Job-hopping, a habit many CFOs have taken a liking to, is among the surest paths for professionals at all levels to take large career jumps. Employee loyalty, even at the executive level, continues to wane — although there are certainly exceptions, such as when an employment arrangement is especially good, or the person is in their dream job.
Another exception is Tom Kaeding of Wunderkind, a performance marketing solutions company that’s in rapid growth mode. Jumping ship is the farthest thing from his mind, partly because of the career opportunities that have come his way at Wunderkind, and partly because the company’s ethos values creative problem-solving.
Kaeding has been with the company since 2016, serving as director of operations, director of finance, and vice president of finance and operations. Despite the flourishing resume, though, Kaeding wasn’t expecting to get his first CFO job at the time he landed in the seat in 2021, after the post unexpectedly became vacant.
Still, the journey up the executive ladder allowed him to experience multiple stages of Wunderkind’s growth in financial and operational leadership positions. Kaeding’s professional growth has essentially tracked the company’s business growth.
- First CFO position: 2021
- Notable previous companies:
- Duff and Phelps
- Morgan Stanley
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ADAM ZAKI: You’ve worked your way up through the ranks to the CFO chair at one company. What made you stick around?
TOM KAEDING: To be honest, when I started I wouldn’t have imagined I’d spend more than a few years at one company. But Wunderkind is constantly evolving, which happens when you grow by more than 7.5 times in as many years.
From the beginning, there has been a constant drive — sometimes to a fault — to be dubious of conventional wisdom and challenge the status quo. That attracts people who think differently and operate differently. The best part of working in finance is collaborating with stakeholders across every department and using quantitative analysis to identify risks and opportunities and drive strategic decisions.
When joining the company, was the CFO job your goal?
KAEDING: It was not. When you join a Series A company, you’re focused on pushing the company forward, not on titles or accolades. There’s a beauty and energy to those early days that feel impossible to replicate as an organization scales.
I love problem-solving. The more abstract and difficult the task, the more it commands my focus.
How did you develop the necessary executive leadership skills, and how do you maintain them?
KAEDING: Due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to step into the lead finance role earlier than most. It meant I had to learn leadership skills on my feet, which was simultaneously overwhelming and extremely motivating.
A key part of my success has been the ability to connect with people. If you lead with empathy and truly seek to understand what motivates your stakeholders, you’re able to build trust that pays dividends when making difficult decisions. Further, persuasion, whether in the context of investing in an opportunity or avoiding wasted effort, is a critical skill for a finance leader.
I would encourage any aspiring leader to identify mentors early on. Having a network of professionals has been invaluable for working through ideas and identifying and preparing for the consequences of taking a particular action. It’s saved me and our organization a lot of time and effort.
What are some common traits you’ve seen among people who have intersected with your professional life and become successful?
KAEDING: Agility and humility.
It’s rare that things go exactly to plan, so leaders need to develop an ability to think critically in a dynamic environment. People who are equally comfortable at 10,000 feet or in the thick of the weeds create value. This requires the confidence to tackle big objectives and the willingness to roll up your sleeves and work through the small things. Delegate, but stay close to the outcome.
You are also going to get things wrong. To be an effective leader, you need to be prepared to pivot away from an idea if your thesis is invalidated. Do what you can to predefine success and milestones for a “go/no-go” decision, but don’t be afraid to admit when something isn’t working or let the fact that you may be wrong dissuade you from making a decision.
AI is becoming a huge area of focus for most companies. How would you describe your strategy around AI, especially as it applies to finance?
KAEDING: From an operations perspective, there’s a seemingly infinite number of AI solutions emerging that drive efficiency and value. We’re continually trialing and evaluating solutions that make our workforce more efficient, whether that be drafting communications, generating content, or making information more accessible through large language models.
From a product strategy perspective, we are developing AI and machine learning capabilities for our offering that create value by identifying more effective strategies for our clients to engage with their customers.
As it specifically relates to finance, I believe AI will fundamentally change ETL and data structure processes. Anyone who works with complex data sets knows that properly structuring the data is half the battle of an effective analysis. My expectation is that AI will make data easier to work with, robust analyses easier to produce, and reporting faster to disseminate.