Leadership is not the position, it is the disposition. To be an effective leader, you need to authentically connect with your team, with your partners, with your customers and with your mission.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Denada Ramnista.
Denada Ramnishta is SVP of Partner & Lender Strategy at Lendio, the largest small business financing marketplace in the U.S. As a fintech executive, Denada has led strategic partnerships with U.S. and international corporations, executing business strategies across borders and under challenging market conditions. A native of Albania, Denada received an MBA from Columbia Business School, is a resident of New York and a proud mother of two.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I come from the very small country of Albania. Growing up in Albania, I was exposed to a lot of change as that country fought to overthrow communism and went through the stages of a transitional democracy. I then went through another big change when I moved to the United States as a teenager to pursue my education. Having to adapt so often from an early age, I was always drawn to a career in strategy, carving the path to an open end. I’ve always had this affinity for careers and positions that require that adaptability. I started my career in biopharma, honing in on turn-around management and strategically improving the state of the business. Eventually, as I pursued business school, I developed the desire to dabble in the world of entrepreneurship. There is no better place than entrepreneurship to carve out a strategy, taking a business from A-Z. I co-founded a business, and when it was time to exit, I pivoted and led strategic partnerships at American Express. The interesting this about my career journey is while most people enjoy the satisfaction of achieving final results, I enjoy the process of getting there. Stemming from my early life experiences and my ability to absorb challenging and changing situations, I am driven by this quest to drive results. I easily translate this into the work that I do and thrive in those high-growth, demanding situations. Financial technology is ever-changing and evolving. It always requires innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. When I discovered Lendio, it was a perfect combination of all of my passions, my drive for innovation and change and a great company leadership and culture. Now in my current position at Lendio, I continue to challenge myself and my team to think of different avenues, to seek discomfort, to constantly pursue the unknown and to push the envelope.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Lendio recently faced the challenge of pivoting to support small business with PPP loans. My team was responsible for the onboarding of lender partners within our platform while simultaneously account managing the ongoing success of those partners. We worked tirelessly to engage and onboard multiple financial institutions to support these small businesses through PPP loans. As a result, we had to build new teams and processes around servicing these financial institutions. One early evening, we decided as a C-team that we needed to build a brand-new team of 20 people and launch the team the following day. I was faced with the challenge of managing my own worries about if this could work and if we could execute while communicating confidence and assurance to this new team in a positive and motivating fashion. I needed everyone on the team to be all-in and to believe in the ultimate end. It was interesting for me to be consciously aware that I was managing my own doubts, yet more importantly, conveying the right message to this newly-constructed team that we could quickly create processes, get up to speed and execute within 24 hours. I recall this experience because I had this moment of awareness with myself as a leader. I acknowledged internally the uncertainty and pieces of doubt that I was experiencing, yet I had to focus on the importance of communicating certainty and assurance for my team’s sake and for the sake of execution. I’m grateful that we successfully got through that stressful experience, but I especially appreciate that moment of being able to articulate my internal awareness around my managing uncertainty and communicating clarity nevertheless.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my career, I gave a presentation to the executives of a top-tier regional hospital. It was a large group of about 20 people and it had taken about six months to arrange. I gave my presentation on a specific therapeutic issue and was about 20 minutes in when I was told that I was giving a presentation on an area that had nothing to do with and couldn’t be further from what they were there to hear. It was very embarrassing because we had waited for months for this moment and I messed up on the simplest of elements: the topic. I immediately apologized; I did not make excuses. I acknowledged what had occurred and assured that my next presentation would be on the correct topic. I ended up tying my mistake into the message I was giving and kind of made fun of myself in an effort to humanize the moment. Again, this was the top hospital leadership, so there was a burden around wasting their time, but because of that humanization, the feedback that I got was that it was an interesting topic nonetheless. It taught me how important it is to recognize the human side both to ourselves and to those we interact with.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
To achieve true professional success where you genuinely enjoy your work, you have to feel success in other parts of your life as you develop as a person. I consider myself very fortunate in this department. There have been really pivotal people throughout my life that have supported my journey in all aspects of my life. You know when they talk about it taking a village to raise a child? The same applies for adults. Everybody who is successful has a village of support around them and fosters it. It starts early in life. I attribute a lot of who I am today to my parents who raised and supported me, to my host family that welcomed me into the United States and very importantly, to the leaders I’ve had throughout my career. The leaders that I’ve had in my career have taught, pushed and challenged me along the way, and many continue to be mentors to me today. Without these people, I would not be here in my career, nor would I have succeeded in the journey of becoming a full, content person. The other half of my growth journey was to not only recognize those that have given to me, but also to learn about myself by supporting others. Many of my biggest lessons have come from supporting and coaching those that are junior to me in my career. In an important way, these people have been a great support to me as I’ve learned about myself.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
It took me some time to recognize the importance of stress-relief and how to listen to my body. In my current position at Lendio, stress-relief is especially essential because there is a lot at stake. Before COVID, I would relieve that stress and tension by taking a yoga class. Now, I have had to adjust and have taken up running. Although I don’t enjoy running as much as yoga, I have learned that it is critical to have movement in my life. Luckily, with Central Park nearby, I’m able to hopefully become an avid runner, but no matter the activity, I always leave room for movement to quiet my mind. I also don’t have a day go by where I don’t listen to music. Music is another important part of my life that helps me focus and relieve stress.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I look at diversity in leadership through two lenses: One, it is just the right thing to do. We are a diverse world, and companies, governments and other organizations need to represent that. Two, not only is it the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. For organizations, diversity isn’t an optic, diversity directly affects organizations’ bottom lines in order to survive. If you think about what nurtures better decision making, it is diversity of thought and perspective. When you incorporate, optimize and maximize that diversity of thought by diversifying across walks of life, the more ability you have to challenge a process and determine the best outcome. You optimize for the best outcome by creating and fostering diversity. Essentially, diversity is an organization’s secret weapon to success and survival.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
This is such a great question, and not one that can be easily solved with one single approach. I call this a ‘surround sound’ approach where we literally need to surround this issue with many different approaches to tackle it. However, I would say our upbringing — the exposure and experiences we have early in life — has a great effect on the way we see the world. Programs that allow children to see, experience and appreciate the inclusiveness and diversity of people from an early age are paramount. But again, we can’t stop there. It is also the responsibility of parents to take a deliberate approach in exposing their children to different experiences and people from various walks of life. This takes time because in order for parents to take such action, they need to understand the importance that having an open, inclusive mindset will ultimately have for their children. So it’s the chicken and the egg to some degree. As adults, we need to recognize and understand the effects of inclusiveness, then we can teach our children. We need to see that equality and representation are important, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but also because it allows us to live a happier, more creative, freer life guided by a lot less bias. Once parents recognize and are able to wrap their minds around it, I believe they would support their own children to live a more inclusive life. Although this is ultimately an individual responsibility, we need programs and products that support parents in their quest for deliberate representation.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As an executive, one of the primary differences from other leaders within the company is how much effort and energy one spends on execution vs strategy. Although every leadership position requires a combination of the two, as you move along the spectrum of leadership onto being an executive, the weight changes. As a leader, you spend a certain amount of time on strategy, but you’re primarily focused on execution. In an executive responsibility, strategy and developing vision takes a larger chunk than execution.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There is a myth out there that executives only think about the ultimate goal and don’t care about the people. Executives are just people and I’m sure there are some executives that only care about the goal, but generally executives do care about the people. Good leaders and executives are those that care about the whole journey — the people involved in the journey, the customers and the process of ultimately achieving the goal.
There is also a perception that in order to be an executive, you have to compromise your values. Frankly, it is quite the opposite. It is the ability to recognize strong values that you live by that really support one to become an executive. What I appreciate about Lendio is that it is a mission-driven company, but it is a value-living company at the same time.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I could say a lot about this subject. There are many perception issues that are problematic for female executives as well as a lot of challenges as it relates to the male-female dynamic. But first, let me say that we can personally affect some of these challenges and some we can’t. There are plenty of problems that are outward-facing or that others can change to create a more inclusive environment for female executives. However, when I consider this question, I would rather tackle this from the perspective of what is definitely within our control as women and what we can change as female leaders. While I recognize that this could be a controversial perspective to some, I would be remiss not to share what I coach myself to focus on.
When I consider this issue as a female executive, I choose to look at it introspectively, to ask myself what can I personally affect? From my perspective, some of our biggest challenges come from our own obstacles we place for ourselves. As women, we have this desire to manage how we are perceived and we need to let it go. We often allow our own fears and concerns with how we come across or if we are positioning ourselves correctly get in the way of showing our true selves, which is a burden I believe we put more on ourselves than our male counterparts. As a leader, it is imperative that we free ourselves from those fears and concerns and let go of the added weight that we as female leaders often carry. We need to believe and show that we are equal. We need to believe and show that we belong. We need to believe and show that we are there for the right reasons. We need to do these things because we are equal, we do belong, we are there for the right reasons.
From my experience, it is how you step in that matters because you can control it. There are plenty of other problems that others have control of, but I prefer to tackle this from the perspective of what I can do for myself, and what I can do is step in with the right foot and not worry how I am perceived. That is the first step.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I have been fortunate in my career because I’ve always loved what I’ve done. When I joined my current position at Lendio, I thought I would really love the job and would have fun, but I stayed open minded because I knew that I didn’t know everything and would be faced with many surprises. Thank goodness I entered with that flexible mindset because that sure has come to fruition. Many things have changed since I began — the job, level of responsibility and our focus has changed. I have to say though, while I knew that I would love it and I knew I would have fun, I was caught off guard at the amount of fun, happiness and fulfillment I would have. Trust me, this job has pressure, it has stress, but to be able to positively affect people’s lives on a daily basis, it is rare.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The most important trait an effective, sustainable executive can have is their ability to understand, work with and motivate people. Notice I did not say they need to know how to direct or order people. Instead, it is one’s ability to empathize with other people that allows them to understand the customer, the partners, the market and ultimately the employees that you work with. If you cannot empathize with others, your success as a leader is limited. To be an effective executive, your ability to persuade, to rally people around a cause and to execute on your behalf is paramount. Unless you are able to work well with people, you cannot stay in touch with your customers, with your partners or with your employees and will not be happy or effective in your role.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
My number one piece of advice to my female counterparts is this: you are where you are for a very good reason. Do not lose sight of the value that your authenticity brings to your team. Do not shy away from being your true, authentic self. Less pretense, more being.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In believing that we all come into this world as participants of that village I noted earlier, I strive in small and large ways to make a difference for those around me. From a professional angle, my contribution to that village is actively supporting younger professionals in their career journeys. I act as a mentor in a young professional organization and I also strive to be a mentor to anyone who seeks that kind of support from me. Mentorship was a gift that was given to me by other leaders when I started my career and it is only right that I continue to pay it forward. Another thing that I strive to do as a leader is to allow people to not be afraid to fail. It is one thing to support people through success, but it is another thing to support people on the possibility of failure. I feel that many people fail to reach their full potential because they are afraid to stretch themselves or take risks. I also believe that the world would be a better place if everyone pushed themselves and were allowed to discover their potential. As a mentor, it’s important to me to support people on the possibility of failure because it allows people to grow.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Just be you. Although I always heard from my mom to be myself, I wish I had believed her from the beginning. The turning point for me in my career was when I decided to truly be myself. I became a better contributor and I actually participated with my genuine perspective that was different than others.
- Happiness is not something that you seek, it is something that you live. I really believe it. I’ve learned from a young age how to be adaptable and have a good perspective in every circumstance. I think part of the reason I’ve always been happy in my career is because happiness is a matter of perspective. You don’t try to be happy, you choose to be happy.
- Regardless of what you do, you will have success and failure in life, so get comfortable with it. I spoke before about the importance of pushing yourself. True growth only happens in times of discomfort, so if you don’t fail some of the time, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.
- Leadership is not the position, it is the disposition. To be an effective leader, you need to authentically connect with your team, with your partners, with your customers and with your mission.
- Learning optimizes your leadership, authenticity maximizes it. Early in my career, I applied business school strategies, thoughts and processes, but they weren’t of incremental value. The incremental value of my contributions came from my authenticity. I had a more creative strategy and was more creative in execution. Could I have been a leader without authenticity? Yes. Would I have been as good of a leader as I hope to be? No.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe the most tangible, impactful movement for people around the world is financial literacy. Financial literacy is an imperative solution to nearly every other cause that I can think of, especially the causes closest to my heart including poverty and social inequality. It is the foundation to addressing all of the issues we face as a society. It is the movement that I aspire to contribute to, influence and drive forward in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is by Nelson Mandela: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” I feel that this is extremely applicable to my life. In every change I have faced in my life, I have had the opportunity to decide whether I’m going to rise or stay on the ground, so to speak. Each one of us will fall in life, but we are strongest when we choose to rise.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
The woman that I would love to have any level of interaction with, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg. RBG has inspired me, not because she is smart, witty, determined, brave, courageous, stylish or well-spoken, but she does it all with such resolve. She does it in a way that is personal and authentic, not just with what she stands for, but by the way she goes about it as well. So this is an easy one — RBG all the way.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.