On Tuesday, I gave a thorough breakdown of how a pre-MBA candidate should approach the Private Equity Interview Case Study. In keeping with the theme, I thought I'd touch upon the actual interview portion of the process.
Rather than doing a deep dive into answers to technical questions and related minutia, which is better suited for a formalized interview guidebook, I thought I'd give a brief overview of the more easily brushed over aspects of PE interviews. Things that can easily be missed when you're busy prepping your technical knowledge and brushing up on your deal experience.
To be clear, my focus is onstyle interviews, the kind in which you've already completed your case study and are meeting with multiple members of the firm. A day in which you should expect to meet anyone, from Associate on up to Partner and everywhere in between.
Without further ado, let's have a look at three Do's and three Don'ts ofsuperday interviews...
My focus here is not on hardcore technicals or generic facts about private equity, there are guides for that. My focus is softer aspects of the interview process. If you've gotten to the point where you're at a PE superday, you've got to expect that your competition will be pretty stiff. You'll need to go the extra mile to really stand out.
So, let's go through three Do's for PE interviews:
1.) If you put something to paper, be prepared to speak to it intelligently:
This might sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how often I've interviewed someone who has seemingly exaggerated something on their resume or simply was not able to articulate something they listed. Hell, I had this happen to me at some point in my interviewing days.
Obviously there is a great deal of pressure to have a primo resume. But, you have to be able to speak to all of it. Now, I'm not saying that you're going to get grilled on something from your "Relevant Courses" section, but you'd better be able to speak to each one of the deals you list. If you worked on a $500 million sell-side process, be prepared to discuss it in detail. What did the company do? Were financial buyers interested in it? Why or why not? Is it similar to any of the businesses the firm you are interviewing with owns? Be ready to dive into the details of the companies involved, the outcome of the deal, and the role you played in it. The last thing you want is to be asked about a transaction you worked on and not have a handle on the details. It comes off as sloppy, unprepared, and makes you seem like you aren't as good as you presented yourself on paper.
Being prepared to discuss anything you put to paper also goes for your Case Study. If you were asked to prepare a case study in advance of your superday, you'd better understand it inside and out. You'll want to be able to walk someone through your analysis intelligently and you'll want to frame your arguments from the perspective of a private equity investor. This means using your analysis and coming to a conclusion and being ready to defend your conclusion.
2.) Know your audience:
You should be reasonably well-studied on the firm you're interviewing with. Try to have an understanding of the types of companies they invest in and their investment style. Do they only invest in traditional buyouts? Perhaps they focus on founder-owned companies. Maybe they mix things up with a blend of equity and mezzanine investments.
This might sound obvious, but being able to speak intelligently about the company you're meeting with goes a long way. Ideally, you'll be able to tie some aspect of your work experience and interests to the fund's investment style and firm culture. When your competition is stiff, you've got to find a way to create a competitive advantage for yourself. Assuming you hit all the technical aspects correctly, showing the firm that you understand their investment style and can relate to it in some tangible way, either through work experience or personal interests, can go a long way towards helping you secure an offer.
3.) Be prepared to ask questions:
This isn't necessarily PE specific, as you should have some solid questions ready for any interview you go on. But, intelligent questions can lead to meaningful discussion and can show that you have a grasp of both private equity in general and the firm you are interviewing with. Good interviews always function as more of a dialogue than an interrogation, so prepare a set of questions that can lead to solid discussion. While it's always easy to ask about a person's background and why they joined the firm, it's great to also be ready to ask them about specific companies in the portfolio. Read up ahead of time and try and dive into the firm's rationale for a specific investment.
While you want to have a set of meaningful questions, be sure that they aren't too pointed. The last thing you want is to make your interviewer feel like you're interviewing them, and not the other way around. That's a sure-fire way to get someone to dislike you.
Now that we've covered a few major Do's of PE interviews, how about we take a look at a few Don'ts?
1.) Don't be arrogant:
Sounds obvious, right? Well, again, you'd be surprised. When PE interviews start rolling in and you know you've got a pretty strong resume, your head can get pretty big. That kind of attitude can really seep out in an interview. As impressive as your work experience is to date, you've still got, at most, three years of Analyst work under your belt. A big head can get you dinged in a hurry.
You want to be confident, not arrogant. Self-assured, not full of yourself.
2.) Be friendly, but not too friendly:
Having a friendly, but firm, demeanor is obvious. What you don't want to do is be too friendly. Allow me to illustrate what I mean with an example:
When my old firm was interviewing for a new batch of pre-MBA Associates, there was a plethora of great candidates. One sticks out in my mind for all the wrong reasons. He had to fly to our offices, so he ended up arriving pretty early. Not a big deal, until he decided it would be ok to try and hang out with me and the other Associate. I mean, quite literally, walking into my office, sitting down in a chair, and attempting to both shoot the breeze and dig for intel on the firm. Now, if this were a bar and someone simply wanted to make conversation, that would be fine. But this was the morning of his interview and I had more than enough work to do. Last thing I needed was to delay working on a model to entertain a candidate. He eventually took the hint and went off to his waiting area.
After the interviews were finished, he decided to swing by my office again. Now, dropping by to say "thanks again, have a great day" is one thing. But, he stopped by to start asking me about what I was working on and to spend more time shooting the breeze. I'm not trying to sound like some sort of tyrant, but it's pretty inappropriate to try and befriend a member of the firm you're interviewing with on the day of interviews and act buddy-buddy with them. Like I said earlier, Associates have plenty of work to do and trying to be their pal isn't going to help qualify you for the job.
3.) Do not piss off the admin staff:
Think of the admins as the gate keepers. They of course won't interview you directly, but if they don't like you, you're probably screwed. Frankly, this shouldn't be hard. Assuming you are a relatively normal person, you'll manage just fine. But, again, you'll be surprised by the types of things people will do. For example:
Another candidate that interviewed at my old fund made himself far too comfortable in the office. Seeing as it was a superday, the candidates were given lunch. They ate in the kitchen and got to spend some more casual time with members of the firm, including some of the admin staff. One of the admins offered to make coffee if any of the prospects wanted a cup. Rather than give a simple "yes, please" or "no, but thank you," one of the candidates decided to say 'no' and proceeded to go off on a semi-rant about the quality of the kitchen equipment. Just a string of strange comments knocking the coffee maker and the toaster. I suppose he was trying to be funny, but it just seemed really odd. The admins thought it was weird, too, and that story circulated to the rest of the office. So, when we were talking about him later, he became the "coffee maker guy." You don't want to be the coffee maker guy.
It seems so simple, just be nice and make friendly conversation, but I suppose nerves can lead to the insertion of feet in mouths.
I'm curious to hear what others think. Any other major tips that prospective PE Associates should know as they prep for interviews? Any tips that recent interviewees might want to share? Leave them in the comments.