Three Rules for Running a Better Operating Partner Search

Three Rules for Running a Better Operating Partner Search
What makes some clients more successful than others?


Operating Partner searches are unique animals when compared to other recruiting assignments that we undertake. Because of the nature of both the role and the client, there’s very little about them that is straightforward. By comparison, everyone knows what a CFO does… the role is clear. There’s no need to explain its intricacies to the most sought after people in the candidate population. And if that spot on the org chart is currently not filled, there’s an urgency to get someone in the seat and get on with business.

Operating Partner searches are different in just about every way.

It begins with the fact that the role of the Operating Partner actually has no consistent definition across the industry. There are as many definitions for what makes an Operating Partner as there are firms who think about the role itself. Is it really a Senior Advisor, or an Executive in Residence, or a Third-party consultant, or are they a fully integrated Operating Partner? Firm leaders wrestle with what properly fits their own particular dynamic. Imagine how confusing that must sound to the corporate executive who is intrigued with the idea of pursuing this career path?

RULE #1: With clarity comes efficiency.

The best clients invest a good deal of time upfront getting clarity and conviction around how the role should be architected and integrated into their firms. They examine the marketplace, consider their various options, and design a clear mandate for themselves. While having some degree of variation in how the role is defined may feel like it leaves the aperture open wider for candidate recruiting, it may also have a negative downside effect in that it leaves too many corners to examine for bringing forth good candidates.

These searches generally take a long time to deliver because of the very nature of the structure. It is difficult to recruit into a partnership, regardless of whether it's one for a private equity firm or otherwise. Many people are inherently important during the course of the process, and scheduling necessarily becomes a nightmare. Layer on top of that the busy calendars of the people in the candidate pool and you can see how speed is a luxury.

For those reasons, it’s very important to know what you want when you head out into the market.

RULE #2: If you run the firm, you’ve got to be involved.

One way to accelerate the pace of these projects is to have the leadership of the firm involved on a regular basis in the process itself. It is rare, though highly welcome, when a firm’s founder or CEO takes a personal interest in one of these assignments. When they are working with us week to week on moving the candidates through the process it automatically creates better efficiency. Moreover, in my experience those are the firms that actually get the results they want out of the hire. There is a personal connection developed early on between the finalist and firm leadership which creates an advocate type condition to their candidacy. Every high performing executive who is considering moving into an Operating Partner role deserves this kind of support as he or she makes the move. (Unfortunately, when the execution of an Operating Partner search is delegated down into the middle tiers of the PE shop, I can always foresee a more drawn out and difficult process.)

RULE #3: Don’t forget that you’re headhunting them, and paint a vision of the future.

Generally, when we run these searches the finalist comes from one of two profiles: (1) currently sitting Operating Partners who are making a lateral move or (2) corporate operating executives who have some previous exposure to PE. Both profiles come with a fair degree of cynicism directed at the idea of making a move like this in the first place. Thus, clients need to sell in order to get across the finish line. Prospective Operating Partners have the opportunity to do many impressive things. You must elevate your situation above the noise in the rest of the market. Many firms, and the Deal Partners who run them, may resist the notion that they need to be in sell mode. “If they can’t grasp why they should want to be here, then we wouldn’t want them anyway.” That’s a weak position to fall back on. Think long and hard about what it would take to get you to change roles, and be sensitive to the needs of the person on the other side of the table. A little humility and self-awareness goes a long way, particularly in this context.

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Chris Conti

As a Partner at Lancor, Chris' practice is principally dedicated to serving private equity firms in North America and Europe. For the last ten years, he has focused on operating partner and other fund administration roles, and on C-suite roles for those firms’ portfolio companies, located around the world. He leads Lancor's Private Equity Practice and coordinates the firm’s coverage model in serving its clientele. He has spoken at various conferences on the role of the operating partner and, in 2008, BusinessWeek magazine recognized Chris as one of the “Top 100 World’s Most Influential Headhunters.”