Jean-Baptise Cousin of SMASH on the Modern Startup CFO
Jean-Baptiste Cousin is the Associate Director & CFO of SMASH Group and one of CFO Connect’s most passionate members.
One of the first to join the CFO Connect Community, Jean-Baptiste Cousin has attended four meetups and also graced the stage in Paris as an expert speaker.
We caught up with him recently to discuss his favourite subject (finance, of course), learn about the role of the modern CFO and find out what makes a finance leader tick.
It was a fascinating and insightful interview which covered everything from the future of the finance function to the trends facing CFOs around the world.
And it all started with a lofty question:
What’s the role of the modern CFO?
“The CFO role is changing a lot,” explains Jean-Baptiste. “People think you’re primarily a super financial controller - there to just keep an eye on spending and cash flow. And maybe that used to be the case.”
“Where it used to be more about figures and numbers, now the job is to be a business partner. A lot of the accounting and bookkeeping is automated these days or totally outsourced.”
CFOs need to provide strategic advice and help steer the company, not only financially but in a whole range of areas. Your financial expertise lets you give the other company directors and board members the information they need to make the best decisions.
And you’re not just limited to strictly financial matters, either. “The CFO has to be involved in human resources, legal issues, compliance and regulations, security, and overall company operations.”
What does that mean in practice?
“Think about a company like a ship. The CEO is the captain or skipper who steers the ship; he makes the final decisions. Just next to the CEO (skipper) you find the tactician, who in many businesses is the COO. The two work closely together - when the CEO can’t steer, the COO will typically take over.”
The CFO is the guy at the bow of the boat. He needs to play the role of the lookout. This means he needs to understand the conditions the boat is facing, see potential problems coming first and advise the top brass on the best course to take. Your main qualities as to be: discipline, observation and organisation.”
So it’s very much a consultative role?
“That’s right. The CFO is an internal consultant for all employees, but especially for the top leadership team. You can break it down to four steps: “See. Think. Analyze. Consult.”
Editor’s note: Jean-Baptiste’s consultative approach to the role of the modern CFO has led him to join a new consulting firm, SMASH (Support Management Shop), to create and manage the startups business unit. Because plenty of companies don’t have the need or the resources for their own CFO, but leaders still need strategic advice. JB and his team provide this as a service, giving founders and CEOs the guidance they need.
“My goal at SMASH is to help top management navigate their business journey, but also the operational teams. Whatever your development stage, we provide integrated resources to operate within the business partner spirit on the legal, HR and finance field.”
When should a startup hire a CFO?
“That's a good question! I tried to answer it in my article published last year. Startups usually bring the CFO in around the time they start looking for funding or just after a Serie A. They need to have clean books and sound financial practices if investors are going to get involved.”
“But I'm still totally convinced that sooner is better.”
“Your CFO ensures that you have smart processes for everything administrative, legal, HR, and finance (of course). This is going to benefit pretty much any business. So, even at the very beginning, it’s could be useful to have someone part-time.”
What is your biggest achievement at work?
“I'm particularly proud of my professional network. It takes a long time to create it, and then lots of work to sustain it. And we’re not talking here about the number of connections you have on LinkedIn, of course.
“I'm talking about the strong and long-term relationships you have with suppliers, advisors, clients, and peers. Building those links makes me better at my job, and it also proves that the work I’m doing is worthwhile.
“And I could measure its importance when I decided to resign from my previous company.”
What's the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a CFO?
“As a CFO, you have to review almost everything produced by other people. Everything you issue, produce or communicate has to be perfect because it's directly linked to regulations or important financial interests.”
“I learned it a bit from experience. We could call that discipline I guess.”
Why did you join the CFO Connect community?
“As I said, I’m proud of my professional network. And I love having opportunities to build it. So I joined to connect with other people doing the same role. But also because I definitely think that we are smarter together”.
“I have challenges and things I want to learn about very precise topics. These aren’t the kinds of things you learn from a blog post. You want to speak directly with people who’re going through the same things, or who have been there before.”
What do you think of CFO Connect so far?
“It’s great! It’s one of the first places I’ve come across that really connects CFOs and finance leaders. And the networking events are exciting. They’re casual and friendly, but still really informative. These things can sometimes be a waste of time, but that’s not my experience with CFO Connect.
“I’m also really enjoying the Slack group. It’s a nice way to feel connected with people instantly. We ask each other questions and share our thoughts on similar topics.
“It’s really nice to have a network of people dealing with the same issues.”
“[Being a CFO] can be a lonely role. Nobody’s really excited to talk to the CFO. They want to talk about new features or the company retreat coming up. But they don’t want to talk about how we automated purchase orders.”
“And a lot of work is either complex compliance stuff that doesn’t really apply to everyone else or is confidential information. That’s why I want to meet other finance leaders who understand this dynamic, so we can support each other.”
What kinds of finance leaders do you love to speak with?
“For starters, the age of the person isn’t important. Their journey is. I really like to learn from people who’ve worked at a variety of companies. They’ve been exposed to different ways of working, and have tested new tools and processes.
“And the most interesting people have been challenged personally about the way they do things. Those people who’ve had to truly think about their approach, and maybe change things as a result, always have the best insights to share.”
Nearly finished. Any blogs or podcasts you think we should know about?
“I'm a big fan of “Affaires sensibles" (modern historical investigations) on France Inter radio and "La méthode scientifique” (deep talks on scientific facts) on France Culture radio. Those are two non-business related podcasts, but a good way to understand our time.
“Sometimes, it's nice to take some distance from your main field of expertise.”
Last question! What’s your favorite tool at work?
Dashlane and Trello for sure. They’re both downloaded on all my devices!
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