With 93 member and correspondent firms and more than 30,000 total staff in 76 countries, RSM International is the sixth largest global network of independent accounting and other professional services firms. One force helping unify that constellation of laws, languages and cultures is Jean M. Stephens, a CPA who originally built an audit practice in her native Southern California. Now based in London, she travels the world’s continents as leader of RSM International, working with the members on the accounting firm network’s global reach and client services. As such, she is also a pioneer, the first and so far only female CEO of a top 10 global accounting network. She had recently returned to London from RSM International’s annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., when she took time with the JofA to reflect on her journey so far and accounting with an international outlook.
JofA: Would you tell us about your career path and how you got where you are today?
Stephens: I graduated from the University of Redlands when I was 20 years old, and immediately started working at an accounting firm in my hometown of San Bernardino, Calif. At the same time, I completed a master’s degree in finance from California State University, San Bernardino. After working in audit for over 10 years, I became a partner in the local firm and later merged into McGladrey & Pullen LLP. Then, in 1996 a position opened up in London at the executive office of their international network, RSM International. At the time it meant a step backwards. I had gone from a partner of a local firm to a senior manager within the national firm of McGladrey & Pullen, to potentially a manager position in London. Having always dreamt of living abroad for a period, and the timing being right in my life, I said, “Let’s do it.” Originally, my plan was to stay for two years and then go back and continue my auditing career. However, during that time, RSM International grew and developed at a rapid rate. McGladrey & Pullen made me a partner in 2001. In 2002 I became chief operating officer of RSM, and in 2006 the International board of directors asked me to be CEO. It was a bigger opportunity than I’d imagined; however, I had spent 10 years in London recruiting and working with the member firms, and so they knew me and my style of working very well.
JofA: What does your experience say about prospects for women leading large and mid-tier CPA firms and associations and networks?
Stephens: I think for women this is an absolutely great career with endless opportunities. Since I entered the profession, the attitudes have changed with the times, and we no longer have the up-and-out mentality. There are careers for people who choose not to become partners and continued support for women and the paths they choose to take, particularly when it comes to family.
JofA: How has the worldwide economic crisis affected RSM International and its member firms?
Stephens: Certainly, everyone is feeling these challenging times, including our members and their clients. One element, on a practical level, is if our clients are having trouble, then they’re going to reach out to their advisers to work with them on coming up with solutions. It is a much more competitive environment than it has been before, and in this environment, having a strong international organization you can draw from is absolutely critical to being competitive and successful.
JofA: Who has been an important influence on you?
Stephens: I’d have to say my parents, particularly my mother, because I just cannot remember a time of ever thinking that something wasn’t possible. It just didn’t enter my frame of reference. Professionally, I would say the community organizations I was active in when I lived in San Bernardino. They were a great training ground for leadership and management skills and really helped me in terms of working with all different types of people and learning how you get things done efficiently and effectively.
JofA: What do you do as a hobby?
Stephens: I think London is the greatest city in the world, in terms of the art and culture available here. I enjoy the theater, I’m a big fan of art and alternative music, and I have dreams of getting into photography.
JofA: Could you identify a couple of challenges that RSM International faces in the near term and how you’re addressing them?
Stephens: As a member organization, one of our challenges is ensuring that everything we do collectively is serving our members in their own growth and development, and contributes to the development of the profession in terms of quality standards and harmonization. Building trust amongst our partners worldwide is critical and is something we continually think about and work on. Our professionals must trust each other to be able to say to their clients with confidence, that, yes, we can serve you in India, or we can serve you in China, we can serve you in Australia, we can serve you in Thailand, Singapore, in the U.K., etc. Building that trust and cooperation is a focus for all our activities including our training program and all of our meetings. We have a leadership development program, the RSM Academy, once a year that is a weeklong, intensive training program on international issues. The knowledge our professionals take away from this program is very important, but the networking is equally as important because it builds that trust.
JofA: What about others who might be thinking about overseas assignments and just like the sound of it, but what should they know?
Stephens: My advice to anybody who asks me is absolutely just do it. Just to get out there and take whatever opportunity is there. Because like me, you never know what’s going to happen and what doors are going to open through that process. But probably, more fundamentally, they will learn about themselves, and they will gain experiences of the world. If they end up going back, as most do, they will have a different point of view and a more open view that will make them more successful in their own career. And I personally think dealing with the different cultures, dealing with different people, different viewpoints, different approaches to issues is very, very fascinating. I’m a big, big proponent for our young people getting out there and having all these experiences. The opportunities are there. They just have to go find them.
Editor’s Note: “Corner Office Conversations” is an occasional series of personal talks with high-level leaders in accounting and finance.