April 20, 2017

Cultural Fit and The Green Jacket

Cultural Fit and The Green Jacket

Earlier this month I had the great fortune to attend The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. For those of you lucky enough to have experienced it for yourselves, you already understand how special the event is. For those that haven’t, it is as close to perfection in a golf setting as you could ever imagine. On top of that, we saw two seasoned professionals battle it out over 19 holes to crown the eventual, and very deserving, champion Sergio Garcia as he donned the coveted Green Jacket: a renowned symbol of success and achievement!

In my headhunting practice, I meet lots of deeply talented executives whose careers are textbook examples of how to navigate the world of business. They excelled in school, overachieved as young employees, stood out from their peers, gained increasing responsibility and crushed their professional objectives. They sought out the best mentors, sincerely took others’ advice, delivered on their commitments and elevated their stature. They are the business world’s version of the elite professional golfer.

So, imagine the surprise when they step into an interview session with a top tier Private Equity firm to try and land a sought after position, and they figuratively shank the tee shot into the woods! Sometimes talented executives forget about the humility and collaborative style that enabled them to succeed in their careers in the first place. They devalue the idea that being a cultural fit is just as important as their technical achievements. There’s something about the PE industry/setting that can cause an otherwise self-aware executive to try to impress total strangers in a desperate fashion. The results, like bad golf, can be hard to watch.

Private Equity, maybe more so than any other industry, is hyper concerned with cultural fit. The firms are small, and the wrong addition to the team can be caustic and disruptive. Candidates need to perform consistently across numerous sets of meetings, and even a minor misstep in an interview process can derail someone’s candidacy. (It is actually typical in an Operating Partner search for a lead candidate to have 12+ meetings over the course of a process that may take 6 months.)

The Green Jacket is symbol of success and achievement. How can an executive navigate the complexity of a PE interview process to present the right cultural fit and thereby significantly increase their chances of success?

  1. Expect the process to be a long one. As painful as it is for me to admit this, Operating Partner searches take a long time. So, if you decide to engage in one, buckle in for the long haul, and align your expectations around that extended timeframe. Don’t get frustrated, and don’t try to push it into your personal timetable – it rarely ever works.
  2. Problem solving strategy. The best interviews are those where the candidate and the PE investor get into a back and forth around issues that portfolio companies are facing in the market. What analogs can you reference to help predict the outcomes of various strategies? What third party resources have you utilized to drive an advantage for your own business? Spend some time looking at that particular Deal Partner’s subjective investments – please don’t go in blind, it’s a big mistake.
  3. Stay in your lane. You’re an operational expert, so emphasize that skill set. Don’t debate the finer points of capital markets or exotic debt structures. Don’t try to equate your experience in M&A with theirs in deal making. Be passionate about your industry – after all, it’s the reason they’re interested in you and why they value your experience.
  4. Relax and let it come to you. Don’t oversell; just sell appropriately. Your content is your friend, but don’t try to convey everything you know about a topic in the first session. Be curious about why they’ve made the choices they have in the portfolio. And then come back to them after the meeting with a refined set of opinions, thoughts or questions to keep the dialogue going.

In the history of The Masters only three times has a rookie won the tournament (the first two years it was played, and then once more in 1979). The odds dictate that it takes more than one try to slip on The Green Jacket. I’d say the same goes for landing a great Operating Partner role… but hopefully some of these tips can get you closer to your goal.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the wonderful group who hosted us in Augusta for the tournament.  Paul Sheehan and his team at Premier Golf Tours were simply outstanding. Better than we could have imagined, and the perfect way to cross a big one off my father’s bucket list! 



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