Profile: Jean Stephens, RSM chief executive

Leaving the bosom of a close-knit family in sun-drenched California to make a
solo flight into the cold and wet winter of London may seem an odd move to many
who have been brought up in the UK’s capital city.

But it is just one of the sacrifices that Jean Stephens has made to advance
her career. She is now reaping the rewards of such hardships, having become one
of the most high-profile females in the profession as the first woman chief
executive of a top 10 global accounting network RSM International.

Stephens took over at RSM at the start of the year, having previously been
chief operating officer. She was eased into position, with the decision to take
over having been made in July last year. She has grand plans to expand and
enhance the network and, having worked her way up through the ranks, knows
exactly what she thinks needs to be done.

‘Our vision is to be the provider of choice to internationally active growing
companies, so my whole drive is to take us there,’ says Stephens. ‘But first
what we have to do is come to some agreement on how we will know if we’ve
arrived. What does it look like to be the provider of choice and what does that

Branding is also one of Stephens’ pet subjects – she has spent a good part of
the last three years exploring the issue. She speaks passionately about how to
go about building a global brand, especially when you are dealing with a network
of different firms and cultures.

‘It’s great to say what you are going to do, but then you need to implement
that within 70 different member firms around the world,’ she says. ‘How do you
do that and at the same time go to market with a common brand but indicate to
the market that you are independent firms, because of the liability issue?’

Stephens’ career as an accountant was set from an early age. After finishing
high school at 17, she went straight to the University of Redlands in California
to study the subject, primarily due to parental advice.

‘It was guidance from my mother, who told me that this looks like it might be
a good option in terms of career path,’ she says. A natural interest in
mathematics and the prospect of a lucrative career in a market buoyant with jobs
sealed the deal.

Following graduation, Stephens served her time auditing for two local
Californian firms, with clients in areas such as not for profit, co-operatives
and farming. She also set herself her first ambitious target: to obtain an MBA
and become a partner by 30. She achieved her goals with two months to spare,
graduating with a master’s degree from California State University, and making
partner in charge of the audit practice at Fleming, Reiss & Company in San

Following these milestones, Stephens made her first acquaintance with the RSM
brand, merging the audit practice of the firm into RSM McGladrey, and in turn
swapping a partnership at a local firm for the position of senior manager in a
national one.

Stephens says that she never had aspirations to join the Big Four, primarily
due to her perceptions of the big firm working environment. ‘Even coming out of
school I didn’t interview with them,’ she says. ‘I wanted to really work with
clients and be more hands-on in terms of helping them and from a management

She also admits that it meant that she could be closer to home. ‘Although I
was doing quite a significant amount of travel, it was more local travel and I
could spend more time with my family, who I was close to.’

But after two years, Stephens began to get itchy feet, so when a position
came up at the London office of RSM International, she jumped at the chance,
little realising the huge change it would make to her life.

‘I moved here, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know the partner that was here
at the time,’ she confesses. ‘I look back on it now and I wonder how I did it,
but at the time I just kind of got on with it.’

The first year in particular she highlights as being ‘very, very hard’,
singling out the cold weather as one of the things she found particularly hard.

Despite her initial struggles with the new role and the change of climate,
Stephens has settled in handsomely. She now calls London ‘the greatest city in
the world’ and has applied for UK citizenship.

At RSM International she carried on her steady climb up the corporate ladder,
being appointed as chief operating officer and making partner at her member firm
around the same time. Now she heads up the network, and while the RSM
International team is small – the executive office in London has just 10 staff –
she is ultimately responsible for a network of 23,000 people in 70 different
member firms operating in 85 countries around the world. Keeping a tight rein on
these firms, bringing new ones into the fold and ensuring that there is cohesion
between them is a large part of the network’s and Stephen’s task.

‘We work constantly with our member firms. They are very clear on what is
expected of them and what they are required to do as part of RSM International,
whether that’s audit methodologies, membership standards in terms of
development, or our size expectations of them in terms of their own presence
within their own market,’ say Stephens.

When in talks with prospective or current firms, RSM is very transparent
about what it wants, so firms will sometimes part company. ‘That’s okay, because
we need to have that synergy together,’ she says.

Questions remain over the future of international accounting networks and
whether such collections of firms will eventually operate more like a global
corporation. Stephens argues that there are still many issues to be resolved
before such a thing can happen – most critically the liability issue – but she
still believes it is something we will see happen in the future ‘as a natural

The subject is something that RSM International is discussing at the moment,
and if the opportunity arises for something to happen within Stephens’ fi
ve-year term, you can bet your bottom dollar she will do everything she can to
ensure it happens.

A man’s world

Having taken the top job at RSM, Stephens has broken through the notorious
glass ceiling. But she reckons that the gender barrier hasn’t gone away and
believes it will be another generation before it starts to be dismantled.

But while women fighting for progress may be admirable, Stephens believes it
is men that she has to thank for getting where she is now. ‘A lot of credit has
to go to the men, because we have different working styles and because the men
are the ones in numbers sitting around the table ­ they are the ones who have to
make an adjustment to a woman and a woman’s style.

‘I don’t really need support from women ­ I need support from men. With the
women, we are just talking about our own issues among ourselves. It is the men
who need to bring about that change.’

The perennial argument over why women still don’t make it to the top in large
numbers centres around changing priorities that mean men progress while women go
off and look after children. In this respect, Stephens still sees problems
ahead, admitting she doesn’t know how women balance a career and children.

‘I chose not to have children,’ says Stephens. ‘If I had wanted to have
children, it would have posed challenges. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now if I
had a young child, because I travel 60% of my time. None of us have it all ­ you
have to pick and choose, and I did.’

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