The Hero’s Journey of Finding a PE Business Development Role
“What makes you a hero is not your triumph over adversity but your ability to transform the minds and hearts of others as a result.” (Marcia Reynolds)
Summary. Deep in the heart of the COVID era, I entered the job market to find a business development role at another private equity fund. The process was longer and harder than I anticipated. During this time, I found the Hero’s Journey archetype, popularized by Joseph Campbell, to be an inspiring model for processing the experience. This blog describes what I encountered along the way through the lens of a quest and offers advice to others that may find themselves in a similar position. Spoiler alert, the story has a happy ending.
The Hero’s Journey is a template for story structure derived from the comparison of mythology and folklore across history and cultures. The concept was popularized by Joseph Campbell¹ and involves a protagonist who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis and comes home changed or transformed. It’s no coincidence that some of our most favorite stories incorporate the foundational elements of the Hero’s Journey such as Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings, the Matrix and Star Wars. On my quest to identify a senior business development role at a private equity fund, I found the Hero’s Journey construct to be a cathartic and inspirational model for interpreting my experience along the way. For those of you on a similar journey or that may face one in the future, my hope is that this piece may serve as an elixir to aid you on your path.
The Call to Adventure
Every great story begins with a call to adventure — a conflict or challenge presented to the protagonist to which he or she must respond. In my case, a natural leadership succession at the sole LP that had supported my firm for over 20 years led to a change in strategic direction and its decision to not invest further in private equity. This decision had nothing to do with our firm’s performance, which has been strong, but meant that the LP would not re-up for another fund. While fundraising with a new set of limited partners is under consideration, there would at a minimum be an extended period of no additional investments. This revelation was the final node of a bad news triad that also included a global pandemic and the sudden and tragic death of one of our firm’s Partners at the age of 45. Had I been able to cry “uncle” to the universe or been in possession of a white flag to wave, I would have done so. After reckoning with a series of emotions akin to the Five Stages of Grief, I had to accept that after nearly 12 years of employment with my prior firm, I would need to find a new home².
Frequently, following the call to adventure, the hero will reject the call due to denial, a lack of confidence or other reasons. In my case, my short-lived rejection was born of some combination of pride and a naivety of what a successful outcome would require. As a tenured BD professional in private equity, I assumed that the awareness that I was in the job market would generate a digital tsunami of inbound email traffic inquiring about my desire to join XYZ Capital Partners. Instead of a tsunami, my initial reluctance to embrace the hard work of actively marketing my availability and credentials produced the Outlook equivalent of a slow drip from a leaky faucet.
In the Hero’s Journey model, when protagonists refuse to accept the challenge before them, they are visited by a mentor who bestows upon them the necessary counseling and wisdom to proceed. Think Yoda, Gandalf, Dumbledore, or the Oracle. Mine was a member of the executive search community who chided me for being too stealth in my approach — for those that know her, the delivery came as sternly and directly as you might expect, and it was exactly what I needed³. It was then that I realized that the skills I had previously been applying to source investment opportunities would need to be repurposed and fully deployed to identify my next post.
Upon finally answering the call to adventure and embarking upon the Groundhog’s Day-esque exercise of telling my story to anyone that would listen, I uncovered something that I’ll refer to as the Abundance / Scarcity Paradox of PE business development. It goes something like this:
Abundance / Scarcity Paradox: While there are hundreds of seats in the private equity industry for business development professionals, there are precious few for those serving in a senior capacity, and vacancies are extremely rare. Moreover, the business development position is one that tends towards long tenure. This is because the perceived continuity disruption of replacing even a middling BD pro is often believed to outweigh the benefits of upgrading the position. I’m aware of few (if any) instances of a tenured BD professional being unseated, though my prediction is that the present and growing marketing imperative for PE, generally, and the BD role, specifically, will result in a changing of the guard at some firms⁴.
So, I realized that getting an offer was going to require a disciplined and proactive focus on the following three situations:
With my target audience clearly identified, I then recalibrated my business development toolkit to set my sights on prospective employers and those that were one degree of separation from them⁵.
The Items You Will Need on Your Quest
One of my favorite scenes in any story is the lock-and-load sequence where the protagonists equip themselves with whatever weaponry and supplies they’ll need to face their adversaries. The best of which, in my opinion, follows this classic exchange:
Tank: “Okay. So what do you need, besides a miracle?”
Neo: “Guns. Lots of guns.”
In my case, the necessary armaments were less lethal but just as effective for their required purpose:
1. “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss
There’s a reason this book has withstood the test of time, and reading it to my children at night was a profound reminder of the enduring wisdom within. I get chills every time I read, “I’m afraid that sometimes you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ’cause you’ll play against you.” The accompanying inspirational messages were always a shot in the arm, and I took comfort in knowing that my odds of success were 98.75% guaranteed.
2. A Good Pair of Running Shoes
Running has been proven to have an array of mental health benefits including spurring creativity and in some cases being as effective as antidepressants in treating low-level depression. Better accessing your creative potential, lifting your spirits and lowering stress can be immensely valuable during a transition.
The fact that you are reading this piece means that you already have an account which is a good starting point. Don’t underestimate the power of LinkedIn. Make sure to use your network to (i) find warm connections to professionals at firms about which you’d like to learn more, and (ii) regularly post high-quality content directed at your target audience to stay relevant and stimulate engagement. A great strategy is to author thought pieces about deal sourcing to build your personal brand around the topic.
Most PE professionals aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, but the larger your rainy day fund, the better your BATNA⁶. In other words, if you can’t come to terms on a package or scope that makes an opportunity sufficiently appealing, then your BATNA is to amicably part ways and keep looking for the role that gets you excited. If you don’t have the appropriate savings to weather what may be a long search, then you can find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to take a job out of necessity. Make sure you are preparing now for the inevitable bumps in the road.
5. Properly Managed Expectations
I’m personally a believer in the following equation:
Happiness = Reality - Expectations⁷
This basically means that if your expectations exceed your present reality, then you are destined to experience emotions ranging from mild disappointment to despair. Conversely, if your reality ends up exceeding your expectations, then you will experience feelings on the happiness continuum. So, as it applies to a job search, it’s best to appropriately calibrate your expectations to the fact that landing a BD job in PE, particularly at the senior level, is going to take a LONG time. This is true for even the best BD professionals as a result of the Abundance / Scarcity Paradox described above.
Tests, Allies & Enemies
Once the hero accepts the call to adventure, he or she must then “cross the threshold” which means that they voluntarily depart the comfort and certainties of their prior existence and enter the realm of the unknown. It is in this new, uncharted territory that the hero formally embarks upon their adventure and begins their transformation. In this new arena, the hero faces tests of strength and will and is introduced to both helpful allies and treacherous enemies. The following are the tests, allies and enemies that I encountered during my journey:
Obstacles that thwart progress and put your determination and strength through a trial.
- Below Market Offers. An offer that’s beneath your requirements can be dangerously seductive because it represents a bird in the hand. Stick to your guns and remember that there’s a lot of power in a polite “no”.
- Patience. Steel yourself to wait for (i) positions to become available and (ii) the time it will take to navigate a firm’s hiring process, which will be comprehensive. Both will likely take longer than you would expect.
- Zillow. If you are contemplating a relocation, understanding the housing market via Zillow & other resources is important, but this exercise can produce an emotional attachment to a given geography or position. Stay objective.
Those who encourage you and offer advice, resources, connections, and empathic listening.
- Recruiters. Once you are on a recruiter’s radar, they are your best and most intuitive asset for open positions. Just remember that seats don’t open up often, and you will be entering a talent auction to get them.
- Other BD Professionals. It may seem counterintuitive that other BD professionals would want to help given that they are your competitors, but the PE deal sourcing community is remarkably inclined to help.
- Financial Sponsors Coverage & Other Investment Bankers. If you’ve done a good job building reciprocal relationships on the banking side, FSG bankers should want to help. They often know of open seats ahead of the market because their counsel is frequently sought early by funds & recruiters seeking to fill a BD position. They can also be excellent references. Ditto for execution-focused bankers with whom you’ve developed a strong rapport.
- Current & Former Colleagues. People with whom you’ve been in the trenches can be an excellent force multiplier to your networking effort. They have first-hand experience in working with you and can often open otherwise hidden or locked doors.
- Others in the M&A Ecosystem. Includes attorneys (e.g. fund formation, M&A), placement agents, accountants, insurance professionals & other providers to PE firms. If you don’t have a connection to someone at a PE firm in which you are interested, these people can help.
- Spouse / Significant Other⁸. People whose lives are directly affected by your career decisions are the best sounding boards to inject critical objectivity into your search.
Those that imperil the stated objective and threaten to weaken resolve and/or the vitality to continue.
- Yourself. As the saying goes, the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master. Don’t listen to the voice in your head that tells you all sorts of things that can discourage perseverance.
- Those That Don’t Understand Your Value. Every firm is on its own journey to embrace the value of dedicated deal sourcing professionals. Some will not be as evolved as you would like, but don’t take that personally.
- Firms That Attempt to Impose Their Limitations on You. Some firms have resource or other constraints that impede their ability to bring you in at the appropriate level. This has nothing to do with you. Remember that your value is independent of any of that.
- Firms with Incompatible Cultures. Over a lengthy courtship, behavioral patterns will emerge. Look for consistency of action & follow-through. Pay attention to any red flags — remember, this is when people should be on their best behavior.
- People Who Tell You to Change Your Objective. Once you have conviction about what you want, do not listen to people who effectively tell you to throw in the towel and consider pivots. Only you can make that decision.
Over the course of your search, you are all but guaranteed to encounter people and situations that fall in each of the categories above. Look for little victories along the way to embolden your process, and just remember, more than half the battle is to…
…NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP!
The Reward & the Road Back
Upon accomplishing the goal, the hero is not only rewarded both materially and metaphysically but they are fundamentally changed. With the rewards of achievement both in hand and within, the hero must return back to ordinary life and integrate within it as a changed person. The Hero’s Journey archetype refers to the knowledge gained from the quest as an “elixir” that can be shared with those who need it. Thus, the true reward is the ability to help others which is why I wrote this blog⁹.
I’m delighted to report that after a multi-month journey to identify my next role, I have accepted an offer to join a long-tenured and well-respected middle-market private equity fund in Southern California focused on high organic growth B2B and B2G services companies. I begin on June 21st and can’t wait to embark upon my new quest to deliver deal sourcing innovation and leadership to this platform. Thank you to all of the allies that supported me during this journey — your help and encouragement were invaluable, and I will be eternally grateful.
¹Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is an absolute must-read for anyone seeking to understand the Hero’s Journey in greater detail. The following is a diagram that presents the basic story structure:
²While an unfortunate and surprising turn of events, it was impossible to take the news of needing to re-platform personally. Further, my prior employer delivered a master class on effecting a transition plan with empathy and the necessary support to ensure that I could wait for the right next role for me and my family.
³Thank you, thank you, thank you for caring enough to tell me the truth and for taking the time to listen.
⁴My unsolicited advice for BD professionals is to learn the digital marketing game ASAP in order to enhance job security, earning potential and the likelihood of attaining a Partner role in their respective firms.
⁵As a general rule, do not attempt to reach out to a PE firm cold via call or email. That approach is almost guaranteed to fail and should only be used as a last resort. Best practices are to leverage the best regarded mutual contact of both your and the target PE firm’s network for an introduction, and LinkedIn is the perfect tool for this exercise.
⁷While I first heard this concept cited by Elon Musk as a guest on the Joe Rogan podcast, the internet credits Tom Magliozzi, the now deceased, former host of NPR’s Car Talk with the idea. Love the coincidental intersection of cars and philosophy here.
⁸I don’t know about you, but my wife is the fiercest negotiator I’ve ever encountered. I’m just happy she’s on my side of the table.
⁹I actually view the act of writing a piece such as this to be a hero’s journey in and of itself. Attempting any piece of writing you intend to distribute forces you to leave the comfort of not having to write something and propels you into the unknown of crafting something worthy of sharing.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect any opinion, position, or policy of any firm with whom I have been or will be affiliated.