Jean Stephens, the Global CEO of RSM, sat down with Accountancy Age to discuss her important role in which she has worked since taking the reins in 2006, having first joined the network 10 years prior. In the first part of the interview, she discusses RSM’s aspirations, its global expansion and the key challenges and trends the accountancy industry is facing. In this second part, she discusses the importance of diversity, a clear direction, and the efforts to form RSM International.
In a study undertaken by Randstad, it was found that companies in the top 25% for ethnic diversity were 33% more likely to achieve profit above the industry average. Jean sees evidence of that at the group every day.
RSM International has 41,000 staff across 116 countries, and so Jean, who says she travels 70% of her time, has experienced a great variety of cultures, both socially and in a professional environment when visiting RSM member firms across the globe.
She makes it her job to ensure she is constant communication with the firms, giving them her full attention, and through doing so sees the importance of diversity.
Discussing how diversity helps RSM globally, especially when it comes to making decisions, she says: “Bringing diversity into our meetings and our thought is something we continue to work on. When you have people with different opinions, you have a richer approach.
“It might slow this [the decision-making process] down in that first phase but then you get the speed of adoption at the end, and because we take a collaborative approach to global challenges, as opposed to just dictating down an approach developed by one person, the approach should work everywhere.”
She adds: “That diversity of thought I think is absolutely critical to any successful organisation and it also results in better answers and then you get to better decisions in that way.”
You can’t get it from a book
While Jean understands that she represents success in gender diversity, she says that diversity is not just about gender, but about cultural and racial diversity as well, which ensures this diversity of thought that is so key to a group like RSM.
Learning about and experiencing new cultures, Jean says, is the fun part of the job, and having an appreciation of diversity makes expanding into new markets with different cultures easier.
“That’s really the fun part of the job,” she says. “If you’re just interested in telling somebody how you do it, it’s not going to work because nobody cares about that as much. I think as you have those discussions, you must figure out within the cultural nuances of a country – How does this work? How does this fit? Then introducing those ideas.
“I think it’s my job and the job of the executive office team and the wider leadership team to make sure we’re always open to these new views and new ideas that come. It’s not just based on our background and where we came from, but we’re bringing to the table. Really you can’t do business if you don’t take the time to do that.
“That’s why I travel so much, it’s sitting there having those discussions and trying to understand is really the only way.”
Jean puts a great deal of emphasis on visiting countries where member firms are based to ensure that she learns about the culture, and truly understands the needs of RSM firms. How to communicate with the culture is not, she says, something you can learn in a book, but is something you must learn through first-hand experience.
“You can’t get it from a book. You need to go, to be there, to see there, to engage. My experience is that every culture is the same, whether it’s Latin America, whether it’s Africa, they all have nuances to communication and nuances to reach conclusions to discussions and issues and then ultimately, to reach agreement on the way forward.”
A clear direction
To drive change and to encourage diversity, the initiative must come from the top, but ensuring that a large organisation is pulling in the same direction, especially with so many different cultures and ways of working, comes from the firms.
Jean explains: “It’s a big role and I always say with an organisation like ours – how do you make sure you do your best to encourage everyone to point in the same direction? As an organisation it doesn’t come from me or here (the boardroom), it comes from the firms executing and going in that direction and that’s when we’ll be successful.
“That’s the challenge. It’s how you support and encourage everyone going in the same direction when you can’t just go and tell people what to do. We have to agree on why we’re all in this together.”
In her role as Global CEO, it’s up to Jean to ensure this message is clear between the different member firms, as it is through this global understanding that she feels success will come. To achieve this understanding, many questions need to be asked and answered by herself and the executive team.
“How do we have the quality checks that we need to? How do we support and build the brand? How do we support members in what they need to do to build the brand in their country? How do we develop our people? How do we help our members develop people in a global world? It’s all of these things on a daily basis we work with. I probably talk to 10 different members every day from all over the world. I start in Asia and just follow the sun, and then start over again every day.
“The communication, understanding, listening, challenging, that all comes with the role of doing that. I think it’s very intellectually stimulating. How do you get what needs to get done with firms that are already very successful?
“It’s not about changing, but it’s about asking what’s the next step? What more can we do together? How do we harness the power of all of us being together so that we can grow bigger and stronger and get more market share? That’s what we’re about and want to get, and continue to get, greater market share and really dominate that middle-market space.”
Jean believes that, after four years of all firms coming under the RSM International umbrella, that message is starting to reflect the quality in the middle market sector that they are hoping the brand will be known for.
“I think the RSM brands is starting to, after four years in, to mean something for what we want in terms of quality in the middle market and the way we deliver for clients, so I think that focus is there.”
The process of getting all member firms under the single brand of RSM International was not as easy as flicking a switch and was a goal that took around 10 years to complete. It was something that was in the works shortly before Jean herself became Global CEO, which she then saw through to the completion of the project, and now beyond it.
The RSM brand was established in 1993, and gradually local firms began to add RSM to their name, but all firms within the group adding this branding to their name and embracing the collective direction was seen as the answer to the question: What is the next step?
“Ten years after that [brands starting to add RSM to their name] we asked how are we going to start to develop this and what’s the next step? So, it is a long journey. Some of our firms had their local names for a hundred years so it’s a big decision,” she says.
“You’re signaling something to the market about a change and a belief in the global brand, so it’s big and it’s hard because you deal with people’s histories and emotion and thankfully, we’re clear about what we’re doing and we didn’t lose any members over that.”
Jean considers this unification one of her biggest achievements but does not take all the credit herself. When asked what it was like to not only be a part of the change, but to see it through, say says: “It was amazing. It was really interesting, and I think back on the people that really made it happen and really stood behind the idea.
“You can start with a premise but then it’s people that drive it. Having the right people that are going to be able to assist, to challenge, to support and have that happen right along until the end to see it through is vital.”
For the third and final part of Jean’s interview, check back on Accountancy Age next week.