RSM's CEO Jean Stephens on diversity and inclusion

05 October 2020 7 min. read

When Jean Stephens was named CEO of RSM International in 2006, she became the first female to lead a top 10 global accounting heritage professional services firm. Fourteen years in the role, Stephens has become one of the most respected executives in the industry. In discussion with Cat Callen from Rees Draper Wright, Stephens reflects on the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Jean, how would you describe your leadership style?

It is a challenge for me to identify one specific leadership style. The reality is that in order to be effective I find I need to adapt and respond depending on the situation or the needs of the business and/or people while staying focused on our vision, mission and values. As the CEO of a global organisation, working cultures vary, and therefore the way in which I interact with people and build relationships need to change accordingly in order to be most effective in communication and collaboration.

Universally though, it is important that I am always consistent with our vision, being clear and ambitious while empowering our people to achieve it – embedding a common purpose within our teams globally. This means ensuring as an organisation we try new things, we proactively encourage innovation, we ensure clear and honest communications while being transparent and holding each other to account.

Jean Stephens, CEO, RSM International

As a leader, I of course have the responsibility to drive change and growth, and I fully recognise I can only be successful through collaborating with our leaders toward our agreed common goals.

For a successful diverse workplace, an inclusive environment is crucial, what advice can you share on creating this?

As an international network of over 43,000 people across more than 120 countries, RSM is a rich tapestry of cultures, which is something that our clients and people really value. Inclusivity is therefore critical in taking advantage of the varied insights and solutions that come about through having such a diverse workforce. All too often, there is a tendency to focus on a single aspect of diversity or inclusivity, such as gender, ethnicity, religion, or age.

Understanding that inclusivity means ‘everyone’ is fundamental to building an environment that not only celebrates but utilises the differences between us. This, combined with a purposeful approach to diversity and the benefits a diverse team brings, helps to drive RSM’s inclusive approach to our global business.

A first step to being successful with this is to be clear on what we stand for, and the behaviours that uphold our purpose. Our brand promise is to deliver The Power of Being Understood, and we have clear beliefs that underpin this promise based on understanding. We have also taken steps to bring the brand to life in our actions by identifying the behaviours that are critical to us delivering on our brand promise. Importantly, this is not being done as an isolated corporate top-down message – we are building them into the RSM DNA of how we work – from our global strategy through to every internal and client engagement.

We have also found that driving a people-first strategy can help to focus efforts primarily on the needs of our teams – helping to keep them engaged through building an inclusive culture while retaining and attracting talent. Creating inclusive and diverse communities, committees, and internal development programmes which invest in your people can have a powerful and long-term positive impact for the individuals themselves and for the organisation.

At RSM, we have introduced several initiatives including the RSM Academy, Next Generation Leaders and Forward Sprint programmes which are specifically designed to nurture young talent and fresh thinking with an emphasis on every voice and idea being heard. Beyond hearing, it is even more important to listen. It is only then, that we can truly understand.

Collaboration is so important for diverse thinking to thrive. What advice would you give others in leading a successful virtual and remote workplace?

We are fortunate to be living in a digital age, which has enabled us to work remotely during the pandemic. While it is easy to focus on the digital solutions such as collaboration tools like Zoom or Teams that help us get on with the task at hand, of higher value is doing all we can to provide a psychologically safe environment and being intentional with maintaining a sense of community.

From a business perspective, developing a framework for working, implementing regular all office meetings, team meetings and as appropriate daily meetings can help to reduce feelings of isolation. A regular stream of communications and being responsive in providing feedback can go a long way to helping our people feel that sense of community.

It is also worth acknowledging the value we find in having ‘time-out’ and informal moments with our teams, whether it is through having lunch together on Zoom, an all office quiz or after-work drinks on a Friday. I am hearing stories every day from our professionals around the globe of the creative ways they are staying connected. At RSM’s Global Executive Office, we have had stay-at-home pizza parties together on Zoom, quizzes, played charades and ‘book bingo’ – they have all been great fun and these moments bring us closer together.

“Creating inclusive and diverse communities can have a powerful and long-term positive impact.”

What diverse opportunities or initiatives have been created or put in place at RSM over the past few months?

While the past few months have been disruptive, they have also been a catalyst for innovation and change in RSM. An increase in competencies and advances in technologies around virtual meetings and conferences has allowed our programmes and events to be much wider-reaching and inclusive. For instance, we hold Regional Conferences each year in Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and MENA. This year we held them virtually, and with travel costs and travel time removed as barriers, we had unprecedented attendance at each event.

We have also created new programmes and initiatives designed to engage our people based on an agile approach and design thinking. An exciting new initiative is currently underway in Europe, in which ‘Forward Thinkers’ are taking part in The Forward Sprint – a month-long series of workshops designed to identify challenges and create solutions for our clients and RSM. End-to-end, we are engaging with 45 of the youngest members of the RSM family who were chosen by their Managing Partners for their curiosity and passion to represent their firm.

Leaders take guidance, insights and inspiration from different sources; where do you go for yours?

Of course, I have a number of trusted friends within RSM that I have known for many years that I can approach for honest and open feedback, as well as for inspiration. I have also found it helpful throughout my career to have mentors, even in an informal way. Finally, there is enormous value in listening to the up and coming leaders. The energy and ideas that come from interacting with each new generation always surprises and never disappoints me.

As a leader, I recognise that we never stop learning – as John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

About Jean Stephens and Cat Callen
Jean Stephens joined RSM – the sixth largest network of accounting heritage professional services firms – in 1996, and has been the CEO of RSM International since January 2006. As CEO, her responsibilities include the implementation of organisational strategies for the growth and development of the network. Originally from California, Jean is based in London.

Cat Callen is an Associate Partner at Rees Draper Wright, a specialist executive search and interim management firm focused on the advisory market. Cat is based in the firm’s London office and is passionate about diversity and inclusivity within her marketplace and, in particular, women in leadership.