What Does an Operating Partner Do?

Paul Stansik
5 min readApr 12, 2023

Unpacking the weirdest job I’ve ever loved

What Is It…That You Do Here?

Working at Bain & Co. came with some great perks. One of those was the summer offsite. We all looked forward to it: For the break from making slides. For the fanfare around our office award presentations. For celebrating our friends’ and coworkers’ promotions.

But mostly, for the videos.

After a big group dinner, several hundred Bainies would shuffle into a room at the Grand Geneva convention center, swarm the open bar, arrange themselves around a projector screen, and await the creative offerings of our teammates. The content was surprisingly well-produced, and laden with inside jokes that only a consultant could love. An example: One year, I wrote and co-starred in a short titled “Slow Jam The Data Request,” a spoof on a Jimmy Fallon bit where we combined a backing track of high-cheese 90’s R&B with an ask for an employee data file. I won’t link to it here, but I fully expect the video to surface at an amusing but inopportune moment later in my career. (A run for public office is off the table at this point. I’m ok with that.)

My favorite Bain offsite video used a far simpler concept. Built on a creative twist of the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” model, a dozen Bainies recorded cellphone videos asking their parents a simple question:

“What do you think I do all day at work?”

As you might expect, the responses were both endearing and hilarious. My own mother was a big hit as she shared her take on what her strategy consultant son did for a living:

“I think you… help companies make more money…even though you don’t really work for those companies…is that right?”

My Mom’s delivery got a big laugh but… she sort of nailed it? In one very uncertain line, she captured the core function of my job and the inherent nebulousness of it. When I left Bain to join ParkerGale Capital a few years later, I touched on that nebulousness in my goodbye email:

“We are lucky.

We solve interesting problems for some of the most successful businesses on the planet. And we do it surrounded and supported by exceptionally smart, nice, fun people.

Is this sort of a weird job? Sure it is. Coherently explaining what we do for a living can be challenging. Does it come with moments of fatigue, frustration, and (sometimes) real pain? Absolutely.

But it’s worth it.”

I meant that.

The part about the role being occasionally painful. The part about my career being difficult to describe. But mostly, the part about the uniquely satisfying payoff from this flavor of a job well done.

Now five years later, I have a different job but very similar feelings. I run the growth practice for a small PE fund. We buy software companies and help them get a little closer to what consultant-Paul would have called “full-potential” - The type of company employees love working for and other investors take notice of.

But how does that happen?

What does a PE Operating Partner get paid to do?

The way I see it, I basically have four jobs.

(1) Be the Keeper of the Standard

Operating Partners need to have a strong POV on “what good looks like” within their area of focus. You need to be good at pattern-matching what the best teams do differently. You need to build the conviction that “If we do X, that will lead to Y”, where Y is some measure of performance that increases the value of the company. You need to create what Bill Walsh called “a standard of performance.” You also need to hone the ability to detect if that standard is being met. The hard part here is building that standard with a mix of belief and humility. You need a strong belief that doing things this way will build a better business, but you also need the humility to recognize that translating said standard into the unique handwriting of each business is a necessary part of the job. It’s also on you to keep the standard updated over time. Folding in the earned secrets picked up along the way keeps your standard fresh, credible, and tailor-made to your flavor of investment. It’s also just good product management. If you’re not talking to customers (the executives actually using your playbooks, approach, and examples) you’re almost certainly missing something.

(2) Create Agreements That Improve the Business

Yes, you need to have a standard and means to diagnose problems. I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I couldn’t spot issues within sales, marketing, or the C-suite. And while operational playbooks and “how-to” guides are great, nothing actually happens without buy-in from the management team and the people that work for them. Good PE ops people are strategic diplomats — adept at both spotting the gaps and getting people on the same page about how to fill them.

I’m constantly looking for the impactful, controllable, measurable things that need fixing. But I also have to keep a sort of awareness for which of those things can be fixed. That’s the hard part of this gig, and the thing that my Mom nailed in her wise-but-funny summary: It’s my job to help our companies make more money. The hard part of that job is this: Help is defined in the mind of the recipient. If I can’t get our management team to agree that something’s off-track and/or that it’ll lead to becoming a bigger, better business, I can’t hope to make a difference. A diagnosis isn’t worth much if you can’t convince someone to take their medicine. You need to be good at both to be good at this job.

(3) Help Keep Score

You can’t know if you’re winning or losing if you can’t see the scoreboard. People who are good at this job are good at building simple, consistent reporting. They can measure things in a way that cuts through the chatter and makes it obvious when you’re off-track. Funny enough, getting this reporting thing right is a sneaky way to build psychological safety. Why? A simple, objective scoreboard make it easier to bring up tough problems, which researchers would tell is what makes high-performing teams great. More on that idea here.

(4) Create a Demanding + Supportive Environment

PE gets a bad name for raising the bar on people without giving them the resources they need to meet it. If you’re going to ask a company to do things it’s never done before, you better be there to teach, coach, and pitch in — especially when things get hard. You need to strike the right balance between asking for more and lending a hand. I think about this balance as a sort of invisible ledger. When I ask people to give a bit more, I know I’ll have to engineer a give of some sort — training, content, support, or just some simple encouragement — to keep things out of the red.

--

--

Paul Stansik

Partner at ParkerGale Capital. Lives in Chicago. Writes about sales, marketing, growth, and how to be a better leader. Views my own. Not investment advice.