My first boss: Elona Mortimer-Zhika, Iris Software CEO
Elona Mortimer-Zhika is CEO of Iris Software, one of the UK’s largest software companies. A private equity backed £3bn business with £320m revenue, Iris was awarded UK tech business of the year 2022.
In 2016, she was the company’s newest CFO; by 2018, she had become COO and was promoted to CEO in 2019. Mortimer-Zhika started her journey from humble beginnings, leaving her home country in dictator-led Albania at just 16 to attend UWC Atlantic College in South Wales on an International Baccalaureate scholarship. She then gained a scholarship to Reading University and landed her first job with Arthur Andersen and later Deloitte.
You do need a stance in retail to really learn about customer service and that customers are always right. It’s a value I’ve taken everywhere I’ve gone, firstly as a student in Reading where I worked in the restaurant at BHS.
As an impressionable 19-year-old, I looked up to my first boss, a hard working guy who loved customers. Money started going missing off the till, £100 here and there, and it soon transpired that he had taken it all along. It taught me a lot about not having bias. You trust what somebody's telling you but you have to go and verify. I use it in business all the time today. You have to assume you are dealing with great people and why wouldn’t you? However, when you are the leader of a business you are also going to verify rather than taking someone at their word.
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At Deloitte, I was taught a lot about what matters in a business. You are thrown into an audit, you don’t know anything about the client and in two weeks you have to give an opinion. You are taught a lot about things that will change the dial. Somehow we overcomplicate business, while understanding that most businesses are the same has given me a great way to connect.
My first professional boss came at Acision, one of the market leaders in text messaging and mobile data. Things have changed now but there weren't many women I could look up to at Deloitte. My bosses said that as I was a senior director, I was to wear a suit as clients expected it. I always wear clothes with a bit of flair and colour, yet something as simple as that took away my spark and I didn’t feel myself.
I joined in 2009 and Acision almost went into liquidation the following year when the market crashed. Our IPO was meant to pay back our bank loan, we also had a product with no recurring revenue stream and had oversold more licences than the telcos needed.
My dream was shattered. I thought I had joined to become the financial controller of a billion dollar business. But I felt valued and my mentors made it clear that I would learn more from a business that was challenging than return to Deloitte. One of the reasons was my boss Steve Harvey, who was always focused on the people side.
He asked me about my team, their strengths, hobbies, family situation, my gut feel on their performance and who was going to be my succession planning. This was in week two of me joining. I thought this was amazing. He trusted me to do a job, that the team was my power, whether I was going to succeed and how much interest I had generally taken.
I also worked under my first ever female boss at Acision. Karen Griffiths was really strong and an iron lady who had been brought into the struggling business as CFO. We needed to restructure and make it successful – which we did. It is now called Mavenir and worth over $3bn today.
In Karen’s first month of joining, I was dreading telling her I was pregnant with my first baby. Her response was what I wanted to get out of the next six months. She gave me one of the biggest transformation projects in the business which meant I could focus and almost accelerate my development in my time before maternity leave. It was also clear that Karen wanted me back. She valued me and I felt an emotional connection with my boss, one where I felt wanted.
Karen never made a decision based on personal gain. It seems an obvious thing to do but you do see nuances being made like this, whereas Karen had none. That quality in moral compass is everything I have tried to copy. It's important we do business for good. Our job isn't to please people, it is to make decisions that keep people happy and benefit the business.
Iris is the first tech business I‘ve run. The idea that you have to have 20 years in a particular industry to be the best CEO for me is not something I stand by. It’s really important you hire people who ask a lot of questions and audit teaches you that. With curiosity comes a thirst for learning, open mindset and innovation.
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You never really find the truth until you're willing to be pedantic about asking the same questions three times to get the real pictures. As CEO I have conflicting truths. If I speak to my team, I am constantly faced with everyone having their point of view. My job is to ask loads of questions to figure out one version of the truth.
Gone are the days when you used to be grateful to have a job. People have choices today and you have to earn the right to have people stay with you. As an employer you have to make sure you set them up for success.
We are all fighting for talent. If people are allowed to be themselves and encouraged to amplify their skills you will get a lot of brand loyalty. I always say to people that, should they one day leave Iris, I hope that they would look back and think that they were made here.
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