How to lead by influence, not power

CEO Jean Stephens shares how she led accountancy network RSM's global rebrand.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 21 Feb 2019

Say what you will about rigid hierarchies, but straight lines on an org chart certainly make life easier. Getting people to do what you want is simply a matter of giving instruction – even if that does come at a cost of stifling creativity, purpose and dynamism.

When yours is a culture of influence instead of command, leadership becomes a more delicate art, relying on the leader’s ability to convince and inspire.

Jean Stephens knows a thing or two about this. She’s CEO of global accountancy big leaguer RSM, a network of independent, allied firms operating in 116 countries. In 2015, she took it through a rebranding, which involved the various partner firms losing their individual names (in the UK, it was Baker Tilly LLP), to trade only as RSM.

"We had first generation firms that in some cases had built their brands over 100 years, so they were very protective," says Stephens, who explained that the reluctance was around losing control as well as losing famous names. "I can’t just tell our managing partners what to do – it was a case of hearts and minds."

The ‘minds’ part of that was made easier by the business need for the rebrand. The network was formed in the 1960s as a way for similarly-sized companies to offer their clients preferred partners abroad, but began to suffer in recent years as increasingly multinational clients demanded a more seamless, integrated service.

The ‘hearts’ part required painting a picture that there was strength in unity, listening to partner concerns, and time. "This was top of my mind for a good year, year and a half. The timing was very important. Had we tried to go quicker, we would have failed because we needed some very vocal, compelling champions who were able to advocate and get others on board," says Stephens.

"We did it all in one day, everywhere in the world, in a big bang, and that really helped. It created a sense of excitement and pride."

For more detail about the art of persuasion, see this feature from the archive. For an alternative take, consider Richard Cialdini’s book ‘Pre-suasion’.

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels


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