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FOCUS: Leading in an International Career

Jean Stephens is CEO of RSM – a global network of independent audit, tax and consulting firms with offices in 120 countries. Jean was born and studied in the US and is a certified public accountant with a Master’s in Finance. She shares her journey with us

My journey as CEO – and without a doubt the turning point in my career – began when I accepted a secondment offer from my firm in California in the US to the RSM head office in the UK. This was a step backwards for me career wise, as I was going from being a partner in a major national firm in the US to a manager in small office in London, but it was a personal objective of mine to travel and see more of the world – and it turned out to be well worth it as it was the start of my international career.

In the UK, I began working for the CEO at the time and when his tenure finished at the end of 2005, I was invited to be CEO. I’ve never looked back since and I am very proud now, after living in the UK for over 20 years, to be a British citizen. Back then, RSM was quite a different thing to what it is today. The network had firms in 78 countries with a workforce of around 30 000. Now, RSM is in 120 countries with 41 400 staff.

A major highlight for me has been watching this evolvement – yes, we have more offices and people, but what is important is that we are also a much more sophisticated organisation as well. Our clients are increasingly global and they want to work with global advisers. RSM firms are independently owned and managed (just like all other networks) and so the challenge is for our leaders to put the needs of the whole network above those of their own firm – and, when you get almost 100 firms around the world doing this, you get the cohesion, trust and loyalty that is required to serve clients at the highest level and across all borders.

Seek out your passion

My advice to women who want a career in accounting is to be focused, determined and prepared to work hard. The profession can be very rewarding if you put in the effort. I would also encourage those joining the profession to seek out that something extra – an added dimension that can become a continual focus of your career. For me, that passion was working internationally. I knew from an early age that I wanted to travel and experience the world, embrace and learn about cultures and traditions; intricacies and nuances of business etiquette. And, I am still doing this now – over 30 years later I spend 70% of my time abroad and the new things I learn never cease to amaze me.

Since I began my career in accounting, the conversation surrounding women in leadership positions has not changed and this is an issue not just for the accounting industry but for business worldwide. Although within accounting we have made marked progress worldwide, as the first female CEO of a Top Ten global accounting network, I am conscious that there is still much to be done to ensure that those at all levels of our profession, but particularly at the top, are adequately supported throughout their careers.

The business world in general has seen progression, but there is still far to go. For example, in Africa only 5% of CEOs are women and in South Africa specifically, nearly 40% of businesses have no women in leadership positions whatsoever. Though business leaders need to act on this, I do think that women can try and help themselves more by being more creative and assertive with their companies and senior management in asking for what they need and taking the initiative to create the change necessary for them.

Use your life experience

The most important lesson that life has taught me is learning to fail. One of my earliest experiences of this was at university when I had to give a presentation. Public speaking can be very daunting if you have not done it before, but I was determined to overcome the nervousness and deliver my presentation as well as I could. I prepared and practised over and over but when the day came, I froze. When the class left, I was stuck to the spot in tears. I hadn’t uttered a word of my presentation.

This was the first time I’d had to really confront a weakness and I realised that I had a choice. I could either face the challenge head on or avoid public speaking for the rest of my life. I didn’t want my life to be shaped by something I couldn’t do, so I threw myself at any opportunity to get up in front of people; I joined charities and clubs and practised speaking publicly whenever I could.

What I didn’t realise then, was that I had learnt to fail. In the business world, you are confronted by failure every day. There is always room for improvement. Success in business is about being able to understand why you failed, identifying how to fix it, and not beating yourself up over it.

Apart from learning how to react to failure, I have also learned to appreciate the journey, and specifically the people that I have met along the way. I believe that mentorship is absolutely critical. But, it doesn’t just show up, you have to seek it based on your needs. I have had both male and female mentors during my career, with very different skills and experiences, but each of whom has in their own way guided me along my path and helped my personal and professional development. I will always seek the advice and tutorage of the exceptional people I encounter in my life.

Find what works for you

I am lucky that I have found a work/life balance that works for me and I try to inspire other women to do the same. Everybody’s circumstances are different and there are always obstacles to overcome but if you know the goals you want to achieve and are encouraged and empowered to reach them, I believe, that everyone can have a happy and contented personal life that is fuelled by a successful and satisfying career.