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People and culture are key to success, says IRIS CEO


As the curtain fell on AccountingWEB Live Expo, Lucy Cohen sat down with the CEO of IRIS Software Group, Elona Mortimer-Zhika, to hear about her incredible journey to success and tips on creating a winning team.

8th Dec 2022
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At the end of a day two of AccountingWEB Live Expo, IRIS Software Group’s Elona Mortimer-Zhika revealed how she built business success through people and shared her experience in creating an impactful team to get results. 

During her time at IRIS, Mortimer-Zhika has grown the team from 700 employees to over 3,000 and has increased the company’s profit margin by over £100m, saying that “culture and people have been at the heart of everything we do”.

However, the journey to the top of the financial career ladder has been anything but simple for Mortimer-Zhika, and she explained how the obstacles she has encountered have coloured her view on the importance of people in a firm.

Against the odds

Having grown up in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, Mortimer-Zhika explained the difficulties a young woman faced during that time, noting how the closed-off nature of the country meant that opportunities were few and far between.

“For 50 years, Albania was under a dictatorship, so was completely shut off with nobody allowed in or out of the country,” she said. “We only had one TV channel that showed just Albanian programming, except, weirdly enough, Norman Wisdom!”

Yet, while her upbringing was difficult, an opportunity to study abroad via a scholarship in the UK was the catalyst for Mortimer-Zhika’s successful journey. “Thanks to a full scholarship, I was able to attend an international college called the United World College of the Atlantic,” she said. “They were started by Mandela with the premise being that education is the best weapon we have to unite the world.”

Studying for her International Baccalaureate, Mortimer-Zhika was the only Albanian student on the course, but was given the opportunity to meet a diverse group of students from 135 different countries, something that opened her world up overnight.

“I learned the beauty and the value of diversity at 16 years old by living with people from so many different cultures. I’m a product of that environment,” Mortimer-Zhika explained.

Championing diversity

This appreciation for the strength of diversity has followed Mortimer-Zhika into her professional life, where she now champions IRIS’s push for a sharper focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) when building its teams.

Digging deeper into Mortimer-Zhika’s team-building strategies at IRIS, Cohen asked the high-flying CEO what tactics she has put in place to ensure that the teams she creates are destined for success.

Mortimer-Zhika recalled a quote from a mentor that “you get the team you deserve” and argued that your team is the most significant investment you can make as a manager when it comes to success.

“The first thing you need to do is start off with the right recruiting stance,” she said, adding that difference is a big factor in her recruitment processes. “Bringing something different is something that we spotlight here at IRIS. Every business is made up of its people and unless a business is willing to celebrate differences, they’re not going to succeed.”

If you’re forced into what a business wants you to be, you won’t feel as though you can make an impact.”

A recruitment rethink

This focus on casting a wide net in the recruitment process has helped Mortimer-Zhika and her teams buck the current trend of a widening skills gap. According to a recent study from IRIS, a third of firm leaders are struggling to find people with the right skill set to fill vacant roles. 

The cost-of-living crisis is driving candidates to ask for higher salaries, with 32.5% of respondents saying inflated salary expectations are a major issue they’re facing when it comes to talent and retention.

For Mortimer-Zhika, a renewed focus on hiring and breaking down barriers for women in the tech sector has been both a personal goal as well as a real benefit as the hiring crisis worsens.

“In the UK tech sector, only 19% of the workforce are women, which is shocking. At IRIS however, we’re lucky to have 44% of our team made up of women,” Mortimer-Zhika said.

Methods incorporated into the IRIS recruitment structure, such as the use of gender/ethnicity-agnostic job adverts and revising of job specifications to create space for learning, have been invaluable according to Mortimer-Zhika.

“Everybody’s got an ability to learn. And, if you’re keeping a rigid list of must-haves, you’re qualifying out a lot of diversity from your talent pool, with people applying only fitting what your ‘good’ looks like.” 

Agreeing with Mortimer-Zhika’s assessment, Cohen recalled a previous session earlier in the day where fellow panellist Kayleigh Graham of Telleroo explained the importance of “cultural add” rather than “cultural fit” when it comes to teambuilding.

“If you have someone who comes into your work culture who is exactly like everyone else you’ve already got, what have you actually changed?” Cohen said.

The search for future leaders

Moving on from the recruitment process, Cohen asked Mortimer-Zhika about further growth of the team and asked how she had tackled the challenge of finding impactful leaders to spur on success at IRIS.

For Mortimer-Zhika, candidates who show curiosity in their work are those who are quickly considered for more senior roles in her teams.

“The only people I believe will succeed are those that want to grow. There’s no point in seeing yourself as a finished product in my mind,” she said. “So anybody that’s willing to put their hand up and get involved in areas outside their department are invaluable because leaders need to be infectious with their energy.”

However, Mortimer-Zhika also understood that a manager’s role is to guide and draw out the confidence in those who may have the skills to lead, but are not quite at the right level.

“Some people are born natural leaders, some are not, which is why you need to put a system in place. So we at IRIS have different programmes in place to find these individuals, whether through competency testing or performance reviews.”

All of this, Mortimer-Zhika argued, is essential in building a solid succession plan for firms, noting that many business owners and managers still have no real understanding of who is next on the ladder of responsibility.

“I think it’s really important to identify future leaders through succession planning,” she said. “And the test is: when you go on holiday, do you put one person’s name in your ‘out of office’ or do you have three or four people?

“If you’re putting more than one on then you do not have a quality succession plan in place.”

More than a box-tick

Finishing off their talk, Cohen and Mortimer-Zhika circled back to the topic of diversity in the industry, with Cohen asking why businesses should put so much emphasis on pushing for DEI, arguing that “a lot of people will say ‘I don’t have time for this with the bottom line going up’.”

Mortimer-Zhika understood that businesses are likely to be concerned about change during what is a tough economic outlook for the profession. However, she stood firm in the view that firms who candidly invest now will feel the benefits.

“When it comes to diversity in the workplace, you either believe in it or not. If it’s just a box-ticking exercise, it’s going to be obvious to everybody,” Mortimer-Zhika said. “If [diversity] becomes a part of your day-to-day culture, then it begins to show quickly in accolades, which then attract more exciting people with the same values.

“I think it’s more important than ever today to have a diverse team. Now is the time to be nimble, and diversity helps bring new ideas to the table.”


Replies (1)

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the sea otter
By memyself-eye
09th Dec 2022 17:38

I think most businesses are just looking for what used to be called 'staff' - exiting or not.

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