M&A Career Path: Transitioning Roles In M&A

Corporate development and integration roles consist of different responsibilities. Yet, understanding both roles can help practitioners become more effective at deal execution. In this episode of the M&A Science Podcast, Kerry Perez, Head of Enterprise Strategy at AMN Healthcare, discusses her M&A career path and how to transition roles in M&A, during which she experienced a variety of roles.

M&A Career Path: Transitioning Roles In M&A

22 Dec
with 
Kerry Perez
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M&A Career Path: Transitioning Roles In M&A

M&A Career Path: Transitioning Roles In M&A

"The company needs to help you develop, but you also need to be in charge of your career. You have to steer your own ship." - Kerry Perez

Corporate development and integration roles consist of different responsibilities. Yet, understanding both roles can help practitioners become more effective at deal execution. In this episode of the M&A Science Podcast, Kerry Perez, Head of Enterprise Strategy at AMN Healthcare, discusses her M&A career path and how to transition roles in M&A, during which she experienced a variety of roles.

special guests

Kerry Perez
Vice President, Enterprise Strategy at AMN Healthcare

Hosted by

Kison Patel

Episode Transcript

Journey to integration

I started at entry-level sales in AMN Healthcare, and most of my career was in marketing. There was a pivotal time when we got a new leader into the organization and brought an eCommerce lens to our company. 

That helped change us from top-of-the-funnel marketing to going all the way down to our key revenue driver, which is placements. It helped us become more strategic and operational, which became my background of knowing the organization better and different departments and players. 

I always try to get involved in some special projects that would help me get skills outside of the department that I was in. One day, there was a call to get involved with a particular integration of a company that was in Kansas City. I joined just as a marketing representative to help integrate their marketing functions.

But what was key there is that I joined our weekly integration update meetings. I was just in a constant state of learning and listening to all the functional areas, what they were talking about, and how they were integrating. That was my first introduction to integration.

A couple of years later, with a couple of integration experiences, I got tapped on the shoulder to lead an integration. I didn't have formal experience but took the leap to lead it. It was like a trial by fire. I was happy to get the opportunity and the trust of my colleagues, and you just get better each time. 

Early lessons learned

There are certain areas that, if I could have done differently, I would have. It was more on understanding the jargon of what I was talking about.

And there's a period where you're relying on just your problem-solving skills to connect the dots, but you're not necessarily sure of the depth of what that function is talking about. 

Reporting back up to our C-Suite on the integration status was difficult for me. Sometimes I was just hoping to even say the words correctly of what was happening so I could live in and feel it when I was hoping to integrate, but I didn't know all the parts and how they were coming together. 

For instance, it took me a while before I learned how HR is connected to IT when moving them onto benefits. 

It's extremely important to understand how the pieces work together. And if you don't know how all the functions work together, you should know why these teams need to come together and discuss the issue.

And now that has transferred even further into the actual setting up of a diligence and integration management office. You have to understand the clusters of what has to come together to drive value and actually do the nuts and bolts of the integration. And also understanding the chronology of what has to happen first.

Standing up an IMO

When I left AMN for a little bit and went to Amazon, I got a call back from AMN saying they had four active acquisitions going on at one time. 

They needed someone to run integration on a more systematic approach, centered on driving value, and executing on time and budget that's repeatable and scalable. They wanted me to do it.

And through my three-step process of observing, trying, and then jumping, this was my next evolution. Read books, listen to webinars, or interview folks in the industry. And then trying to evaluate those specific problems or opportunities that AMN had. 

One of those things was getting consistent players in the integration roles as opposed to looking for who's available in each function. And when I got the commitment and dedication from our CEO, who assigned dedicated people for integration, that's when we started to become a well-oiled machine

It's one thing to read it, but it's another thing to live it and breathe it with the same people who know how to execute and remember that we did this three integrations ago, and there was a problem. That's helped us get faster and more streamlined in solving for value.

Experience in diligence

After I did my first integration, there was another acquisition coming up where I was asked to lead diligence, and that was another trial by fire. I just jumped right in and used some of the tools that we already had.

You just have to rely on what you know about the company, and rely on people who can help you. And from there, I led another diligence and just being in that constant state of learning and understanding the differences between when we're fully running diligence ourselves.

For the next one we involved a banker to lead it. And so I picked up on some of their best practices and incorporated some of their templates into our next evolution. So there's a little bit of your own experience and intelligence that you can bring to a role.

You must be very open to constructive feedback and take that with you. And always be open for improvement.

Improving diligence

Being involved in the integration and in diligence allowed me to see some of the problems that could be solved at the forefront of a transaction when I was setting up the DIMO. 

For instance, the knowledge transfer between diligence and integration is so important. If your team members are not the same from diligence moving into integration, there must be a solid written handoff that can be referenced and memorialized.

The other thing was bringing forward potentially sensitive topics, if possible, during diligence at the leadership level, as well as clarity of what type of integration this will require which will then set up the rest of the integration team.

Diligence and integration management office

We've set up a DIMO specifically because it is important to have some continuity between diligence and integration. And if it can't always be the same people doing the diligence and integration, at least the leader will have that continuity.

It's exponentially better than doing a traditional handoff. What's even better is that not only am I involved in diligence, but I am now involved in management meeting discussions before the LOI. 

The more upstream I got involved, the more I understood the strategy, the rationale, and the value that we were looking to achieve to better design both diligence and integration. 

When I'm not involved in an M&A process, I started cutting my teeth more on strategy, pulling from what I've learned from marketing and getting involved in strategic enterprise processes with my leader.  

Head of corp dev

Technically I skipped Corp Dev because it's embedded in our strategy function. In theory, the head of strategy is also the head of corporate development but we don't have a specific corporate development function. 

But it is more of a team sport right now in which we have a finger on the pulse. So we're here talking to all of our business leaders, we have at least 12 to 15 different business lines who really have their ear to the ground and are informing us.

But it's funny that you mentioned it because I am building a more corp-dev-focused team. We are big enough now, and it would be better to have two to three team members focused specifically on that in a corp dev sort of role. 

Most of our deals bubble up from the business line and through our relationship with bankers. But we want to be more proactive in outreach which is a deliberate enhancement over the next couple of years.

Transitioning roles in M&A

It's not that easy, there are certainly times when I am very nervous and I would think about what it would be like to be classically trained come up through a consulting arm from a strategy perspective and have all these different arsenals and tools and specific frameworks under my belt.

But I have been very grateful for the mentorship I have had within and outside of my organization, constantly seeking to learn what I don't know. I just recently joined a group called Chief. It's a women's networking group with others in my pod, and I am beginning to try and learn from them. 

I also want to give a shoutout to my CEO Susan, who has a motto of not only being a mentor but being a sponsor and an advocate. She is very active, looking for opportunities to increase my skills. 

You just have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and the gap between observing, trying, and then leading, can sometimes be huge. It's a pretty big jump. You just keep your building blocks going. You know what you know. And you don't know what you don't know. - Kerry Perez

You can get closer to knowing it by seeking out whether it is educating yourself or taking a specific use case to someone who knows to help you work through that. 

And so, a shout out to my manager Nishaun, who always encourages me to take that step when it feels uncomfortable to the point where it feels very comfortable to move into something uncomfortable.

But it's not all about the company. The company needs to help you develop, but you also need to be in charge of your career. You have to steer your own ship.

You need to raise your hand when you want more or bring to the table exactly what you want to try. Having been a leader and developing team members, it is so much additionally appreciated.

Mentorship

It's an equal partnership between the mentee and the mentor. There are some programs even at my company called Ignite, and it's a specific mentor program and there was a template that would help get people started with from a formal mentorship process.

But the key here is that the mentee is driving the conversation. It's not the mentor pulling from that conversation.  Bring them something they can help with, and start learning from them. 

I'd like to understand what their strengths are, understand if they know what they're interested in, and then start to encourage them to job shadow, look at job descriptions, and understand where their skills are transferable, especially if they want to move from one department to the other.

And then give them the confidence too to leap even if they're not ready. So that's one of my approaches. And I'm open to feedback from anybody I'm mentoring if there are other things I could be doing better in a constant state of learning.

And the key thing too as a mentor, is you get so much out of being a mentor as well. I learn from the people I mentor all the time, and I love to incorporate what I'm learning from them into my day and how I can be a better mentor to others.

So there's humility about also being a mentor, and I'm honored that they would be interested in learning from me. And it's all about paying it forward too. I've been so grateful and benefited so much from people mentoring me that I feel it is an honored responsibility to be able to take others along with me. 

Networking skills

I participated in a program called Founder's Institute. It's an incubator accelerator program, and I took an idea as an infopreneur and joined a group of entrepreneurs trying to get a business off the ground and went through this eight-week course with them.

I felt like that gave way to more organic networking because we were all involved in a process together. Also gave me access to some judges on panels that were local CEOs or entrepreneurs in the area. 

And then I started putting together what I'd call my board of directors. So the facilitator of that Founder's institute, Janine, was on my board of directors. 

I actually got the former head of strategy and investor relations at AMN who introduced me to the Founder's Institute. So she joined my personal board. 

And then, from there, it felt just more organic to connect with folks when you're involved in a project and then recognize that you have things to offer other people. 

So I think it always comes back to how do you connect the dots for other people and introduce you and that begets more networking too. In the beginning, it is awkward, and you do have to put yourself out there.

Don't network when you need something. Instead, be willing to help people in need to foster a more organic connection.

Working with the business leader

Just doing the diligence probably is not as everlastingly connected as it is doing integrations because you really understand their business more. And you're looking to drive value together. 

So you get a lot more out of going through that year-long integration with them. And some of the relationships are more important post-integration, particularly in my role now with strategy. 

Because now I have such a deeper knowledge of their business then as a leader and what their goals are from the point of acquisition to seeing how that evolves throughout time. 

So that's where I'd say there's like the biggest evolution of a relationship is that. 

There's been a leader in Boston that I worked alongside, he was able to come to our integration team when he wasn't maybe sure how AMN worked and felt that comfort to be able to ask the questions that he thought maybe were obvious to others.

So there's a relationship that you earn trust a bit more. You have that bond where people can come to you in a vulnerable moment and ask for your help. And that inevitably leads to more retention and actually getting to value. 

Sometimes that doesn't always work. It depends on if you're buying a company or teams that are used to being entrepreneurial and they want to just go onto their next gig, you might not always be able to retain them. 

But deeper retention is when people feel like they know someone at the organization that they can come to and who knows them a little bit.

I am more focused on the incoming leadership and their experience. And then translate what I can know to our existing business line. So that's what I think part of my evolution at AMN and in my career has been, has not only been the hard skills, but more the soft skills and the interpersonal relationships.

The leading through influence, empathy, and sometimes hard truths with folks and being almost that sort of liquid in between, that can fill in the gaps and connect the dots, managing the white space, I'd say, is if I can say a skill of mine. 

Competing in an auction

We try to get to a point where we are exclusive in the process and being clear with the banker or the organization about what it would take to go there. And we generally don't get to a point where we're not clear that we're exclusive.

There are obviously things running up until that point where you will be in that auction process. And of course, the valuation is the most important and legal thing that could bite you from a risk or a legal perspective that are non-negotiables in that upfront process into even knowing if you want to move forward.

But once we become exclusive, we don't skimp on diligence. In fact, that is something I'd be interested in if there are ways to streamline it better. But we have had several occasions where it's that thing you find at the 11th hour that you just kept poking on, you kept poking on, you kept poking on. 

That was the linchpin to why we didn't go forward with the deal. And it can feel like a lot for a new company, especially if they're smaller. But the hope is to make integration even that much easier because there's a lot of the discovery that's been done upfront. 

We have that clarity going into it of the things that we need not only to fix to make sure it works within a public company like AMN but to make sure that they're the most successful.

We want to help; we want to help them succeed for many reasons, of course. So that's where we are unapologetic about our diligence process and really believe in the outcome of what it's helped to uncover both from preventative risk mitigation and also acceleration and success.

Observe, try, and leap

According to Kerry, she owes her career to her three-step process: observe first, try, and take a leap of faith.

  1. Observe - Always be in a constant state of learning. Observe how your peers accomplish tasks, and don't be afraid to ask questions. Self-education is necessary.
  1. Try - Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Be willing to try new things and always test the limits of your abilities. Grab opportunities as they present themselves.
  1. Leap - Be willing to switch roles and take on a new journey. Have the courage to take that leap even without formal training. Experience is still the best teacher. 

I would say also be in that constant state of learning, where I mentioned before, be focused on the task at hand when you're trying, but be aware of what else it takes to lead it potentially and to just have that thought in mind.

And then seek out networking and mentorship, but drive your career with an understanding of your strengths, your weaknesses, and look for those opportunities to strengthen further what you have and also give you experience where you don't have experience so you can speak to it when you're trying to move into another role that might not be an exact skill match.

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