Klaviyo CFO Amanda Whalen: ‘Big Picture Thinking, Hands-On Balance’

"I think technology is absolutely critical to the CFO in the future,” Whalen said.
Adam ZakiSeptember 2, 2022

Amanda Whalen’s nearly 10-year experience as a CFO spans across industries including food supply, big box stores, and healthcare. Most recently, Whalen held the role of EVP and CFO of Walmart International.

After recently taking the CFO role at Klaviyo, a tech company specializing in marketing automation, Whalen has a lot to say about technology, its value to the CFO, and how it will influence the role of finance chiefs down the line.

Whalen also spoke about the role of the CFO of tomorrow, the value of education in the C-suite moving forward, and what her plans are as a CFO for a technology company for the first time. 

Amanda Whalen

CFO, Klaviyo

  • Notable previous companies:
    • CFO and EVP, Walmart International
    • CFO and chief administration officer, Davita Kidney Care
    • CFO and SVP of finance, Saputo Dairy Foods

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ADAM ZAKI: In your career, how do the demands of a CFO vary across industries and the size of the company? 

AMANDA WHALEN: I think there’s something more in common than you think across these different companies. The role of the CFO is allocating resources and capital to help drive the company’s growth, and then building the systems and the processes that they’re going to need to be successful in the future.

One of the best analogies I’ve heard about the life of the CFO is it’s a little bit like being a dolphin — you’re above the water, looking at the horizon, and thinking strategically about where we’re headed. And then you are diving deep below, being hands-on, to really understand the details about where we are and what we need to do to get to that place that we’re headed in the future. So it’s the balance — big-picture thinking and being hands-on. 

I think some of the differences are you never really get to a point where the work is done. The big difference is just what stage you’re at and how you think about what is the future that you’re heading to. So I’ll take Walmart, for example — it’s a massive business that is in the midst of transforming for the future. So in Walmart, you’re thinking about what investments do I need to make that change? And what system and capabilities do I need to change as I go on that journey?

Why is technology valuable to a CFO and how do you assess that value?

WHALEN: I think technology is absolutely critical to the CFO in the future. I think the CFO in the future is going to need to be technical, as well as financial, and I don’t mean experienced on the technical side of finance that is traditional technical finance. I mean understanding finance technology, which is, ‘what are the systems?’

As a CFO, I think technology really comes into play where we can be more efficient and more effective in a way that helps to free up time to spend on more value-added work. The second place I really think about technology is, ‘how do I make the work of finance more intelligent?’ We’re putting a lot [of technology] in place right now at Klaviyo. A lot of great stuff was already in here, and we’re continuing to refine it. We’re putting in place automated, artificial intelligence, machine learning, enabled forecasting, and reporting. So we’re looking at how to use data to understand what drives customer behavior and predict it.

As a CFO, I think technology really comes into play where we can be more efficient and more effective in a way that helps to free up time to spend on more value-added work.

This is something that I saw at Walmart — they have fantastic approaches to using artificial intelligence to drive that forecasting. I think it really acknowledges the importance to CFOs not only in terms of automation, but this technology is also important for when we ask ourselves how to make our work smarter.

We’re seeing surveys come out now that say the value of an MBA or being a CPA is not necessarily where it once was. Has your education given you value in your career or is it really just work experience that is valued to you?

WHALEN: I have an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. And the reason is that the value of the MBA, and the value of the CPA, it is similar to what we were talking about earlier about experience across industries. There are different demands of a CFO. I think a lot of what I’ve gained from the MBA is that breadth of experience that helps you with your foundation as you grow. Whether it’s moving across industries, or even moving within one, as you take on more responsibility, you move from the individual contributor to manager to leader … anything in leading areas that you haven’t worked in before is valuable.

What is your biggest hurdle right now? If you could change something or make one thing happen to make your goals more attainable, what would that be?

WHALEN: We’ve got four priorities we’re working on. The first is to become public company ready. That is always subject to what’s happening in the marketplace when that time is right. But we want to have Klaviyo operating at a level that’s public company standards, discipline, and rigor in the way that we operate. So that’s priority number one.

Number two is building the business and building function for scale. We have been growing incredibly rapidly. So we need to be thinking, not just one year, two years, or three years ahead of what are the approaches we’re going to need to support that growth into the future. 

The third would be driving great business partnering and great business decision-making. So creating actionable reporting to help business leaders see the trends and doing dynamic planning and forecasting, making sure we’re making great data-driven business decisions.

The last is building a great team. I’m incredibly fortunate at Klaviyo — we have a fantastic team. And I’m looking at how to continue to build, develop, and grow their careers. So if I could do one thing, I would find the answer to how do we get through that journey as quickly as we can. But the process is really fun.

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