In our weekly exclusive interview series, this Thursday we are talking with Ulrika Ek from Facebook, Strategic Partner Manager for Media and Entertainment, for the Nordic Region.
I first met Ulrika some years ago in Stockholm, when she was the CEO of Nyheter24, one of the few news websites in Sweden that do not belong to one of the two major publishing groups of the country and I was at that time working a Nordic Regional Lead for a big international company.
I was immediately impressed by her – her way of managing an agile news organisation, the different aspects of the business and the people, the possibilities of diversification.
Now, Ulrika is the Nordic Lead for media partnerships for Facebook and, ironically enough the roles are reversed, and I am running a media start-up.
So I thought it would be very interesting to discuss with her about career choices, about how it feels to be the CEO of a national company and then join one of the biggest international companies, about the differences between being a publisher and working for a social media platform.
Many thanks, Ulrika, for taking the time to do this interview with Moonshot. Would you like to start by sharing a bit on your background and your current job?
If you look way back, I am a journalist but I haven’t worked as much as a writing journalist. Pretty early on I got interested in digital media – or new media as it was called back then – and have been working with that throughout most of my career, both at more traditional publishing houses, as well as digital only companies.
I have also had my own consultant company for a couple of years, where I worked with the digital transformation and business development of several companies. Before joining Facebook I was the CEO of Swedish media house Nyheter24-Gruppen. In July last year I joined Facebook to lead their media partnerships in the Nordics. It’s a really fun and diverse role, where I, from a strategic perspective, work with broadcasters, publishers and creators in the Nordics to support them with working with our platforms.
HOW TO MAKE CAREER CHOICES
You have been the CEO of news media, which is considered for many a top career position. That should have given you a lot of experience on how to manage people – the challenges and the pleasures of it. How do you feel about being the CEO of a company versus being an executive at an international company like Facebook? What is the career choice behind this?
I always try to focus more on the passion I feel about a role and a company, and not so much about the choices I have made previously in my career. Sometimes I’ve made choices that were a bit unexpected, but in retrospect those gave me a good background.
When I was offered the job at Facebook, I saw that I could make an impact even if I am obviously not the CEO and in charge of the whole company. I have the freedom to lead several markets, and I like that Facebook is such an international company.
Also, when I went through the recruitment process for Facebook, I was really impressed by the people I met in the interviews – they were so smart and humble at the same time. I was very intrigued by the company, and felt that I really wanted to work with them. So far, I have definitely not regretted it! It is really inspiring and I have learnt a lot.
That being said, at Nyheter 24-Gruppen I also met great people that I learned a lot from. I worked at the company for four years and was CEO the last one and a half years. In 2019 the company was acquired by a new owner. I felt “my baby” was in good hands and that it was a good timing to look into doing something else, like expanding my experience.
I think that is a very useful advise and an experience to share. People, and especially young women, tend to make career choices in a linear way and are a bit scared of moving around. A diverse experience is also super valuable in the bigger picture – to not only follow one path.
In my opinion it is actually a super strength – my slightly mixed job background has sometimes been the reason a recruiter has been interested. In 2012 I wrote a career book together with my friend Camilla Björkman, now CEO at Breakit, in which we interviewed some of the most powerful women in Sweden about their careers. One of them actually gave that advice: To not be afraid to jump sideways if you can’t go straight up. It will give you a unique, broad experience that can be very valuable in the long run.
NATIONAL VS INTERNATIONAL, SMALL VS BIG
What are the biggest differences between working in a Swedish company and an international one?
One thing that really impressed me is how these bigger companies, such as Facebook, can look at inclusion and gender equality issues and really be a driving force. For example: a part of the onboarding at Facebook is a mandatory training about managing unconscious bias. It brings awareness and helps you recognize bias, so that we can create a more inclusive workplace together. This training is only one piece of a very big puzzle, Facebook of course works with diversity & inclusion in many ways – but I think it sets the tone for the whole organization if you include a training like that in the onboarding.
As a big, international company, you have more resources to create a change than a small company and I think it’s good that Facebook takes responsibility and ownership of these topics that can help to lead the way.
I was myself impressed by effectiveness of the systematic training, but unfortunately smaller companies do not have the resources to do that. This is an area where I truly believe that big companies are pushing the diversity agenda forward – maybe they could develop a kind of white-label training for smaller companies.
I fully agree. It is not so easy when you are a smaller company with limited resources, to invest time and money into creating a more inclusive workplace and way of working – even though I think most people would agree with me that diversity drives results. So it’s really good that bigger companies are paving the way in this, and also sharing resources externally (Facebook shares their own externally).
A YOUNG MOTHER WORKING FROM HOME
You are a young mother, you started at the company while having a very small baby. You were earlier at a very presence-driven job in a vibrant newsroom. How did you experience the difference now working from home? Do you think it’s a good solution to work from home or could it be a bad one in the long run?
There are some things in the physical meeting that are hard to replace – the small talk by the coffee machine and the everyday innovation, easily gets lost when you are all working from home. On the other hand it is also surprising to see how much you can do virtually while working from home. Like this talk now for instance. And it wasn’t even that hard. I think many companies discovered that it wasn’t so difficult to go from 100 percent at the office to 100 percent working from home.
Going forward I think this will have a lasting impact. Many business trips will probably be shifted to virtual meetings, which is good for the environment. It also creates more inclusion, since groups of employees who previously might have had to turn down these “travelling positions”, because of their personal life – for example people with small children, or single dads or moms – now can get the opportunity to join on equal terms.
I believe that some people will be working 100 percent remote in the future, some will work 50 percent remote and some will be 100 percent in the office. As an employer you just have to make sure that however people choose to work, you have to secure innovation, “the coffee machine talk”, and how people can draw inspiration and ideas from each other.
Are you one of those who are fully on top of managing their personal time? Do you think that working from home has an impact on your time management, like never being able to disconnect, is there any pressure on your private life?
I had my own company for three years and got very used to managing my time. So for me it doesn’t really matter if I am at the office or working from home, I keep my productivity level.
With that said, I feel I am super-lucky in the pandemic. My family is healthy; I have a job; I only have one child and she is too small to need home schooling.
For people who are exhausted by the pandemic and working from home, it’s not because they can’t manage their time and work. The problem is that there are just so many layers of workload – family members getting sick, children needing home schooling, lay-offs happening and so on.
I believe that there is a responsibility there for the companies to accommodate that and be mindful of not burning out their own employees. Unfortunately, all studies show that this situation is taking a heavier toll on women because they carry a heavier load of work at home. What’s your take on that, do you have any advice for people working from home?
I don’t really, because like you said – it’s part of a much bigger problem. I just think we all just have to be extra kind and understanding of each other during these extremely difficult times.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD MANAGER?
As an experienced manager of many people, what have been your main challenges and what is the best advice you could give to managers?
Be yourself, whatever your personality is. It’s easy to think that you have to be in a certain way when you are a manager, but you can only be you. And that’s what got you to this position in the first place. Also, don’t be afraid to make hard decisions. And it’s usually better to do them sooner than later. It’s easy to steer away from things that you feel are a bit uncomfortable, and put them at the end of your to do list, but that will just make them grow. So tackle things head on and get it done with! After that, you can enjoy the more fun parts.
Were there moments when you thought it would have been easier if you had been a man?
I can’t think about a particular situation. In general, I will have to say no. I have worked in really inclusive companies. But of course, overall women are judged harder than men – for instance in recruitment. But I try to not think about that in my everyday work – what I would be like if I were a man, because I can’t change that. I can’t be a man.
AND NOW TO THE BUSINESS PART:
And returning to your current role: there is an increasing amount of different social media popping up, take Clubhouse as the latest example for instance. How do you think companies plan their social media presence?
For all publishers and content creators it goes back to knowing your target group. Who do I want to reach and what type of content do they like? Based on this, and your company goals – what should be your editorial strategy, and what types of platforms and tools within the platforms should you use?
Really knowing your target group also makes it easier to say no. If you are the CEO or head of marketing, there are so many things happening all the time. There are new platforms, new tools and you might ask yourself, should we try this? But to answer that, you have to go back to your target group and your goals, and base your decision on what you learned from analysing those.
Facebook News launched in the UK recently. Do you know and can share any plans about launching in the Nordics or in the rest of Europe?
We are currently in active conversations in Germany and France, you can read more about how we want to continue build on our efforts to sustain great national and local journalism on the company’s site.
You have been very much on the publisher’s side and now you are on the social tech side of the digital publishing industry. You must have rather good views how these two worlds should cooperate. Are they really competitors?
I have never seen the two parts as competitors, even before joining Facebook.
As a publisher there are many opportunities within Facebook and Instagram, and the tools that are offered. A publisher can find ways to get organic reach, monetize directly on the platform, and use tools to increase your reader subscription and off-platform revenue. My recommendation is to always evaluate the work you put in the platforms, and the output you get. By measuring your effect, you can identify what you need to optimise, and what you should keep on doing.