Former Competitive Athletes in Private Equity

August 18, 2020

High stakes and fierce competition make private equity the ‘big leagues’ of the business world. Fittingly, many former competitive athletes have thrived amidst its pressure-packed environments. Aside from the obvious parallels, how might such a background better prepare an executive to prosper in PE? In this Falcon Roundtable, four private equity insiders with extensive athletic experience sound off on the topic.

Roundtable Participants

Josh Hall. Co-founder and Senior Partner at Calvert Street Capital Partners. Former UPenn lacrosse All-American.

Eric Harber. Operating Partner with The Riverside Company and former Stanford University wrestling captain.

Jim Stagnitta. Co-founder of Prodromos Leadership and private equity LP investor. Two-time Premier League Lacrosse champion head coach, former NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Coach of the Year, and former UPenn lacrosse athlete.

Bryan Sienerth. FALCON Associate and former Mercyhurst University hockey athlete who competed in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ farm system. 

Competitive athletics often require an individual to effectively collaborate with other “alphas,” whether they are coaches or teammates. Does that parallel private equity?

Eric Harber: Absolutely. The PE ecosystem has many different leadership roles. Not only do you have the portfolio company management teams, but you have roles like operating partners, finance directors, fund managers and outside board directors. Success requires crafting an environment where all these people at the pinnacle of their profession can run hard and fast and be sharpened by one another while knowing there’s an underlying trust between them. It’s comparable to how members of a high-achieving athletic team push one another in practice or training to become stronger, better versions of themselves.

Bryan Sienerth: Competitive sports, particularly at the higher levels, tend to humble the overconfident and reward collaboration. That aligns with PE. We look for C-suite leaders who are confident in their abilities but also comfortable enough in their own skin to effectively partner with other alphas.

Jim Stagnitta: The best executives forge transformational relationships. Transactional relationships are just about a quid pro quo — you do something for someone to get something back in return. Transformational relationships are those connections where you truly care about one another and you push each other to be better. Many former competitive athletes will tell you that much of their early experience in building transformational relationships came through sport.

Outcomes in competitive athletics are very black and white. Do you believe exposure to failure or defeat can be important for a future executive?

Josh Hall: I hate losing. In sports, I learned losing was usually a result of poor planning and execution. I make sure we as a firm always plan and execute at a high level. 

Eric Harber: For sure, without hesitation. You can’t win every time you step on the mat or field just like you can’t always win in business. Even if you enjoy immense success, you will still fail and have your setbacks. What matters is using those setbacks to inspire yourself and innovate for the future. That ability to respond when the reality doesn’t match the expectation is extremely pertinent to private equity.

Many qualities required to thrive in competitive athletics, such as hard work and discipline, are also prerequisites for success in intense academic settings. Can the latter fully replicate the former from a development standpoint?

Jim Stagnitta: Many people come out of college and their education is capability-based. Capability is a learned skill it’s PowerPoint, it’s accounting, it’s something where you can just follow a checklist and gradually become proficient at it. But the biggest real-life problems require a person to manage and adapt to the unknown. That’s your capacity. I believe the classroom alone cannot develop the same level of capacity student-athletes learn on the playing field. Sports demand resiliency and adaptability in ways you rarely encounter otherwise. You can have a fantastic individual performance and your team can still lose the game, for example.

Eric Harber: In my experience, the pairing of a rigorous academic environment and an intense athletic experience worked really well together. It forced me to take my whole life to a new level. With wrestling, I could sprain an ankle prior to a match or encounter a different opponent than I planned for and be forced to change my game plan on the fly. But there’s no textbook for that. Those realistic performance scenarios have parallels to PE and technology industries that throw new challenges at you every single day.

For those aspiring to a career in private equity or as a PE-backed operator, does a background in competitive athletics give them an edge over other candidates? If so, why?

Bryan Sienerth: Yes. As to why, the simple answer is pressure to perform. Coming from a competitive athletic background, it’s ingrained in you to bring it every day. There’s no room for quit. It’s similar in PE — executives who thrive in this industry have a dire need to win, and they consistently deliver amidst constant pressure. Having said that, we would never recommend a candidate solely because they were a former athlete. That background can provide insight into their complexion as a leader, but many other factors must be evaluated.

Josh Hall: While we view a background in athletics as a bonus during hiring decisions, it’s not where we start. Being competitive and a good teammate only gets you so far in private equity — this industry is a lot more complicated and success requires a broader range of skills. 

Eric Harber: I believe it does. I certainly know it can help get your foot in the door and differentiate. My oldest daughter was a four-time national champion rower at Stanford. She graduated last year and was interviewing for a role in technology M&A investment banking — not PE, but it’s a not-too-distant cousin. The Managing Director came to the interview with multiple items already circled on her resume. When he got to her rowing accolades, he said, ‘this tells me you can persevere, you can handle setbacks, and you can lead amongst leaders.’ It was interesting to see that impact right on the front line.

Falcon provides C-suite talent solutions for middle-market private equity firms across North America. Follow us on LinkedIn.