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Jean Stephens: "We need to change the corporate mindset"

As part of our coverage for International Women’s Day, we look at the career paths of successful women, and ask what they think might hold women back in their careers

Jean Stephens, CEO of RSM

What is your current role and responsibilities?
I am the CEO of RSM. My primary responsibilities are to implement the organisational strategies for the growth and development of the network. I am also responsible for managing the functions of the RSM executive office, the RSM regions and the global technical committees and councils.

I am passionate about driving our future growth by exploring new opportunities and ways of working in order for our member firms to be in the absolute best position to provide consistently high quality services to their clients wherever they are in the world. My drive is to instil a common culture across RSM. Our clients require tailored services but our aim is to deliver these in a globally connected way.

Can you outline your career to date?
I graduated with a bachelor of science degree in sccounting from the University of Redlands in California. I was born and raised in California but I now consider myself hugely fortunate in having both US and UK citizenship.

My first role in accounting was with a local Californian firm where I qualified as a Certified Public Accountant in 1984 before going on to complete a master’s degree in finance.

Ten years later I moved to the Los Angeles office of RSM McGladrey, now the fifth largest firm of assurance, tax and consultancy in the US. It was there that I became interested in the wider world of global accountancy and decided that working 'internationally' was to be my focus.

In 1996, I moved to the United Kingdom to work in the executive office of RSM International. Here, I was exposed to the global perspective of accountancy and to the individual intricacies and variations between international markets. I was promoted to chief operating officer, a position I held for 3 years.

Then, in 2006, I became the network’s chief executive – and the first ever female CEO of a top ten global accounting network. 

What do you think are the biggest changes needed to encourage boardroom diversity?
We need to change elements of the corporate mindset. Yes programmes such as flexible hours and paid maternity leave are of benefit, and must of course continue, but we need to address the more foundational issues.

Variation of approach and opinion is key in boards being able to make fully informed decisions that will produce the best possible results for their staff and shareholders and, in our case, our 100 member firms around the world.

It is also a case of playing the long term game and looking beyond board level. Mentorships can play a key role in bringing talented women, and indeed all talented people, up through the ranks in higher numbers. As a client based business, based on quality and service, we can only be as good as our people; we must keep investing in our staff and ensure that we create a corporate environment in which anyone can reach partner, senior management and the board, on as level and meritocratic a playing field as possible. 

Do you agree with quotas to get more women into senior roles?
We have to find a way to drive change. There are lots of very capable and talented women in the world today. 60% of all university graduates are women but they seem to dissipate between college and senior management.

As a society, and as economies, I don’t think we can afford for such a large percentage of the population to not play a role in our businesses. There are of course a number of reasons for women not continuing with their careers, or reaching the top, but research has continually proven that gender balanced companies and boards are the most innovative and successful; we need that difference of opinion, of perspective and of approach.

Figures published this week show the percentage of women on FTSE 100 companies has dropped; we need to embrace the theme of this year’s IWD and gain momentum, not only in driving change but in sustaining it. I hear the arguments against quotas, and whilst not a perfect solution, we do need to take action and I believe that it is the best option available in the short term to drive the change we need. If anyone doubts the integrity of a woman’s position on the board of a company operating a quota system, let her do her job and be judged on her performance as a board member.

At the end of the day we need to stay focused on results; getting women onto boards is about strengthening companies, it is not about lessening quality for the sake of HR goals.  

Do you think it’s true that a lack of confidence holds women back from applying to more senior roles?
No, personally I don’t think that is the case at all. The women I have worked with, across different levels and across the world, tend to just get on with it. Advancing to a senior position and taking on that role means deciding whether or not you want the responsibility that comes with it. You just have to make that decision; there can be many reasons why some women would choose not to take this step, but I do not believe that confidence is one of them.

What would you recommend women do to compete for executive roles? Can specific training or courses aimed at women be useful?
There are three things that I would recommend: work hard, focus on results and find a strong mentor. Hard work always pays off, no matter what the business. Always focus on results, that’s why we’re here; if you concentrate on making your company and the team around you succeed then your own success will follow.

It has also, in my own experience, been extremely valuable to have a strong male mentor. They can help you navigate the corporate domain and teach you how to ensure your approach adds value in what is essentially still a man’s world. Our strengths lie in our differences; don’t change to fit in, work out how your perspective adds value to the company. 

What is the gender balance like across RSM?
At RSM, as with the profession in general, we are on our way but there is room for improvement. In parts of the world there is a very healthy gender ratio, due largely to cultural and historical factors. Eastern Europe is a notable example here – a number of our firms in this region have female managing and senior partners. In other regions we have certainly made inroads but there is some way to go.

I have been at RSM 17 years and whilst I am the only female CEO of a top ten accounting network there are some women holding leading positions in the profession across the world. Cindy Fornelli, executive director of the centre for audit quality, has featured in the Accounting Today 100 most influential people in the world rankings for the last six years, a list that in 2012 included 23 women.

There are some interesting and talented women coming through the ranks and I hope to see this percentage rise over the coming years.



JeanJean Stephens is CEO of RSM