Jean Stephens, the Global CEO of RSM, sat down with Accountancy Age to discuss her role as Global CEO of RSM International, which has 41,000 staff across 116 different countries. In this three-part interview series, Jean has covered a number of topics including digital transformation, diversity and culture and RSM’s global expansion.
This third and final part covers Jean’s more personal journey, having become RSM’s global CEO in 2006, 13 years ago, and the values that she upholds as being key to both her own role, and for RSM. To lead such a large organisation, it is important to stick to your values, and it is clear Jean has championed the leadership values she feels are important during that time.
But what advice would she give to accountants who want to make the shift, as she did, to a leadership position? “Be curious,” she says. “That’s one of the main things. To listen and to be curious and be open to new things, new ideas and then train yourself to be good at that, to be good at challenging and pushing to the next step. I think those are all learned things. I think some people are more natural at it to begin with, but I do think that they are things that, with practice, everybody can learn.”
Jean believes that being able to listen, learn and adapt to new things is a key difference between being a leader, and simply being a ‘boss’. “They [bosses] just get things done. A leader is inspiring. That means sometimes taking decisions and saying, ‘here’s where we’re going to go’, after listening and figuring out the best way.
“I’m no digital guru for sure, but it’s still my job to make sure I’m bringing high digital capabilities into the organisation so I have to be open to bringing that in, and I like to think that’s what a leader is – listening and bringing in ideas from different places. Whereas I think a boss would just be limited to their own skills and I don’t think you can thrive that way, not only in business but in life I don’t think you can really go anywhere. It’s not very interesting.”
In 2007, the year after she became the global CEO of the organisation, Jean set up the RSM academy, which is a leadership programme that aims to develop skills of internal employees at RSM to become future leaders within the network. It has an emphasis on cultural and international issues facing RSM’s clients and aims to promote successful and sustainable growth.
The academy sees 50 young leaders work together throughout an intense week, where they learn leadership skills and about cultural issues.
Jean’s core values as a leader are reflected in the academy. “When I was taking over as CEO I thought about how do we encapsulate what we’re about as an organisation, and I came up with four cornerstones – brand, quality, people and business and development – as the four things we needed to focus on, with quality being the biggest.
“At the time, our member firms were attracting and training people but to serve our clients, so to reach our vision we needed to do more. The vision [of the RSM academy] came from there.
“We’ve had 600 people go through it now over the years so it’s been a very successful programme for us, and a longstanding one. At some of our firms, our professionals, are not promoted to partner until they go through the academy. They’re already leaders now but they are certainly the future leaders of RSM.”
Reflecting on herself as a leader, Jean says it is vital that she has built up trust, as this allows her to have tough conversations. “It’s through those trusting relationships you can challenge people and people can challenge you, and then you get better and stronger,” she says. “That’s what I try to always be open to, and so that people know who I am, what I stand for, what my vision is and where my boundaries are.
“I think it’s really important. You can’t change. I’ve thought about this a lot. If you’re going to different countries and everyone approaches meetings differently, some of them are formal, some are more casual, and while you have to have that nuance to be able to do that, you can’t deviate so much that people don’t know who you are. You have to have that core that everyone understands.”
Inevitably, during Jean’s time at RSM and as Global CEO, much has changed in the profession, but she doesn’t shy from a challenge. Her thoughts on digital transformation, in particular, echo those of many throughout the industry: “I think every year is a challenge. Every day is a challenge. Has it gotten more difficult? I’d say it has because the pace is so much faster.
“It just feels that there’s always so much more to be done to stay on top and then to learn. So, as the digital changes and grows and you’re trying to bring all that into the organisation, by the time you master something that’s changed and then you’re on to the next thing.
“If you think year to year it doesn’t feel like much has changed but if you look at 10 years everything’s changed.”
Jean has overseen much of this change during her time at RSM, where she faced challenges when she first became global CEO of the organisation, but also unified all RSM firms under the RSM International brand.
“When I took over we had several of our large firms leave. Our UK firm left and then our French firm left. Our German firm left. It was a big challenge and I was a young CEO. Stabilising that and then rebuilding after, I’m very proud of that, because it was a challenging time and we might not have survived.”
She is quick to acknowledge that it was a team effort, however: “It wasn’t just due to me, I’m not saying that, but I think being part of that is one of my biggest achievements.
“Then I would say another big achievement was the RSM International brand and getting that right, which is fundamental to our future. We had to do that and get that correct. I think last year with China and really looking at which firm was the right match for us in terms of our vision, strategy and what we want to focus on and really coming to understand the firm – I’m very proud of that.”
While the industry struggles with digital transformation, Jean is confident that the work RSM is doing has put the organisation in a good place in the future, and feels this work has also been one of her achievements during her time in the role.
“Now going forward, the digital innovation work is really setting us up for the future,” she says. With the wider group we have an advisory committee that looks at what this means fundamentally to us as an organisation going forward.
“I think is the next phase of development for us. That’s why RSM’s fantastic because there’s always something new to get your head around and to figure out so you have challenges and problem solving.
“In business today, and in life, if you’re not open to change and encouraging change and embracing that change then you’re not going to go very far with that and organisationally I think it’s the same.”
Want to read more? Don’t miss Part 1 and Part 2 of our interview.