Private Equity Headhunters: Pathway Providers or Unethical Gatekeepers?
You’ll almost always have to deal with private equity headhunters if you want to win offers at mid-sized-to-large private equity firms.
Depending on your approach, preparation, and timing, you might get great results – or a collection of interview horror stories.
And while you can find plenty of “headhunter lists” online, it’s more difficult to find tips and strategies to prepare for headhunters.
Many IB Analysts go into the process without understanding these points or the actual purpose of headhunters, which leads to sub-par results.
I’ll cover all those points here, but let’s start with the short version of what to know about private equity headhunters:
The TL;DR About Private Equity Headhunters
Here are the most important points:
- Importance: Private equity headhunters are the most important in the on-cycle recruiting process for larger funds (upper-middle-market and mega-funds) in the U.S.; the same 5-10 recruiting firms represent most of these PE firms.
- Purpose: Headhunters function as outsourced recruiting and HR for private equity firms. In the on-cycle recruiting process, their main purpose is to screen candidates and eliminate people who look good “on paper” but do not perform well in real life.
- Motivation: They receive 20-30% of your Year 1 salary as a commission for a successful placement, so their goals are always efficient placement and 100% offer acceptance. Therefore, headhunters will almost always try to convince you to accept job offers.
- Timing / Responses: If you’re not sure which types of private equity firms or strategies you’re most interested in, or you do not feel prepared for interviews, do not respond to emails from headhunters, and do not set up any meetings.
- Expectations: Treat all interactions with headhunters as first-round interviews and expect a mix of behavioral/fit and “deal experience” questions. You need a solid “story” and specific types of funds you want to target. Potentially, technical questions and even simple LBO modeling tests could come up (but they’re not likely).
- “Lists of Headhunters”: You can find lists of the “top firms” floating around online, but they’re mostly useless because only warm introductions/referrals and inbound contact matter (with some exceptions – see below). And relationships with specific headhunters matter much more than knowing which firm has PE firms A, B, and C as clients.
- Improving Your Odds: Most of the screening process is based on your bank, group, university, and GPA, so you cannot do too much to improve your initial selection chances. But even if you’re at a top bank and you pass the initial screen, it’s 100% possible to fizzle out and end up with no job offers.
- Bad Apples and Horror Stories: And yes, some private equity headhunters are unprofessional or unethical. This happens in any field, and if you get the sense that one individual is in this category, drop them.
The Top Private Equity Headhunters
In the U.S., a few of the PE headhunting firms with the most mega-fund and upper-middle-market clients include Amity Search Partners, Ratio Advisors (spun off from Amity), CPI, Henkel Search Partners (“HSP”), and SG Partners.
These firms represent PE firms such as Bain, Apollo, Silver Lake, KKR, Carlyle, Warburg Pincus, Blackstone, and more.
You could also add names such as Dynamics Search Partners, Gold Coast Search Partners (spun out of CPI), Oxbridge, CarterPierce, BellCast, SearchOne, Glocap, and GoBuyside to this list.
Some of these firms focus on middle-market private equity firms, some are more active with hedge funds, and some do more on the West Coast of the U.S.
As mentioned in the London private equity recruiting article, examples of top firms there include KEA Consultants, Blackwood, Dartmouth Partners, PER (“Private Equity Recruitment”), Walker Hamill, and Altus.
While it’s fun to create and debate these lists, they’re a bit pointless because you will get few responses if you contact headhunters randomly.
You always want a referral from someone who has worked with them before, such as older Analysts in your group.
Remember that headhunters earn commissions based on placements – and they know that if you are contacting them, you have a low chance of placing at the largest firms that pay the highest commissions.
How Do Headhunters Fit into the Private Equity Recruiting Process?
In on-cycle recruiting in the U.S., they do the following:
- Officially kick off the process with intro emails to candidates (primarily Analysts at bulge bracket and elite boutique banks in specific groups). The timing seems to change each year; it was trending earlier (up to 2 years before job start dates), but it was changed to ~1 year in advance in the last cycle.
- Collect resumes and data sheets from candidates. Some “data sheets” can be short (10-15 minutes to fill out), while others will be long and detailed (e.g., rank your preferences for every single client the firm has).
- Set up initial meetings with candidates. These are first-round interviews with mostly behavioral and deal experience-based questions. These interviews exist to eliminate people who don’t know what they want and those who are not prepared for recruiting.
- Set up “pre-interview events” such as breakfasts and coffee chats with candidates. Some of these could also be virtual, and in some cases, the PE firms will set them up directly.
Headhunters complete these tasks to screen, shortlist, and prioritize candidates.
For example, maybe Candidate A graduated from Harvard with a 3.9 GPA and worked in Goldman Sachs TMT…
…but he couldn’t explain his deals concisely, and he got tripped up on a few basic fit and technical questions, such as quick IRR calculations.
Candidate A wouldn’t necessarily be “eliminated,” but headhunters might put him at a lower priority and show other candidates to their best clients first.
Headhunters reprioritize candidates throughout the process based on their performance and overall response rates.
Once the various top firms have their candidate preference lists, a single firm will “kick off” interviews on the same date, and many others will follow to be competitive.
If you get interviews at this stage, you’ll have to complete a few 30-minute interviews with each firm and a timed LBO modeling test.
If you win an offer, you usually have 24 hours to accept it before it expires (sometimes a bit longer, depending on the year).
And if you don’t get an offer, you can continue to interview elsewhere.
Some firms end up extending the process, some start later, some people drop out or renege on offers, and plenty of smaller firms wait and do off-cycle recruiting instead.
Private Equity Headhunters in the Off-Cycle Process
The main difference in the off-cycle process (i.e., the one for roles with immediate start dates and processes that take weeks or months) is that headhunters have much less power.
Private equity firms still use them to collect resumes and data from candidates, but they may not conduct “first-round interviews” in the same way, and these pre-interview events and rapid-fire interviews do not exist.
The other difference is that you do not necessarily need to go through headhunters at all in the off-cycle process.
Many people network independently or get referrals to win these roles (sometimes even referrals from senior bankers in their group).
OK, But What Do Headhunters Do Besides “Communicating” and “Prioritizing”?
The answer is “not that much” because the entire job consists of communicating, prioritizing, and persuading.
In the initial meetings, the headhunters evaluate you to see if you’re polished enough to impress the top firms.
Essentially, they want to know if they could put you in front of a Partner or Founder and not be embarrassed.
For example, could you have a 30-minute conversation without looking at your phone, stuttering, or repeatedly saying “um” or “like”?
Could you explain one of your deals without looking at your resume/CV, and could you give both a 30-second version and a 5-minute version?
If they asked you to explain a turnaround strategy to a 5-year-old, could you do it?
Headhunters look for these types of qualities and abilities in your responses.
The most common questions in this first round are:
- Tell me about yourself / walk me through your resume – See our full guide to telling your story in buy-side interviews.
- Why private equity / why the buy-side? – Yeah, there’s another article on this one.
- Which types of firms are you interested in? – You must have a very specific answer for this one, or they will immediately dismiss you. For example: “Upper-middle-market private equity firms in California that focus on industry-specific SaaS companies within tech.”
- Tell me about a recent deal you worked on – See the guide and some examples.
Many headhunters previously worked in investment banking or private equity, so they’ll know a fair amount about deals.
Oh, and they hear candidates talk about their deals every single year.
So, you can’t just BS your way through these discussions; if they detect even a hint of that, your chances go down.
Headhunters will steer you toward certain firms and discourage you from interviewing with others based on your responses, preferences, and performance.
But much of this is based on stereotyping or pigeonholing candidates, so if you’re in a group like FIG, you’ll always have a tough time interviewing for generalist roles.
After this first step, a headhunter’s job is mostly logistical until you reach the end of the process and win an offer.
Headhunters will almost always urge you to accept the first offer you get.
Maybe you want to consider other options, but to a recruiter, that translates into: “Possibly lose a large commission because this candidate wants an incrementally better offer.”
Unfortunately, accepting the first offer you get is usually the correct decision because of the speed of the on-cycle process.
You could try to leverage your offer to win other interviews within 24 hours, but you should not turn down an offer without anything else lined up.
How Do You Prepare for Recruiters and Manage Work At the Same Time?
Putting together all the pieces, here’s what I recommend:
- Do NOT Respond to or Contact Headhunters Until You’re Ready and Know What You Want – You need to go into the initial meetings with a very clear target and be fully prepared for interviews and case studies. It’s a bad idea to respond to recruiters and then delay your process, as they’ll stop taking you seriously for future recruiting efforts.
- Do Some “Mini-Preparation” Each Month – Since the on-cycle start date keeps shifting, you need to be prepared at all times. I recommend preparing 1-2 deal discussions (spin pitches into sounding like deals, if required) and reviewing them each month. In addition, consider recording yourself discussing your deals and listening to them on your commute. You can also complete short practice modeling tests in your downtime.
- Don’t Make Excuses to Explain Brief Absences to Your Team – Citing repeated “doctor” or “dentist” appointments will seem ridiculous after a while. The senior bankers have been doing this for years/decades and understand how buy-side recruiting works, so if it comes up, state that you’re speaking with recruiters. If you need to be away for a day or multiple days, you might need more of an explanation.
- Don’t Hesitate to Contact Headhunters Yourself IF You Have a Good Reason to Do So – For example, if you’re in a top group, but you didn’t receive the intro emails because you have a middle initial that the recruiters didn’t know about, get your co-workers to forward the emails and reach out yourself.
Also, even if you’re not in a headhunter-targeted group, if you know people who are, you could always reach out and ask them for referrals.
Recruiters are not going to put you on the interview list for KKR or Blackstone, but they might be willing to push your candidacy at other firms.
And If You Want to Avoid Private Equity Headhunters Altogether…
This will be almost impossible, but your best bet is to aim for smaller firms, hedge funds, or corporate development roles.
Similar to the off-cycle PE recruiting process, headhunters still recruit candidates for these roles, but they do less “gatekeeping,” and you can do more to improve your chances.
I would not call headhunters a “necessary evil” because they can be quite good, and some will do a lot to push your case.
It’s more accurate to say that they are a “necessary random element” because it could easily go the other way – especially if you walk into the process unprepared.
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