CEO Profile

Jean Stephens – Reflections on a transformative career

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.

After 18 years as CEO of 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, International Accounting Bulletin Editor-in Chief, speaks to her about her career journey and defining moments that have shaped her leadership style, helping to anchor and grow the network.

Zoya Malik (ZM): How do you reflect on your 28-year tenure at RSM, and of your 18 years as the organisation’s Chief Executive Officer?

Jean Stephens (JS): My overriding reflection of my time at RSM is that it has been an amazing professional journey - one that I have been very privileged to have embarked upon with the many exceptional leaders within the RSM global organisation. Throughout, I have worked alongside so many talented professionals around the world who have helped to build RSM to what it is today.

Over the years, within RSM, I have been supported by many colleagues who have become trusted friends. They are people who I have approached for honest and open feedback as well as for inspiration. I am appreciative of the mentors I have called upon, even in an informal way. They have all proved helpful throughout my career.

During my tenure, it is important to acknowledge the significant changes within the accounting profession. Working within a network environment is intellectually challenging and rewarding, especially during a period of high growth, change and transformation. Embracing the profession as one which never stands still has enabled me to continue to grow and develop – and to never be bored!

I also reflect on RSM and how it has evolved through a variety of different stages. Around the time I became RSM’s global CEO, the organisation was a collection of independent member firms with grander ambitions of working collectively. Realising and continuously developing those ambitions collectively has enabled RSM and our Firms to grow more closely together. This connectivity and global collaboration have enabled RSM to serve and support a significant increase in the number of growth-focused internationally active clients in a more harmonious way.

As we have reached key milestones, the RSM brand has evolved and it has been a pleasure to witness its ever-increasing maturity. Central to our achievements has been RSM working as an inclusive and highly connected global organisation, learning from each other to build our position of strength to create the experiences our clients and people need to thrive.

Over the last 18 years, our emphasis on harnessing our global strength, and our diverse and inclusive culture has enabled us to unite with a common purpose, and work to a clear vision. The result of this in action was the launch of RSM’s ambitious 2030 global strategy – Taking Charge of Change. This defines and encapsulates the next exciting step of RSM’s journey.

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

Jean Stephens at her graduation aged 20

ZM: Which of your achievements, and indeed RSM’s achievements, are you most proud of?

JS: RSM has grown exponentially over the last 18 years. I am particularly proud of the fact that at each stage of our continuous evolution, we have remained true to our organisation’s core values. We have focused on our people and being quality-driven and insights-led to deliver innovative solutions, lasting value and confidence to clients.

A hugely significant milestone was uniting so many firms around the world to operate under RSM as a single global brand in 2015. My sense of pride comes from RSM’s member firms' on-going commitment to developing the brand as a platform for success.

Our global financial results demonstrate the scale of our collective achievement. Since launching RSM as a global brand in 2015, we have grown from having a global headcount of 38,000, to calling upon 64,000 critical thinkers today. Through serving and supporting a greater number of global clients, RSM has doubled its combined revenues, having recorded US$4.6billion in 2015, compared to US$9.4billion in 2023.

I am proud of how RSM continues to support and develop our inclusive culture and talent experience. I reflect in particular on the introduction of the annual RSM Academy programme, which first started in 2007.

The programme has worked to identify the brightest and best of RSM’s talent around the world to develop them as future leaders and support their growth in three ways; 1) as individuals, 2) in skills and know-how and 3) in client engagement and success. The insights from RSM Academy have deepened their expert knowledge, widened their business network, and grown their personal, commercial and inter-cultural skills.

A culture of inclusion remains absolutely crucial to our 2030 global strategy. I am proud that more than 30 of our firms have signed the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles, which work to advance gender equality in the workplace, marketplace and community.

Reflecting on my own career, I have never seen myself as a pioneer or even a female role-model, I have always regarded myself first and foremost as a professional.

Having more women in leadership positions is a journey, and our profession still has a long way to go in this regard to breaking the gender bias that persists. If I have contributed to that journey in any way by being RSM’s CEO, then that would make me proud.

ZM: What do you believe have been the defining challenges the organisation has faced over the past 18 years?

JS: As a global organisation, with the diversity of culture across 120 countries, bringing people together to drive forward new ideas and initiatives for the benefit of all will always be a challenge. The key to overcoming this is understanding and scoping true collaboration to ensure engagements and interactions

with people move beyond mere cooperation. The ability to collaborate effectively leads us to proactively forging the insight and solutions we provide to clients as one global team.

There have been a number of external challenges RSM and indeed our middle market client base have faced. Right at the very start of my tenure, there was the Global Financial Crisis with the resulting economic volatility, which underlined the need for rigorous accounting and reporting to support clients. It was, for a long-time, the most significant headwind our organisation and middle market businesses had faced and signified a changing world.

The Covid pandemic was another defining challenge. To ensure Member Firms were feeling connected and supported during a rapidly shifting and hugely unpredictable period of time, I commenced a weekly communication to share the latest news, updates and best practice. I was proud of how RSM handled the impact of the Covid pandemic. We organised ourselves and rallied people very quickly to set out how we would move forward. Even in the midst of the pandemic, RSM developed a nine-month programme of work where more than 100 leaders came together virtually and marked the start of evolving our strategy. We ultimately emerged stronger from the pandemic through having demonstrated our resilience and working collaboratively as we looked forward.

An ongoing challenge for RSM, which I also consider to be an opportunity, is adapting to the scale of limitless and fast-moving digital development within professional services to support our clients.

Our focus has been on championing and embracing the innovation required to develop and deliver future-focused, compelling solutions to respond to challenges, such as disruptive technology and data security. The rate of advancement of new technologies means adaption is never quick enough.

ZM: How has your style of leadership changed over your career – what has informed those expectations and what are enduring factors that have sustained your drive and commitment to the profession and a work ethic?

JS: Over the course of my career, my core values have remained unchanged. My style of leadership has evolved completely from 2006. Had it not evolved, there is no way I would still have been CEO at RSM 18 years later. My background is in audit, with my training and experience having served me very well in my leadership journey.

I have been privileged to have had supportive board members and leaders within the RSM world who have supported my own development, enabling me to grow as a leader.

Leadership and learning go hand in hand. The energy and ideas that come from interacting with each new generation always surprises and never disappoints. I am proud to have had the opportunity to develop through listening and learning, adapting my leadership based on feedback from people around approaches which have worked and ones which have not.

I have always been a detail-orientated and hands-on leader, yet my style of leadership has evolved and adapted as RSM has developed, mainly through having worked with an expanded team and subject matter experts. My drive in this regard has been to do everything I can to support people with their area of expertise to contribute to the development of RSM.

My journey has been one of evolution, as I have learned that as a leader you do not need to possess all of the answers. I initially applied pressure on myself to be an all-knowing leader, and this was of course very limiting – and frustrating. I have become more comfortable at seeking out the advice from the experts within our organisation and letting people do what they do. In turn, I can then understand where I can provide my direction and support.

Overall, having a clear sense of self has been critical in my development as a leader. Understanding my values, my strengths and weaknesses has, I believe, enabled me to build trusting relationships. Doing so has given me better knowledge to make decisions, to build confidence within the teams I lead and ultimately to contribute to our organisation’s results

Jean Stephens being presented with Alumni of the Year at California State University, San Bernardino in 2005

How H&T’s attestation process works with Chainlink for stablecoins to ensure not too many are minted. Credit: Harris & Trotter”

ZM: RSM’s growth has been sustained over a number of years, what has driven the organisation’s strong performance?

JS: RSM’s development as a global unified brand was the initial catalyst of its growth. Our subsequent development comes through our people working ever more collaboratively over a long period of time to better serve clients across borders.

Member firms growing locally, doing so in harmony with RSM’s global vision year-over-year, has ultimately driven our strong performance. It has enabled us to build trust, continuity and drive a maturity of our systems, launch innovation programmes and initiate new services - all of which have contributed to our strong growth and being leaders in the middle market by supporting the entrepreneurial, ambitious businesses operating within it.

Sustaining our growth comes through placing great emphasis on our people, who build strong relationships with clients based on deep understanding, and delivering innovative solutions which provide lasting value and confidence. Being a rich tapestry of cultures is something that our clients and people really value

ZM: The organisation has recently reported double-digit increases in revenue, how confident are you that RSM can continue on its current growth trajectory?

JS: I am confident that our growth trajectory will continue through the work of our ambitious people around the world who are ready to realise the next step in our evolution and as our brand continues to mature.

Our global structures and central framework will need to continue to evolve in order to achieve our growth vision and provide increased value to our member firms and clients. Our emphasis will remain on developing an even greater number of common methodologies; accelerating our expansion into new markets through strategic mergers and acquisitions; and building and managing a sophisticated IT and data infrastructure to help us meet the organisation’s transformative ambitions.

RSM is well positioned in all of our key markets, and moving forward, the organisation continues to build upon its position of strength. RSM is built on strong foundations, with great people – this will not change - and therefore our growth and development will also continue.

ZM: How are you working with the RSM Board to support the transition and handover to the incoming CEO?

JS: The process has been undertaken to find RSM’s next CEO. The International Board is leading the process and I will continue to fully support the process and the transition as we move forward. To support an effective transition, the focus is on ensuring the new CEO can benefit from continuity in terms of RSM’s 2030 strategy and long-term growth plans. I also welcome the emphasis we are placing on the new CEO being able to set out their own blueprint and vision for the next exciting phase of RSM’s journey.

ZM: What are your onward plans when you step down in May 2024?

JS: I have agreed to a transition plan which will see me support RSM by serving as a senior advisor, with a focus on member matters and development. My experience working within RSM has given me a unique exposure to global business, and I would like to use my skills and experience to add value to RSM and other organisations, wherever it makes sense.

Main image: Jean Stephens, CEO, RSM International