they feel empowered, especially when they team up and build on each other's strengths.

A+M: Do you see growing importance of mentorship and support for women in workplaces in Malaysia?
Tan: While we see higher women representation in the workforce today, most women struggle to make significant progress in their career. This is not only because of lack of support for mothers with dependents, but also because they lack opportunities for mentorship, coaching and access to appropriate networking channels.

I am a believer of the power of being an advocate and ally and when it comes to mentoring at workplace, especially for women colleagues. I have a few women members in my team, whom I share wisdom and experiences with as I think this is important in helping them navigate complexities in today’s corporate world. Connecting a company’s community of female employees, enabling them to share their experiences about being a woman in the workplace, whilst at the same time, giving them a platform to learn from one another is also important. Finally, I trust that feedback can be a gift, when constructive comments are given with good intent.

Individuals, especially women often feel a boost in confidence when they know they are being backed up by an advocate, who is also a role model, especially when dealing with challenges at work. In a nutshell, the sense of belonging and feeling of being accepted and recognised helps in elevating level of competency as well as self-worth, which in turn boost confidence.

A+M: Do you see a growing impact of how women are playing an integral role in contributing to better economic growth and community building in Malaysia?
Tan: In Malaysia, about 20% of total estimated registered entrepreneurs of more than 650,000 are women, according to the Centre for Entrepreneur Development and Research. Through Facebook, female community leaders have been driving social impact, building networks to empower and mentor each other, and creating positive spaces for the community to thrive. I believe women play an integral role in building a global community that works for everyone.
When women do better, communities and economies do better.

At Facebook, we believe that building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate circles that we all turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs – and women are an integral part of bringing these communities together. When women are successful in business, it drives economic and social growth. They employ more women; they encourage diversity; they invest in their communities, they educate their children, and they give back to others.

This is part of an International Women's Day series by A+M, featuring female leaders in the industry and their views on being a female boss.

Read also: Ex-AirAsia marketer Kathleen Tan shares her personal challenges as a female boss