Continuing our Laureate Leadership Series, this month I had the privilege of sitting down with our new CFO Jean-Jaques (JJ) Charhon. JJ has over 20 years of international management experience across regions and industries and a truly global perspective on finance and management.
Esther Benjamin: Let me begin by saying how excited we are to have you at Laureate. Could you tell us about your major career milestones before joining Laureate?
JJ Charhon: I have spent most of my career in finance and operating management. My first major milestone was transitioning from a European company to an American company. I began working for Quaker Oats in 1993. I went on the become CFO for France where I began to understand the role of finance as a strategic business partner to the CEO in an American company. My first role at General Electric (GE) was European CFO where I learned the challenges of remote management with people reporting to me in different countries for the first time.
I also had my first global CFO role at GE where I led a globally distributed team before transitioning to the pharmaceutical industry. In a pharmaceutical company, there is a much more long-term perspective dealing with stakeholders, which is very similar to faculty and academia at Laureate.
My last milestone before joining Laureate was my operating management role as COO of Hewlett Packard, taking ownership for shaping the strategy and guiding the execution and results of the company.
EB: What would you say drew you to Laureate and what are the particular qualities that have distinguished the company from other companies?
JJ: There were three elements important to me when assessing the opportunity of working for Laureate. First was the journey of the company; it is a fantastic opportunity to work for a company with a higher mission. The second aspect was the role; it is important to me to remain close to the business as a true business partner to the CEO. The best indication that this would happen is the fact that the previous CFO had been appointed as CEO, a great sign that the finance function was not isolated and limited to scorekeeping.
Last but not least is the people and the culture. Everyone I met gave me a sense that they were looking to collaborate and had a level of dedication to the business that was really infectious. This to me was the clincher.
EB: What are the key aspects of your early impressions of the company?
Everything that I have experienced so far, I had anticipated to some degree, given the history of Laureate which is still evolving in its maturity and trying to maintain a balance between continuing to support entrepreneurship and at the same time becoming a more established U.S. publicly-traded company. We continue to develop ways to work better together and demonstrate that corporate leaders can really add value and help the institutions to be more successful.
EB: You recently visited Brazil. What were your key takeaways from your first visit to a Laureate country?
JJ: I was very impressed with the Brazilian management team who are passionate and have a strong commitment to improving financial and operating performance. There is a very strong sense of teamwork and collaboration within the team. It is always energizing and inspiring to see a high-performing team in action and I could not have had a better induction in visiting a country where Laureate operates.
EB: You have taken on the CFO role at an exciting time of change. What would you say are your top priorities in your role?
JJ: My first priority is a transition of relationships, from Eilif as previous CFO to me as the new CFO. This is especially important in a company like Laureate where the fabric of the culture relies heavily on collaborative and productive relationships. Second is learning more about the business and the people, and about the strategies and priorities to better align myself and the finance function to these strategies. Finally, we have a 2018 goal of becoming SOX certified; an important undertaking that I am confident we will deliver successfully.
EB: You know about the Here for Good mission, which has been part of Laureate since its inception, and our status as a Public Benefit Corporation and a Certified B Corporation. How does this connect to your role as CFO?
JJ: There is a sense of a higher mission the company has embraced that makes everything we do a little less hard. Sometimes in finance we deal in numbers and they do not necessarily represent our impact on society – but the Here for Good mission helps remind us of the impact we have on our students, staff and faculty, and communities around the world. It is certainly inspiring to feel like you are part of a company that does good for society and we should feel very fortunate to be in this position.
EB: You grew up overseas, you studied overseas, you’ve lived and worked globally. Could you share more about your international upbringing and career and how this helped shape you as a professional?
JJ: I was very lucky to be born and to grow up in Brussels, Belgium, which is a very cosmopolitan city. I did my secondary studies at the French Lycee in Brussels with people from all over the world and I was exposed to diversity from an early age. I very much appreciated what it brought in terms of relationships, the ability to open your mind, exchange ideas, and truly learn that the world does not end in the limits of your city or country.
EB: What would be your final message to 65,000 colleagues across the world?
JJ:I would say, seek me out. Sometimes the position I am in can be intimidating or can make people hesitant to reach out. I truly believe in candid and open communications and I encourage finance people all over the world to reach out to me for opinion and advice.