Jean Stephens has been the CEO of the world’s sixth largest audit, tax, and consulting network, RSM International, for more than 14 years.
- RSM has a global revenue of $5.7 billion, operates in more than 120 countries, and employs more than 43,000 people.
- Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephens used to regularly travel for business meetings. But with coronavirus restrictions in place, her work moved online, and she had to find ways to maintain her relationships with firms in the network, as well as new clients.
- In an interview with Business Insider, she revealed her strategy for building and maintain relationships with business partners virtually, such as organizing virtual lunch dates, and cancelling calls when you don’t feel your best.
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Jean Stephens has been the CEO of RSM International, an audit, tax, and consulting network, for almost 15 years, growing it from a global revenue of $2.5 billion to $5.7 billion. RSM operates in over 120 countries with a combined workforce of more than 43,000, up from 23,000 when she started.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephens spent most of her time traveling for business meetings, she said. But with coronavirus restrictions in place, most of RSM’s 810 offices were left empty, and her work moved online. This included meeting both other partners in the business and new clients.
In an interview with Business Insider, she revealed how she approaches video calls, and the strategies she uses to build and maintain relationships with business partners virtually.
Embrace the virtual after-work get together
It’s hard to build a rapport over video calls. Prioritize casual after-work calls with colleagues and business partners — they are the perfect chance to talk away from the pressures of tight deadlines. “You never know, that ten-minute catch up might make all the difference later on down the line,” Stephens said.
Find the time for informal chats during the day to encourage ideas
Lockdown taught us how valuable ‘dead time’ actually is. We used to read the news and mentally prepare for the day on our commutes, or have informal hallway chats to build connections and spot opportunities for collaborations. These shouldn’t end now that we’re working remotely.
“Informal discussions with colleagues, from different teams, often provide that all important spark of inspiration that you might never have considered before,” she said. Find time to connect with colleagues you don’t usually talk to. There are many ways to do this, including organizing virtual lunch dates, Stephens said.
Reschedule online meetings if you need to unwind
Staring at the screen hour after hour with no break between meetings is a strain. And while spending entire working days behind a screen has become essential for some, you should “take a moment between calls to collect yourself so that you can attend each of them with the same presence and focus as you would a face-to-face meeting,” Stephens said.
If you lack the energy to bring your best to a call, ask yourself: “Is now the right time to be holding it?” And if not, just move the meeting. Attendees will understand: We all deserve breaks.
If you’re speaking to colleagues abroad, get to know their local area
Stephens said that the benefits of face-to-face meetings with overseas colleagues are many, including seeing where people live, experiencing their culture, and learning the local business protocol. This can help build an understanding that can be the difference between success and failure.
Managers should use their unused travel time to educate themselves about the different cultures of their partners, she said. For example, she suggested reading the local news and even picking up the odd phrase in a different language — “it will pay off in the long term.”
Find common ground early
Stephens suggested starting virtual conversations with a new contact by speaking about a common area of interest. Next time, follow-up about the same topic — spend time exploring common goals and strategies so you can learn from each other.
She said every individual, firm, or client goes through four phases in response to a shock: react, resilience, reactivate, and reimagine. Depending on the stage they are, she changes her approach for different teams and clients to build trust.
Build on existing relationships wherever possible
Building a relationship from the ground up without face-to-face meetings can be very difficult. So wherever possible, build on existing relationships.
Maintaining contacts, and keeping in touch with current partners, is key to the success of a global company, Stephens said. And you can then ask those contacts to introduce you to other people — when you meet them, it will be easier to connect.