Experience can be one of the most valuable components in the journey to the C-suite. For finance executives, who must be both expert money managers and great leaders, the pathway taken to an executive position develops things like leadership styles, technology perspectives, problem-solving approaches, and views on team management.
Experience is everything for Karen Walker, CFO of cloud security provider Sysdig. Throughout her career, Walker has worked in finance for big names in transportation, entertainment, media, technology, and other industries. Now in her second CFO position, she is nearly two years into her work at Sysdig, where she is focused on growing the rapidly expanding cybersecurity provider.
- First CFO position: 2021
- Notable previous companies:
- Virgin America
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ADAM ZAKI: You have a lot of experience in different types of industries. In what areas of your career has that helped you the most?
KAREN WALKER: Working in various industries has built my confidence and comfort level with learning things that are completely new and different. I have found that I enjoy the experience and don’t find it intimidating. I enjoy learning the KPIs and business model drivers across industries.
Some of the industries I have worked in have actually been very complimentary. My strong consumer background with Uber and Pandora Media has actually been a great asset in the SaaS businesses with product-led growth that is more consumer-like in acquiring new customers.
Ultimately, experiencing new industries has translated well for me as I navigated different roles across finance before becoming a CFO. When I first joined PagerDuty as the senior vice president of finance, the company had just completed an IPO and I was tasked with building the investor relations function from scratch. Being comfortable with new challenges helped me succeed in that role.
Cybersecurity is one of the most underappreciated areas of corporate finance. Do you agree, and what are your thoughts about balancing allocations toward growth and cybersecurity for a rapidly expanding company?
WALKER: Top of mind for all CFOs these days, including myself, is containing costs and, as a result, every dollar of spend is scrutinized.
In today’s environment, where the attack surface continues to expand and where in cloud environments bad actors can inflict their pain in as little as 10 minutes, companies need to continually assess their security posture. You only need to look at the recent Vegas casino breach headlines to see how catastrophic an attack can be if you are not armed with the right team and tools.
Resiliency is key, and if your company experiences a massive attack that has a material financial impact, it will be easy for stakeholders to question the resourcing for the security program.
What would you say your leadership style is, and how did you develop it?
WALKER: I am very much both a transformational leader and a servant leader. Since the majority of my experiences have centered around helping companies scale in high-growth environments, this has heavily influenced my approach and style.
I love to build and create a vision for the team. In my experience, complementing my approach to being a coach and bringing the team into the process of building the vision really motivates people and builds a stronger and more cohesive team that is connected to the mission.
Do you attend events, and if you do, do you find them valuable?
WALKER: I’m very happy that in-person events are back. I definitely appreciate them more than I did prior to the pandemic. We have so much interaction over video these days, but there is no substitute for in-person gatherings when building relationships.
I prefer more intimate settings that allow peers to connect one-on-one and feel that is the best way to create meaningful connections and learn from one another.
Being a CFO can be a lonely job at times and I have found it so useful to build my network of CFOs. So often a problem I am facing is one that others have come across and vice-versa.
What are some common traits among successful people you have encountered in your career?
WALKER: Humility tops the list. I have been fortunate to work with really smart people over the years, but I have found that humble people are much easier to connect with. Humble leaders tend to be intellectually honest about what has gone well — and what hasn’t — and adopt a learner’s mindset.
Some of the best leaders are also visionary. People have so many options when deciding what company or what team to join. Creating a compelling vision is essential in today’s environment and really sets apart good from great.