In November of my Freshman year in college, my father gave me some good career advice. At the time, I quickly found myself in the process of washing out of a pre-med curriculum for reasons that, looking back, should have been entirely obvious: doctors who pass out when their blood gets drawn don’t set a great example for the majority of patients. Dad smartly directed me toward a focus on business, and noted that in his experience an Accounting degree was a virtual guarantee to a job after graduation. “Maximize your chances, my boy.”
So that’s what I did, and E&Y offered me an audit role during my Senior year at John Carroll. Mission accomplished.
They seem like obvious words to live by, but too often our aspirations outpace our realities and we forget the practicality of maximizing our chances. I see this in the Operating Partner work that I do in a number of different ways.
Accomplished executives who get the itch to move into Private Equity often are at a cross road in their careers. They’ve proven themselves on the battlefield of Corporate America. They’ve now become the mentors to the younger generation. They’ve made some money along the way, and have established a degree of economic freedom. They have a tremendous amount of pride as they should.
Private Equity is the shiny new object for them. Its allure is potent; but it’s also mysterious. Moreover, “I’m old enough for these deal makers to be my kids.” It’s human nature for the executive to start assuming where they “belong” inside a PE firm environment. This is where I sometimes find myself trying to talk them off the ledge. It’s time to think through ways to maximize your chances.
Just because you may have bought and sold a number of companies in your career doesn’t mean you’re ready to come in and run the Industrials vertical at KKR. And frankly, it’s highly unlikely that once you truly understood what that person did day to day that you’d even want that role. And just because you’ve run large teams of people dispersed all over the world in complex organizational structures doesn’t mean that you automatically need to be running the Portfolio Operations group in a large shop. Do you even want to work that hard at this stage of your career? In many cases the answer is a resounding No.
I have always maintained that great CEOs make terrific Senior Advisors in the context of PE. Though individual firms may define the Senior Advisor role in different ways, in general it is the best spot for an outsider’s entry into the world of PE. These are typically roles that come with a good degree of flexibility. Sometimes they are exclusive, sometimes they’re not. Their time commitment can range from full time to as little as a few days per month. But their intent is always the same… to help the PE firm do better deals, and then manage those assets for better outcomes than the firm could achieve on its own. It is that simple.
Along the way, the Senior Advisor can have a very enriching career experience. They gradually learn the process in PE; they get more in touch with the M&A market; they leverage all the great relationships they’ve worked to create during their previous career; they coach the CEOs from the perch of the Boardroom; and they have great economic upside tied to the outcome. And along the way maybe they do realize that they want to run the Industrials vertical or the Portfolio Ops team, except they now have a much better argument in support of their pursuit of those roles.
So, when you are beginning a dialogue with Private Equity, keep an open mind. Proactively present them with the idea of considering you as a Senior Advisor. You just may find that you’ve maximized the chances of still getting everything that you want.