CEO Profile

RSM’s DNA forged by Jean Stephens

After 18 years as CEO, RSM International, Jean Stephens will be stepping down from the role in May 2024. Having embedded the foundations for the organisation’s ambitious and transformative 2030 Global Strategy, Stephens has initiated a formal succession and transition process. As a career professional and female CEO, Stephens has been a role model for women in leadership positions across the profession. In a two -part series, Zoya Malik, Editor-in Chief, International Accounting Bulletin speaks to her about her career journey and defining moments to shape her leadership style to anchor and grow the network.

In the second of a two-part interview, RSM International CEO, Jean Stephens, speaks to IAB Editor-in-Chief, Zoya Malik, about her views on current technology trends, private equity funding, and new career development pathways for professionals. Stephens may be stepping down from an illustrious 18-year career at RSM International, however her legacy as the first female to head an international network, and her efforts in strengthening its inclusive ideals over the decades, marks an exemplary era of leadership.

Zoya Malik (ZM): How do you see the accounting profession evolving, particularly in the context of advances in technology and the increased focus on generative artificial intelligence?

Jean Stephens (JS): The accounting profession’s adoption of generative artificial intelligence (Generative AI) is integral to the new and transformative business age we have entered. AI is one of the many advanced technologies which enable professional services to use and mine a significant amount of data to deliver valuable insights to help businesses operate with confidence in this new age.

Our profession has already seen AI support accountants through its use for statistical modelling purposes, and to look for patterns in historic data to support accountants’ professional judgements.

What characterises the latest technological evolution is that Generative AI is increasingly being deployed to analyse large data sets. For example, the scope of Generative AI sees it support accountants in data and document-intensive processes, such as in an audit. From a Consulting point of view, AI has almost limitless capabilities to enhance digital transformation, cyber security and inform strategic decision making.

Dr. Karim Mansour, Director and Chief Trainer, Tadawul Academy

ZM: As you have seen the profession evolve, what in particular do you think is driving the present talent shortage in this industry; and how can networks and professionals challenge misconceptions about the profession?

JS: The challenges posed by the present talent shortage are having a profound impact on professional services. Our industry is seeing a decline in the numbers of people entering it, and this in turn is creating a skills shortage.

New generations of young professionals are looking for flexibility and opportunities in their careers, along with global mobility. Accounting offers that and so much more. When I graduated from the University of Redlands in California, I was hopeful that a qualification in accounting would lead to vast and stable career options. Qualifying and focusing on audit opened new opportunities to see the world, work with smart people and talented professionals from different cultures and become a business leader within a growing, global organisation.

In a hyperconnected digital business environment in the context of an increasingly challenging regulatory landscape, accounting has never been more varied and interesting. With businesses facing ongoing economic volatility, it is a time where accountants can demonstrate they are forward-thinking individuals who leverage technology, possess strong analytical skills, and play a crucial role in driving business success.

RSM and its member firms around the globe are working to position accounting as an exciting, modern, data-driven profession to as wide a talent pool as possible, including to entry level professionals with degrees outside of accounting and to experienced professionals returning to our profession. We also strive to deliver an unrivalled, inclusive culture and talent experience with a focus on being caring, curious, collaborative, courageous, critical thinkers (what we call the RSM DNA). RSM member firms are seeing strong results attracting high-quality talent in a competitive environment as a result.

Speaking at an RSM regional council meeting

ZM: What do you see as the future career trends for accountants entering the profession and what are the key skillsets that will be needed to meet market demands?

JS: Reflecting on the experience I gained through the accounting profession, I first think about the valuable skills I acquired early on in my career as I trained to become an auditor. These are skills that have served me well throughout my career and are something I use every day. The most valuable skill for me, without question, has been critical thinking.

In the accountancy profession, critical thinking is essential in helping businesses identify risks and anomalies. This will undoubtedly remain a key component of an auditor’s skillset, even in the digital age. However, audit finds itself on the cusp of an exciting new era – one which challenges the auditor to assess not only whether a business is operating effectively, but also whether it is operating with social fairness, and acknowledging its responsibility towards sustainable practices.

A key driver of the evolving skillset candidates require in our industry is the rate at which opportunities from advanced technology are meeting challenges from new non-financial reporting requirements. We are witnessing this fusion drive a seismic shift in the way businesses operate, and the skills accountants are required to hone as they respond to change.

The accounting industry is therefore casting its net wide to recruit young entrants and experts who can leverage insights from advanced technologies such as generative AI and data analytics to help organisations excel, and enable data driven strategies to make informed decisions on business growth or operational efficiency.

2024 is the year of non-financial reporting in a landscape in which professionals are going to be further challenged to lean into complexity, as they will now be required to capture and interpret a company’s performance beyond traditional financial metrics. Future accountants will need to draw upon a breadth of skills to effectively piece together an organisation’s environmental impact, social responsibility and governance practices.

This heralds an exciting new era for those seeking to join our industry. Moreover, those still working in the industry and building their skillsets will need to combine their depth of experience and expertise with continuous training to stay abreast of evolving regulations and emerging technologies.

ZM: What pathways are being created to ensure greater diversity and equality and how do these fit with the career aspirations of a new generation of accountants?

JS: Accountants are supporting businesses to bring their corporate purpose to life through environmental, social and governance (ESG) related considerations, all of which are being driven by a sea of regulatory change that must be navigated.

The next generation of accountants are increasingly seeking employers who are aligned with their values, especially when it comes to capturing the social element in ESG. It is therefore incumbent upon accounting leaders to maximise the industry’s appeal through emphasising its social consciousness. This is being achieved through a number of pathways and practices.

Generally, professional service firms are implementing hiring practices to attract diverse talent from under-represented groups and backgrounds. Inspiring diverse professionals to join the accounting profession helps with the talent shortage and is also important to meet the expectations of the growing number of people who want to work in a diverse environment.

We have all seen the evolution of flexible working patterns, which notably accelerated during and after the pandemic. Job-sharing programmes and other forms of flexibility are now more commonplace, which, in part, accommodates the preferences and needs of a new generation who are prioritising a work-life balance during their careers.

The new generation of accountants, and even experienced professionals, now expect their employers to demonstrate diversity, inclusivity and sustainable business practices. RSM is rising to meet this challenge.

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ZM: In terms of ownership structures of partnerships, what do you see the future holding in light of increasing levels of private equity investment in firms?

JS: Investment into our industry has always been cyclical and has been driven by investors seeking stable returns. I am sceptical as to its long-term, wider impact on ownership structures of partnerships, as I still believe people are coming into the profession seeking to have a career, a direction and be business owners.

In recent years, the accounting profession has witnessed tech disruptors which have emerged with digital cloud-based platforms, rapidly developing new products and solutions which serve as direct competitors to the established practices. Consequently, tech-enabled accountancy partnerships have rapidly responded and are forming at scale. This is catching the interest of the investors.

It is easy to see why alternative sources of capital are keeping a close eye on accountancy with the combination of stable cash flows from a compliance-driven industry, matched with the growth potential of technology-enabled services. Our industry offers both scalability and resilience during economic fluctuations.

One thing that is certain is that in the near future and beyond, our industry will continue to evolve and see business models transformed. These changes will be heavily influenced and impacted by changes in market forces, in legislation and in technology, but what will not change is the importance of people. Clients want to be served by people they trust and in whom they have confidence to help them navigate the turbulent waters of business.

ZM: Your appointment in January 2006 saw you become the first female to lead a top 10 global accountancy network. What do you believe our industry can do to ensure there is greater female representation at senior leadership level?

JS: Female and diverse representation at the leadership level is a key driver of business success. It improves board effectiveness, leads to better discussions and stronger outcomes - all of which contributes towards making firms more competitive.

The culture of RSM is one that encourages and supports female representation in senior leadership positions. I am proud of the fact that our organisation has built an active RSM Women in Leadership Community made up of more than 2,000 professionals. It has been set up to encourage and support RSM women around the world, from new joiner to partner, as they progress through their careers and lead from where they are.

All of us in the industry have a job to do to ensure that environments are collaborative and supportive of the drive for greater female representation at senior leadership. Crucially, it is all of us, women and men, who have a role to play as allies in this mission. To drive and sustain change, our industry needs to continue to take increased positive action which enables women’s participation, development and recognition within the workforce. Whether it is through introducing returner programmes for women who have been out of the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities, or career transition programmes for women, there are levers that organisations can pull to support women’s progress on their potential pathways into senior leadership.

Mentorships can also play a key role in bringing talented women up through the ranks in higher numbers. A female mentor can serve as a role model, and provide crucial guidance, support and insights that can accelerate other women to develop their careers.

It is also, in my own experience, extremely valuable for women to have strong male mentors. These mentors can help women navigate the corporate domain, advising on how to ensure their approach always adds value in what is essentially a male-dominated industry. Our strengths lie in our differences – not changing to fit in, but rather sharing our unique and valued perspectives to add value to the business.

There are many very capable and talented women in the world today. I have been CEO at RSM for 18 years, and for much of that time I was the only female CEO of a top ten accounting network. I think this demonstrates we can do more to fully leverage the talent in over half of our workforce – and I hope we can pick up the pace with regard to how we embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. The organisations and businesses that get this right will have the competitive advantage that leads them to greater success.

ZM: In a profession that has historically involved people working their way up to Partner, what effect do you think ‘job-hopping’ will have on people’s ability to ‘make partner’ and on the partnership model more widely?

JS: Breadth of experience is something our profession should embrace. A great advantage we have, particularly in the context of a global organisation, is to be adaptable and to provide our people with varied experiences, new challenges and different working environments to support their own personal development.

Being a global organisation enables us to offer a diverse range of opportunities and experiences and develop a vision where our talent feels energised to grow both personally and professionally.

The profession should be comfortable in allowing candidates to benefit from gaining experiences in different sectors, areas of an organisation, or even in a different country. Across the audit, assurance, tax and consulting service lines RSM firms offer, professionals can try almost anything — all whilst remaining with our organisation.

It is up to us to design a system that accommodates changes in the working patterns of current and future candidates, be they personally or professionally driven. Some RSM members develop part-time Partners and allow people to leave and then return and pick up their pathway to Partner.

It is also important to recognise that not every professional wants to become a Partner and that people who do may have varied timetables to reach their goal. Some may enter the profession young; some may want to experience different things before they embark on their pathway to Partner; and others may enter the profession later. Individuals can also have a successful career while choosing not to seek promotion opportunities within an organisation, as it suits their life choices. Many people in our profession, who have occupied long-standing positions within their firms, add great value to clients through successfully mastering and performing in a role over a long period of time.

The key principle is developing the right culture and providing a great experience for people to help them work their way up through the profession.

Main image: Jean Stephens, CEO, RSM International