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“Diversity makes our world bigger”: Elona Mortimer-Zhika, CEO of IRIS Software Group

“Diversity makes our world bigger”

Elona Mortimer-Zhika
CEO of IRIS Software Group

“My world became big overnight,” says Elona Mortimer-Zhika, CEO of IRIS Software Group. She is talking about her arrival in the UK, from Albania, aged just 16.

“Having been brought up in Albania and not meeting anybody who wasn’t Albanian, I arrived in the UK and went into a college with 200 children from 135 different countries. That was my first experience of diversity.”

It is an experience which has shaped Mortimer-Zhika’s own commitment to diversity and her belief in the power of diverse teams.

“Diversity makes our world bigger,” she says. “In that college, I realised how much more there was to see and do. I developed this thirst for learning and this incredible curiosity. I saw how, when tackling exactly the same problem, we would come to better, more rounded decisions, because the problem had been looked at from every angle.”

IRIS’ workforce is 42% female - more than double the IT industry average - and Mortimer-Zhika is committed to getting it to 50%. In order to do so, while addressing other areas of underrepresentation, she acknowledges a need to take an active role in reshaping the overall talent pool. That means challenging perceptions of IT careers and encouraging more girls and more students from diverse backgrounds to consider careers in technology from an earlier age.

“We work with over 12,000 schools and organise talks to explain what it’s really like working in technology and what careers are available,” says Mortimer-Zhika, speaking to PwC for the 25th Annual CEO Survey.

“Technology is misrepresented sometimes. For example, only a small proportion of people who work in technology are coders, yet this is people’s perception of a career in the industry. However, this isn’t the case. I run a software business and I can’t code.”

Personal experience

Arriving in the UK on a scholarship designed to give children around the world fairer access to education has also inspired Mortimer-Zhika’s support of scholarships aimed at improving social mobility.

“We have partnered with Salford University to create scholarships for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to university, because of their financial situation,” she says.

While Mortimer-Zhika discusses these issues with an indelible authenticity, based on her own personal experience, she recognises this commitment to purpose is good for business and helps with challenges such as recruiting in a competitive environment, where in-demand talent can be more discerning about who they work for.

“You can’t have any conversation now without talking about ESG, net zero and equality. I get interviewed about it by new recruits. People expect this. They want to work for companies that are kind, that are giving back, that are sustainable.”

That is equally true when it comes to retaining existing employees, and Mortimer-Zhika says it is vital that all CEOs get better at listening to their people - even if it means hearing some uncomfortable feedback on occasion.

“You have to listen,” she says. “Sometimes it can be pretty ruthless, but if so, then that’s what you need. You want to know the truth. You want to know how people are feeling. This is the best intelligence you can obtain to run your business as successfully as you can.”

Constant communication

This focus on listening to employees was accelerated by the pandemic and will remain in place long after it has eventually abated, says Mortimer-Zhika.

“Constant listening and communication matters,” she says. “Gone are the days of surveying your people once a year.”

Mortimer-Zhika was new into the CEO role when the pandemic struck, and while it was a daunting task to deal with on day one, it presented a compelling opportunity to make changes.

“In that situation, you have to challenge everything. You have to challenge the status quo and do things you didn’t think were possible before,” she says.

As well as significant investments in hybrid working, Mortimer-Zhika has accelerated an £80m migration of IRIS’ software to the cloud, to better reflect customer needs.

Mortimer-Zhika says meeting those changing customer needs means giving daily consideration whether to “buy, build or partner” to keep the innovation pipeline moving.

Cultural fit

“We’ve acquired 24 businesses in my time here, including seven in the last four months,” she says. “We are a very acquisitive business because in technology you can’t always build it fast enough yourself. To better serve your customers, you have to stay one step ahead.”

Even on the topic of acquisition, culture and purpose are important considerations.

“When we acquire a business, we’re acquiring a team of people and we need those people to stay and help us build this business quicker, and more successfully. If we don’t keep those people, we’ll never achieve the investment case for the acquisition.”

As such, cultural alignment is critical.

“We do a lot of due diligence around culture - understanding theirs, and helping them understand ours. Ensuring there is alignment and common ground.”

Mortimer-Zhika hopes commitments to culture, purpose and diversity will become the norm across all organisations, and as such will become less remarkable.

“I can’t wait for the day people stop calling me a ‘female CEO’,” she says.

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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