Smashing the glass ceiling: Jean Stephens

Going beyond even her own wildest dreams, Jean Stephens has been at the helm of a global network of audit, tax and advisory firms that has more than doubled while in her hands. So what does the first female CEO of RSM International think of women reaching the top?
By Beatrice Thomas
Sat 14 Jun 2014 01:36 AM

It started as a two-year post. Having risen to the position of managing director of an audit firm in her native US, Jean Stephens was looking to do that thing that so many seek out: a stint living abroad.

She applied and was successful in securing a position with RSM International in London. That was 18 years ago.

Today, as CEO of RSM, a position she has held for the past eight years, she heads up a global network of independent audit, tax and advisory firms that in 2013 generated a total fee income of $3.7bn from 700 offices in 106 countries, with 32,000 staff.

Under her watch, the company has grown by 120 percent through acquisition and organic growth to become the seventh-biggest global network of independent professional services firms. She still lives in London, but now spends about 70 percent of her year travelling the world.

“I actually think you get lucky in life and there’s nothing wrong with that — being at the right place at the right time,” Stephens tells Arabian Business in a sit-down interview while recently in Dubai for the company’s MENA regional conference. “That’s natural and then when the opportunities present themselves you have a choice: either you go for it or you don’t.”

But how is it that Stephens, who became the first female CEO of RSM and of a top ten international accounting network when she took on the role after previously serving as chief operating officer, has reached the top when so many women do not?

According to a recent study by management consulting firm Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company), while 332 of the 2,500 biggest publicly traded companies globally brought in a new executive officer in 2013, just ten of those positions were filled by women.

Despite more women entering higher education and the global workforce, the study noted that in the past 10 years, just 84 women have taken over the lead role at the world’s largest firms, compared with 2,942 men.

And Grant Thornton suggests in its International Business Report 2013, that women, who make up an estimated 35 percent of the global workforce, hold 24 percent of senior management roles globally — although a three-point increase over the previous year — while the proportion of businesses employing women as CEOs has risen from 9 percent to 14 percent.

In the UAE, however, one of the 45 countries Grant Thornton analysed, the figures are much lower, with the number of women in senior management only about 14 percent.

Stephens, a certified public accountant with a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting and a master’s degree in finance, has her views on the topic. While admitting there is no “one answer” and claiming that as someone who does not have children she is no expert, she does believe the desire to have a family naturally plays a role in a woman’s career,

as does cultural expectations in many societies where men are still viewed as bread winners.

However, Stephens, who was appointed CEO after her predecessor and mentor, M Sabry Heakal, resigned (he is still chairman of RSM’s The Advisors network), is also a big believer in women “stepping up” and, in her words, demanding from their bosses “this is what I need”, while developing expectations and solutions that work for both. From an employer perspective it requires what she describes as “tone at the top”.

“Use of that diversity and approach to issues and challenges is better for companies, so having that mix is critical to success,” she says. “For me it’s not about getting the percentages 50-50; it’s about the business result. You’re going to be a stronger business when you have different views.”

From the recent figures, there is no doubt RSM, which marks 50 years as a company in 2014, is going strong. After a sluggish few years as a result of the global financial crisis — Stephens says auditing is usually one of the first things sacrificed as companies look to cut costs — the firm grew globally by 5 percent “like for like” between 2012 and 2013. In the Middle East — RSM now has a presence in 14 countries — the numbers were down by 4 percent, though in a sign of a turnaround the UAE has been a particular hot spot, recording a 12 percent increase in business in the past six months.

Two years after her last visit to the region, Stephens says she can “feel the difference”. She hopes that over the next 12 months that translates to “deals being done” and companies “moving and investing”.

It’s just a matter of how that growth is managed to avoid a repeat of scenarios such as Dubai’s spectacular property market crash, which saw prices tumble by up to 60 percent.

“In this day and age it’s ever-more global and globally connected, so even if firms, which is natural, are mostly locally focused, those companies’ clients, if they’re not already internationally active are thinking about it,” she says.

“Being part of a strong, dynamic, international organisation with a strong brand is critical to success. We’re always on a journey of supporting our members in their development [and] in their growth, providing whatever tools we can to help them in that, as well as have the members share their best practices with each other.”

While Stephens talks about cutbacks to auditing, and by extension accountability measures, during the global financial crisis, she says consistency and transparency in financial reporting is needed across the world. In the Middle East the topic was front and centre at a recent Arabian Business Forum panel discussion amid debate over the robustness of accountability practices in the region.

“The more that can be disclosed for the good of stakeholders, the better, and we very much support that,” Stephens says. “Whether that’s done here or not, I don’t know, but I do know on the international agenda it’s very high, everyone is very aware of it and we as an international organisation are very supportive of openness and more disclosure as opposed to less disclosure, if it makes it more transparent, more usable to stakeholders.”

Stephens also has her opinions on two other issues often dominating business debate in the UAE particularly — tax, or more specifically whether it should be introduced, and the lack of a bankruptcy law.

On the latter, and as the head of a company that does a lot of work with small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurs as sponsor of the European Business Awards, Stephens says it’s a no-brainer.

“I come from the US, where we have Chapter 11, we have that [bankruptcy] recovery, and I think it does encourage and foster creativity and entrepreneurship and innovation, so I think the benefits probably outweigh the negatives of that,” she says.

“One of the great things of America is that there’s not really a stigma to failure, that all of us as people look at it as ‘it’s better to have tried and if you fail you can learn from it and you can come... at something again and go forward and be a big, big success’. My opinion, based on that experience, is if you want to encourage companies to grow and encourage people to challenge then you have to offer that protection.”

She says introducing tax, though, would have to depend on a country’s needs and also how it wants to continue to position itself globally to investors. RSM is the sixth-largest organisation in the world for providing tax services.

“I don’t know; I’m sure there’s lots of things that have to happen first for that one to go in place and for the need to be there,” she says. “It depends on what the need is and where the need is coming from. If the economy is growing, relative to income levels and business growth, then the investment will be worth it. But here in the UAE when you have a zero tax rate, first of all everyone is jealous of that and it’s very lucky, but [the question is] what does that mean then in terms of the global world and the opportunities there.”

She says the UAE also has its opportunities to consider from hosting the World Expo 2020. With experience working with businesses in London, which hosted the Olympics in 2012, she believes Dubai’s challenge will be building a legacy that lasts long after the event.

“The build up through it was interesting because it was quite sceptical, some people said ‘should we be doing this for all the investment that’s coming in’, and then all the construction took place,” she says of the lead-up to the London Olympics.

“I would say it was lukewarm coming up to the Olympics, then when the Olympics happened, while reports are that shops and spending didn’t go crazy, the attitude during that time and the patriotism of the people that were there as well as the event itself, was just unbelievable.

“You then have to think, OK, that’s a strong legacy to leave and I think… it showed London very, very well, in that it put it on the map for people that want to go there. All of that will happen over a number of years. Once the Olympics end and the Paralympics end we have these big buildings now, what do we do with them? That becomes a challenge and how you continue with all of that investment.

She adds: “I would venture to say Expo is a bit different, because sports is more unifying to more people and I think Expo and the more business side of it, bringing that in, or bringing in the cultural dynamics of it, would be interesting.

“I bet the same thing’s going to happen for Dubai, that people are going to see it and say ‘oh, that looks great’. I don’t think there is any doubt it’ll be well organised, it’ll be bigger than ever, because everything here is big, and that will show very well… that will have very, very high benefits.”

Stephens admits that had her job been offered to her five years earlier or later she may not have taken it. But, having made the leap, she says she will continue as long as she can.

Research suggests she may not be so alone at the top for much longer. In a sign of shifting dynamics, Strategy& says as much as one-third of CEOs will be made up of women by 2040. It’s a prediction that should bode well for companies, according to findings presented in the Grant Thornton report which show the overall median proportion of female executives was 7.1 percent at successful companies and 3.1 percent at unsuccessful companies.

In another study tracking results from Fortune 500 companies from 2004 to 2008, those companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least by at least 16 percent in terms of return on sales and 26 percent in terms of return on invested capital.

“We only have one career and we only have one life, so to spend it on something that I believe in, that I think is worthy, that makes a difference to internally our people, but also more importantly, our clients, is very satisfying to me,” Stephens says.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.