Navigating Your Partner Relationships
Empower the whole partnership, but cultivate a champion.
There are two most common functional setups for up-and-coming VCs. The first is being “partner-aligned,” meaning that one person (effectively) hired you into the organization and your primary role is to work most directly with her to serve as leverage on her time. It’s the classic apprenticeship model. You help this partner succeed, and she will teach you The Way. The other setup is to work as a “floater.” You’ve been hired into a set of partners, and it’s your job to source for everyone, assist in diligence on whatever current opportunity is being pursued, and add value more broadly. Perhaps you have an official boss according to HR, but it’s been communicated to you that you’re essentially dotted-line reporting to many of or even all of the partners at the firm.
In either of the above cases, however, the right way to think about your job isn’t as strictly defined. Do not mentally define your venture role into the narrow construct it was positioned to you.
If you’re partner-aligned and you stay completely siloed from the rest of the partnership for years, then you’ll struggle to succeed past mid-level. For the existing partners to someday truly see you as a peer, a partner, then you’ll certainly need to interact with them as such. You don’t want to be perceived as merely serving under one of their peers indefinitely, but instead growing out of that mold. On the other side of the spectrum, it is untenable to be all things to all people - you cannot perform the tasks of a dedicated apprentice to one, two, three or more partners concurrently. More importantly, it is beneficial politically for one of the more senior partners to be advocating for you inside the inner circle when it comes to promotion, compensation, and most importantly, responsibility.
Regardless of the model under which you were hired, approach your role with the mindset of empowering the whole partnership, all while cultivating a champion.
As I’ve stressed in a previous posts, all VCs have the same job, with the first aspect being a supportive colleague. As a junior investor, even if you’re initially solely aligned with one specific partner, it is incumbent on you to support and help others as well. Activities can include proactively offering to pitch in on diligence calls for fast-moving deals, opening up your network for backchannel reference conversations, and certainly participating in “firm-building” activities like producing events, organizing off-site sessions, or other visible internal legwork. Even better, occasionally serve up an investment idea to another partner, as long as it’s not going around your straight-lined partner. For example, if you’re primarily focused on enterprise software investments, but a unique consumer startup comes your way, you can and should directly route that to the right person… as long as you're sure it’s credible enough to potentially meet your firm’s criteria.
If your official reporting responsibilities are more diffuse, it’s quite beneficial to cultivate one or two stronger partner relationships. Honestly, this situation will likely and should come fairly naturally over time, so embrace (not resist) it as it does. Of course, your activities are expected to benefit the entire partnership. But when you’re helping one partner succeed, and fostering a deeper relationship, that helps both you and the broader group. Your positive contributions do not need to be equally divided, but rather equally perceived. In other words, the goal shouldn’t be to distribute the value you’re adding to the firm ratably amongst all of the partners. Instead, the goal should be that all of the partners equally understand and appreciate your contributions. Having one partner who you’ve cultivated a stronger relationship with can help ensure that this situation is the case because they should be vocal about it with their peers. It is quite beneficial to have this person as your advocate behind closed doors in the conversations which you’re not present.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you entered the partnership. To move up in it, navigate gracefully towards supporting the many while allying with the few.