Jun 12, 2022

New Insights from ON Partners Around the Evolution of the Operating Partner Role in 2022

A recent panel discussion between The Carlyle Group, TPG, Terroir Capital, HIG Capital, and several other private equity firms concluded that the role of the operating partner (OP) is: 1) difficult to define, 2) critical to the due diligence process, and 3) equal parts strategic advisor and business manager.

ON Partners, a top-20 pure-play executive search firm, has further established its position at the intersection of functional C-level posts, PE-backed companies, and operating partner roles spanning a variety of industry sectors.

While ON Partners continues to place OPs in the CEO role, our consultants see demand growing for executives with active, functional experience, such as GTM, operations, IT, and finance to take on OP roles to strengthen and elevate these key functions across the portfolio.

According to Tindall Hein, partner at ON who has previously published insights on the OP role, “Last year, ‘OP 1.0’ was more of a generalist role, in which PE firms brought in a CEO who could help in certain areas. We’re now seeing more of specialist OP, with specific functional or industry expertise, such as a CIO, CRO or COO.”

In this busy and ever-changing market, the ability to more quickly hire a senior executive who can take on multiple roles vs. bringing on a full-time CXO is important. Digital transformation remains a key goal, and regardless of a potential recession and the state of inflation, OPs are still needed to operate companies in which PE firms have invested.

Notes Sean Cantarella, partner at ON Partners, “With the potential of increased market volatility, having a functional OP available to help a PE firm with due diligence before acquiring a company – and improving operations within the existing portfolio– is key.”

More likely to be advisors than board members, functional OPs spend approximately 10% of their time on due diligence, but this is still a major differentiator when you have a functional expert in the discussions.

While a more generalist OP role may be considered a step before retirement, a functional OP is not seen as an end-of-career role. And unlike the relatively small pool of CEO candidates, the number of candidates – including diverse candidates – who are qualified for a range of functional OP roles being considered is much larger.

Case Study: Undertaking a Functional Operating Partner Search with a Leading PE Fund


With one top PE firm for which ON Partners is undertaking an OP search focused on identifying revenue-driving function leaders, the ON team notes that this OP search is different than a typical executive-level assignment. The team needed to get alignment from the large internal team, all of whom have strong opinions about the ideal candidate.

To help reach internal consensus, the ON team solicited direct individual feedback from everyone as to what they wanted in the role. The ON consultants created a list of attributes based on conversations with the client and asked them to prioritize them. The result –  everyone essentially sought the same top three attributes in a potential OP:

  • Experience driving growth for a small, mid, or large-cap company
  • EQ – this person will be working across many portfolios and needs to successfully work with more people than a normal C-level role would require
  • Functional expertise – in this case, strong go-to-market vision and modern go-to-market reflex

The one-on-one feedback was particularly helpful, and the ON team was able to share it with the group. The next step was determining how the interview process would work, acknowledging the importance of having someone who can sell the position since most people don’t know what the role entails if they haven’t been in it. Someone who has recently made the transition is the best person to talk about it first with a candidate.

In this search engagement, the PE fund didn’t necessarily want candidates who had already been operating partners. As they were looking not for a CEO but more of a CRO/go-to-market executive, they were looking for someone capable of building a go-to-market strategy and who had done it recently.

The ON team has noticed with a couple of candidates that these executives want to come in and spend two to three years with the PE firm and then move on, potentially going from CRO to the CEO of one of the fund’s portfolio companies. It’s not necessarily a long-term role, but it can be if they like it.

The primary incentive for a CRO to move into an OP role is to gain access to a PE network. People like taking on an influential role on their terms vs. being tied to it, and they like working with multiple companies. In this particular role, go-to-market folks are asking about being CEO at a portfolio company at some point.

The ON team has done OP searches before along with extensive work at the CRO level with multiple software companies, and they shared with the PE client eight profiles of what the team believes a strong candidate looks like. Having expertise on both the OP and CRO side brings valuable perspectives to the table.

For more insights into the operating partner role, see our previous article published in 2021 here.

About ON Partners

Since 2006, ON Partners is the only pure-play executive search firm building diverse C-level and board leadership teams. We rebuilt the institution of executive search for the way you work. Our approach includes present partners who engage with their clients from the first brief to the final decision, individually crafted solutions that are unique to each client, and an easier experience all around. Named by Forbes as one of America’s Best Executive Recruiting Firms and to the Inc. 500/5000 Lists nine times, ON Partners is consistently ranked among the top 20 retained executive search firms in the U.S.

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