The art of turning tough times into opportunity

Dynamic and charismatic, Nikola Ramsden gained a lot of her independence, structure, and maturity from a childhood tragedy.

Nikola Ramsden is the executive head of retail, commercial and operations at MVN-X, a telecommunications enabler that transforms brands into Mobile Virtual Network Operators.

Nikola’s mom passed away when she was just an adolescent, “I learned from a young age that life won't always turn out the way you planned. You have to learn to be flexible and adaptable.”

Losing a parent meant that she had to step up to the additional responsibility of taking care of her younger brothers and picking up the slack around the home. She thought she wouldn’t be able to finish her studies, but says, “I really had a hunger to make something of my life. I realized that the only way forward was to adapt to the situation. So, I went to night school so I could fit in my new responsibilities alongside academics.”

Love for the industry
After completing her academic studies, Nikola’s corporate career started at MTN and she developed a huge passion for the industry. With a career that has spanned over 20 years, in addition to MTN she has worked for Cell C and Virgin Mobile with valuable experience in the MNO and MVNO environments.

She says the sector has the right mix of technical rigor, business complexity and opportunities for personal growth. She points to an instance when all three came into play. “One of my biggest career challenges came when I was younger. I was with Virgin Mobile at the time and a new CFO joined the team.” She recalls that his manner was different from what she was used to; he was very forthright, and tough with exacting standards. “He gave me a lot of responsibility and I felt out of my depth. I had a tough few weeks with some trial and error, learning how to deliver at a higher level. When I finally got the nod of approval from him, it affirmed my abilities. That period of stretching turned out to be so powerful, because it showed me how capable I am.”

That huge learning curve also proved that she could do anything she puts her mind to and was the motivation to her not just restricting herself to finance. Since then, she has been in every part of the business, from the warehouse, to the service department, sales and operations and has a deep understanding of the industry.

Leadership style
Nikola says her leadership style is one of leading from the front. “Having been in the industry so long, I trust my judgement and decisions. Equally, I believe those I lead should develop a broader view of the business, so they understand how their work impacts other areas. When that happens, the quality of their decisions is greater.” She believes that there is a lot to be learned from a few scrapes and bruises, “I give people room to learn from their mistakes. I believe there is very little that can’t be fixed, and people learn from those missteps more than when things are so perfect every time.”

Nikola enjoys working with those who share her values of constant expansion and applying oneself. “I don’t like to micro-manage and enjoy working with people who have a learning mindset, who are hungry for the knowledge, and willing to put in the hard work.”

She says a learning mindset and agility came to the fore at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When lockdown happened, people were asked to set up their systems at home. In that circumstance, there was no choice, everyone had to pull it together and make it work. For the leadership team, there had to be an absolute trust that everyone was going to do everything that needed to be done to make it work. The biggest learning was that when faced with a huge challenge, people can drill down and really step up and be amazing.”

She says that an agility and problem-solving outlook is something that she has always prized, but the last year highlighted it. “We should all cultivate it because times will be uncertain for a while longer. Personal upliftment is possible, and it’s not up to the business to ensure that you’re continuously learning. You have to take charge of that, stay curious and willing.”

Working through crisis
Nikola says that moving the entire office remotely required flexible leadership. “I had to modify my leadership keeping in mind that team members are all different. For instance, there are finance people who can work more independently, and then there are those from a customer care environment where there has to be more engagement and interaction.”

She says, “I have learned that trust is a huge factor across the different levels, and that everyone wants to accomplish something they can be proud of. We have seen that a flexible working style does work, we don’t have to adhere to strict hours to be effective.

Top priorities going forward
As the world navigates this period of uncertainty and change, MVNO’s as a sector have had to adjust. Nikola says “As the economy has shifted, our clients have had to be flexible to the needs of the customer. As a company, we’ve had to be innovative and in step with those shifts so that our solutions drive the impact we seek.” She says that in challenging times, alignment of values and goals is key and that is why the company is selective about the clients they take on. “We align ourselves with partners with longevity and we live the journey with them, support them in their journey to success.”

Now in a more sales environment, she says her finance skills have helped her thrive in this area. “Finance is my first love, if I feel insecure, I lean back on numbers, she says. “As opportunities have come up, even if not strictly within finance I have taken advantage of them because financial expertise adds value everywhere. For example, in an operations meeting, I can immediately see where costs can be cut, or why a proposal is not going to be profitable.”

“I am passionate about the business we have. When we set up in 2013 it was in its infancy. Now the industry is booming. This year especially, will be exciting because we have the ability to integrate with different networks and are not limited to any single provider. We now also have the capabilities to cross-border, which will broaden the MVNO space.”

Beyond work
Outside of work, Nikola is a wife and mother of a teenage daughter who loves video games. An avid runner, she got into running after her boss challenged her to a 21km. “I found out that there is a massive community of runners. Running has now been part of my life for years and the health and mental benefits are great.” She also golfs with her husband and says her family is a safe calming space for her, so she carves out time to spend together.