Leveraging a one-person strategy team in private equity portfolio companies

A common path for management consultants generally includes elements of the following: You gain pre-MBA experience, leave to earn your advanced degree (most commonly an MBA), return to consulting and, unless you pursue the partner path, leave consulting to join an in-house strategy team at a large corporation or Fortune 500.

Serving on an in-house strategy team for a large corporation typically offers former consultants a healthier work-life balance, allows you to focus on strategic challenges for a brand-name company and keeps you working with a consistent team. It’s a highly attractive career path for many consultants ready to exit “into industry.”

However, consultants interested in keeping their sleeves rolled all the way up may want to pursue a career at a private equity portfolio company, where you could be expected to serve as the sole strategy contributor.

Related: Key differences between large and small strategy teams

In this article, we explain what these individual contributor roles can look like for strategy professionals, as well as the attributes and experiences that help make these individuals successful.

A day in the life of a strategy executive in a private equity portfolio:

Private equity-backed companies have some of the leanest executive teams in business because private equity sponsors place a major emphasis on doing more with less. This has to do in large part with the pace at which private equity operates.

When a firm acquires a new business, they generally have 3-5 years to sell the business and make a return on their investment. Facing thin profit margins and a compressed timeline, a small and impactful team is best, and this can, in most cases, entail having just one person to oversee strategy.

Podcast: What not to ask when interviewing with a private equity firm

So, what does this lone strategist do on an average day in a private equity portfolio company?

Unlike their corporate counterparts, these individuals oversee all aspects of strategic planning and analysis, and as such, every day will be different. In most cases, they will not have an analyst to conduct research, collect data or work in Excel, so they must be comfortable doing this type of work, but be just as comfortable working with the C-suite to identify, set and refine strategic goals.

They will interact with people at all levels of the company, crunch numbers and report to their peers as well as to the private equity sponsor. In addition, this person must be comfortable with a healthy degree of ambiguity given that priorities can and do change on a relatively frequent basis.

The ability to “see around corners” and think quickly in an ever-changing environment will serve this person well.

What traits should companies prioritize when hiring an individual strategy contributor?

Depending on the scope of the role and the compensation, reporting structure, etc., most firms will seek to hire someone with both post-MBA consulting experience and pre-MBA industry experience.

The person who has spent their entire career in consulting may have a more difficult time landing a role like this, because private equity firms often value some degree of experience working in a mid-sized company. Direct experience in a relevant industry is a considerable “plus,” but it’s not a dealbreaker if you don’t have it – especially if the candidate brings the right balance of consulting skills and EQ.

Cultural fit is one of the most important pieces of the equation for an individual strategy contributor. In our experience, the person coming into this position will either be seen as a breath of fresh air or met with some level of skepticism. Regardless of how they’re perceived, the ability to break through and build connections at all levels of the business is a must.

Additionally, entrepreneurial experience is a major plus. Having experience going through the sales cycle, even at the pre-MBA level or in a startup, is extremely valuable in private equity. This will prove the candidate knows what it’s like to not only develop a business but to sell a business as well.

Every firm is different, but a well-rounded and personable consultant who can wear a smile while rolling their sleeves all the way up can generally succeed as an individual strategy contributor in a private equity-backed portfolio company.

Related: How to find your ideal exit opportunity from consulting

The takeaway:

A post-consulting career in strategy can lead down many roads, but serving as an individual contributor in a private equity portfolio company is one of the most rewarding exit opportunities for any consultant. The pace is fast, the work is dynamic and the professional development opportunities are plentiful.

Companies seeking to fill these positions should, of course, examine a candidate’s experience through the lens of their own business, but a well-rounded generalist, who is personable and hardworking, can significantly impact the growth of any business.

When the right person is hired into a role of this magnitude, you’ll be amazed at what a team of one can accomplish in a private equity-backed business.

To learn more, contact Kevin Stemke at (336) 217-9109 or kevin.stemke@charlesaris.com.