Why resilience is fundamental to success

Jean Stephens has been CEO of RSM International – the world’s seventh-largest professional services network – since 2006. She began her accountancy career in California and joined McGladrey in LA in 1994. She arrived in the UK in August 1996 as a manager, later becoming chief operating officer of RSM. In this interview with the BDLN she discusses the challenges facing RSM, the drivers that make the network special, and the lessons learnt from the failure of RSM Tenon.

RSM International is the seventh largest global professional services network in the world, with 3,500 partners. Post-recession, industry leaders have had to create their vision and then execute it. How have you done that with such a large network?

Jean Stephens:
It’s about knowing what differentiates us: understanding what we’re good at and what we’re not so good at; knowing what our competitors are good at, and what they’re not so good at. It’s about building relationships and moving those forward, while all the time asking the questions: Who do we want to be and where do we want to go?

It’s about finding win-wins for the both the network and the member firms. Sometimes you have to talk to a firm so they understand exactly why it’s worth putting in their money, time, attention and devotion. Everyone has limited amounts of those. So I’ll say to them: “If you do this and we build together, we’re going to be better as a network, and as we get stronger, that will be better for you.”

I’m always having those sorts of discussions and having them in an open, transparent way.

What do you regard as the top three issues at RSM?

Jean Stephens:
We need to do better with our branding to make us consistent around the world. We’re not as well known as we should be, considering our strengths. We’re making progress but we’re not there yet. We tend to be humble and need a bit more swagger, not the obnoxious kind – but we know we’re exceptional and need to talk about it more.

China’s another big focus for RSM. We have a super member in China but it’s a huge market and massive opportunity.

Recruitment is also in the top three: we want to become even more of a go-to name for people leaving school and college. We’re a people business and must continue to attract the best.

What do you look for in member firms?

Jean Stephens:
Quality. There’s no negotiation on that – we have our standards and that’s it. We’re slower than some networks to bring firms in because we want to take the time to get to know them and for them to get to know us; they need to understand what we’re about and what our culture’s like, and vice versa.

Tone at the top is critical for us: actions and dollars must always match words. If we say we’re all about quality, we must invest in quality, rather than spend resources on things like flash advertising campaigns. We must live our values.

In some countries, professional standards haven’t developed as much as they have in, say, the UK or US. That doesn’t mean these firms are low quality, just that the profession hasn’t evolved as fast. Where that’s the case we run high quality mentoring programmes – it’s a risk because sometimes another network will try to snap up the firm we’ve mentored – but it’s still the right thing to do and we’re very serious about it.

But it’s also a case of setting expectations of ourselves and consistently monitoring ourselves – if we’re not doing it right then we can’t expect our members around the world to nail it.

Quality means a lot of things to a lot of people. For us it’s not only about technical or expertise – it is also about responsiveness, tone, and how we deal with each other.

If I were a medium-sized company looking at international expansion, why should I come to RSM?

Jean Stephens:
Because of our commitment to having the highest-quality firms, and because of the streamlined way we run the network. We’re now dealing with clients who have needs in 40-50 countries so we have to be able to serve them seamlessly. I’d never say we’re perfect as an organisation but we’re very quick – we can get to the right person in the right country within two contact points.

We’re also proud of the personal attention we give to clients. Our 2014 market study shows clients rate us lower than our competitors on brand awareness but higher on retention. We’re into long-term relationships, not quick wins.