Elisha Kirkham | Softcat

Elisha Kirkham | Softcat

Meet Elisha, she joined Softcat in 2014 when the company’s revenue was at £500m and this year they achieved £2.56b. Initially joining their Manchester office on reception, quickly being highlighted as a future superstar for the business. Climbing the ranks over the last 10 years to lead the function that manages all Softcat’s recruitment across the UK, Ireland, and their international offices.

Softcat has been an industry leader in terms of their diverse and inclusive culture that is truly unmatched in the IT channel. Elisha has played an instrumental part of that offering a truly unique requirements strategy that has led to their record-breaking year on year growth.

During the conversation we discuss a variety of subjects and one thing that will shine through and in my opinion, is her superpower, is dropping her guard and showing complete vulnerability. If everyone in the technology could be a little bit more like Elisha, the world would be a better place – Enjoy!

Congratulations on winning the CRN Outstanding Returner award! It's an incredible achievement to be recognized by a leading awards body in the industry. Was this the first time you have won the award?

No, I think it's been going for a while now because I know we've had a few people go for it in previous years, so I think it's a long-standing award. I came back from maternity leave, and I flagged to my management team that it was something I wanted to go for. This is something I want to talk about at some point as well, I've had a lot of people come to me and have conversations with me about, how did you go about achieving what you've achieved since you returned from maternity leave? Has it been luck? Has it been the right people around you? What has it been? My answer is the same every time. I asked for everything I got. I asked to be nominated for CRN Outstanding Returner 2023 because I genuinely believed I deserved it. I asked to be put on our leadership development programme because I genuinely believed I warranted a place. I truly believe that unless you back yourself enough to say, I deserve this, I'm going to put myself on people's radar and say, I want to go for this. I want to be recognised in this way. The chances of those types of things happening organically are often much slimmer.

Can you share your experience returning from maternity leave? It's a common yet rarely discussed challenge. What were the unique challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

So, I think the most important thing to start with is that everybody's experience is individual to them. Talking specifically about maternity leave and returning from having a baby, every woman will experience that differently, and I think that is the first thing managers, or people supporting those returners, need to communicate that there's no right or wrong. So many women leave to have a baby and want to disconnect from everything and have 12 months, 9 months, whatever they take to focus on the new part of their life, to give their all and don't want to be thinking about work and want to compartmentalize in that way, which works for so many.

Then you get another subsection of women who are and want more of a balance, wanting to give focus to this new part of their life, but also want to stay connected to a piece of the “old” them. That's more where I fell. So, throughout the entirety of my maternity leave, don't get me wrong, I wasn't on team meetings or anything like that, but I kept in contact with my team, a big piece of this puzzle is I had a significant case postnatal depression after having my little boy Max.

There was adjustment and life had changed, but I was okay. There was all of that, plus the fact that I was trying to wade my way through these postnatal mental health issues that I didn't know where to start with. I think all of that culminated by the time it came to me returning to work. That was around 11 or 12 months after having Max. I was excited to get back to a version of the “old me”. I knew it wasn't going to be exactly how things were because my entire life had changed, I was a mum now and things were different, and priorities were different, but the idea of getting a bit of me back, having time to have adult conversations and talk about things that weren't related to nappies, feeding or weaning, I was excited for.

What advice can you offer, based on your experience at Softcat, on supporting individuals returning from extended leave? How can other businesses implement similar steps to ensure a smooth transition back into the workplace?

So, I think some practicalities need to be considered, right? I think there are the basics, like having some kind of internal returner buddy system is important, because as much as a manager can be there in every way to listen and support, there's an argument for if you've not been through it, it's very difficult to empathise and understand on a real level what that person's experiencing.

So, I think the practicalities of having an internal buddy system in place, so that every returner coming back into the business, has or will be connected with somebody who has gone through the same experience themselves and can connect authentically on what that person's going through and validate their experience, from a position of actually knowing what it's like is super important.

Listening to somebody one-to-one and nodding and smiling, versus carving out the time of your day to specifically go and sit with somebody and ask how are you? Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? Do you have all the support you need? I am a massive believer in, actively listening to someone and this isn't just listening with your ears, it's listening with every part of you, the engagement, the eye contact, the nodding, all of that culminates into an experience that makes somebody feel genuinely seen, heard, and validated.

After our conversations, I can see your superpower is your openness and willingness to show vulnerability. In a world where everyone faces challenges, how has embracing vulnerability benefited you, and do you believe it's made you a better leader?

Yes, so firstly I agree with you, Mark. I am a true believer in the fact that vulnerability sits at the heart of effective leadership, not even just effective leadership, but impactful leadership, people you want to follow, people you want to listen to and want to be led by. If you go back 10 years or so, that was a pretty unheard of concept and very much against the grain. It's becoming more prevalent now. It's something that people are talking about, vulnerability and emotional intelligence in leadership. We can't talk about it enough; I think it is that important. My experience of vulnerability as a conscious concept, if I'm honest, I think was probably born out of pure desperation. I referenced earlier that I had postnatal depression off the back of having Max, but before that, if we go back to 2019, I had eight weeks or so off work just due to burnout. I drilled myself into the ground, which had exasperated my anxiety, and it had just gone from zero to 100 across a couple of months.

I very much put my head in the sand and didn't acknowledge what was happening. Everybody around me started to notice, saying things such as You don't seem like yourself? What's happening? I just was adamant that I was fine until I wasn't, and that culminated in eight weeks off work, signed off officially by a doctor, sick leave, and all that kind of stuff. That was my first real experience, with mental health challenges and how to navigate them.

That was the beginning of me starting to acknowledge the importance of being vulnerable and how that can connect you with others. I think it's important to acknowledge the power of somebody in leadership talking about those things very openly. Whether it be with your direct team or other people around you, it sets a tone, and the expectation isn't to be perfect, always at 150% contributor because none of us are that. As a manager or as a leader, I think it is truly irresponsible if you are consciously or subconsciously giving that expectation out to the people around you, or if you are portraying that you never really struggle and you're setting this expectation with your team and the people around you. Teaching that to progress and to get to your position, your level or move forward in their careers, they must be in a position where they know everything and nothing phases them and they never have a bad day, and that's just not reality for anybody.

I think it should be non-negotiable to be an effective leader, you must have a certain level of emotional intelligence, and alongside that comes the ability to be vulnerable in an impactful way, I think this is worth mentioning, when I talk about vulnerability, I'm talking about you sharing a part of yourself that enables somebody else to see themselves reflected.

Interviewed by Mark Reddy

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