Because consulting firms keep a tight leash on their people and what they say ;) this particular interview is being kept anonymous. Luckily, this lets us keep things totally honest, so without further adieu, let me introduce E, as we’ll call him. E has worked and lived everywhere from Toronto to London to Bangkok, and has been at one of the more prestigious management consulting firms for the past few years.
So E, management consultancies have a reputation for holding crazy interviews with questions where you have to find out how many golf balls exist in Malaysia. What’s up with that?
Most do use these kinds of questions. When you think about it, clients bring us in when they’re facing some sort of problem they haven’t faced before. In other types of work, like engineering for example, your job is do to a task reliably. In consulting it’s about thinking on your feet and being creative.
Funnily enough, I actually have been asked how many golf balls fit in a 747. Another typical one is how many passengers go through a given airport in a day. So you’d want to figure out the size of airport and estimate how many runways it has, how many planes take off and land per minute, how many people travel per plane, and so on. This should get you to an answer within a few minutes. Some people try to be too smart and over-complicate things, for example calculating how single people travel more, and then later remembering they have to factor in retirees, divorcees, etc. That could easily take 45 minutes, which isn’t the intention of the question and so gets you into trouble. You have to be pragmatic.
As strange as they sound, I do think the questions are useful. It’s about applying yourself to a new problem, and of course you’re put on the spot a little bit. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as some banking interviews, where they seem to want to stress you out for the sake of it. At one interview I had with a top tier investment bank, I could tell they really wanted to push me out of my comfort zone. The interviewer simply said ‘Pitch me your best investment idea’. He sat there for 45 minutes as I answered, and didn’t say another word. We don’t look to create that degree of stress in consulting.
When I graduated, it seemed like everyone and their mom wanted to get into management consulting. Why do you think that is?
I think it varies from country to country, but if you graduate with a relatively general degree and you’re not sure what you want to do, consulting lets you get up close and personal with different industries and companies. The job is structurally set up to do this for you, as you’ll probably see 8-9 companies and 5-6 industries in two years – without job hopping. It’s not only a good way to get more educated on your options, but you also get decent analytical and financial training along the way.
What do people usually think you do, versus what you really do?
I typically lie! I just tell people I work for mining companies, as that’s the sector I focus on. It’s hard for most people to get their heads around consulting (even our clients!).
The thing is, even people who joined at the same time as me, with the same titles, have totally different jobs. The best way of describing it is thinking of us as GPs/physicians for companies. The client’s feeling a bit sick, but they’re not sure exactly why so they explain their symptoms. You hypothesize, do some tests, and try to recommend the right remedy. You prescribe them their medicine and tell them how to go forward on their own.
This is at least the case for true strategy consulting. A lot of consulting firms will say they do this, but they’re really on the implementation side, which is more analogous to a physical rehabilitation facility, where they’re there holding you up and helping you take each step.
What kind of clients or projects do you handle?
That’s what I love about my job – it’s completely different from project to project. I’ve worked with an investment bank, interviewing customers about how they felt they were treated and spending much of my time presenting findings in the boardroom. Then for the next project, I’m in Mongolia in a hardhat 1300 meters below ground level with a bunch of miners.
That level of contrast is hard to find in any other career. And the unique thing you can do over time is connect the dots between those different experiences. Mining people will usually work for mining companies their whole lives, and the same goes for bankers. So as a consultant, you can really bring a different perspective to the table.
What’s the environment like? Is it pretty competitive?
I previously had the impression that consulting was cutthroat and competitive but structurally, it’s not at all. If you’re on a team that’s working well, everyone looks good and everyone’s career benefits. It’s kind of like in sports, where you want everyone to do well so your team wins.
Also, in consulting, just because you’re promoted, it doesn’t mean someone else can’t be too, and you don’t have to wait until your boss leaves to move up. Your career kind of looks after itself too because it’s ‘up or out’ over a pretty defined time period. At big companies, some people are in a role for one year and some are there for five years before they change positions and when they do, it may or may not be a promotion. In consulting, it’s always 2-4 years away – either to the next promotion or until you’re let go.
There’s not too much upside in being really political. I find people are generally supportive and caring because they want you on the next project with them. And the better you do, the less work they have to do!
You have to travel quite a lot. What do you say to people who think it’s pretty glamorous?
It is glamorous – for a year or so. The problem is that you want to travel when you start out, but you don’t have much useful knowledge or skills so there’s little reason to fly you anywhere. Then you get older and you have a family and then of course they want to fly you everywhere.
That’s a significant issue with a career in consulting. But you can do stuff like retail banking and then you’ll mostly be in major cities. Same goes with pharmaceuticals. If you contrast that with oil and gas or mining, you’ll be all over the place. But these kinds of choices within consulting can at least allow you to manage your travel ratio up or down. To give you an idea what end of the spectrum I’m on, I’ve only spent three weeks in my office in the past two years.
What do you recommend if someone doesn’t get into any of the big firms?
It’s actually very hard to move from one firm to another. If you want to be at a top tier consultancy, it’s not a great idea to start at an operational or smaller firm. There’s very little movement between McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, and then of course from other firms to those three.
I think you’d be much better off going to a large corporate (who are the clients of all these firms) and joining an entry-level graduate program or trying to get in their in-house strategy team. That way, you gain industry experience, you show you can work in corporate environment, and you can apply two years later (when there will be way fewer people applying).
At the end of the day, no matter how rigorous a screening process, you also have to get lucky. When I graduated, I applied to 30 places, and only BCG and McKinsey interviewed me.
Sidenote: E didn’t go to either, and chose the corporate route instead.
What advice do you have for candidates, now that you’re on the hiring side?
Most people we look at have strong academics. The difference between strong and excellent academics represents huge effort and time, but doesn’t move the needle that much on getting an offer. So I think you’re much better off spending some of that time on other things, whether it’s student government, sports, or anything else that’s out of the classroom. At the same time, be conscious of pursuing things without substance, like sharing you’re the Chair of a club (but it only has a handful of members), or saying you’re fluent in a language that you just studied in high school. We interview people for 5-10 minutes in whatever language they’ve listed, and even for the more obscure languages, we usually have someone who is a native speaker. It’s always better to understate and impress than to have to start backpedalling.
Also, we know that almost everyone who applies to us applies to all our competitors. But it’s amazing how many people get our company’s name or the title of the position wrong on their cover letter. A million other people didn’t screw it up so small things like this are going to mean you’re filtered out..
When it comes to interviews, I want to get the feeling that the person has prepared for the meeting. If you show up blank, unsure of what the firm is about, it’s not confidence inspiring. All of our websites tell you a ton, both about the company and the recruitment process. I also like it when the candidate tries to build a rapport with the interviewer. We interview people for 10 hours at a time on campus so you want to see someone with energy, who livens up the room, interacts and doesn’t just answer things mechanically. Once, I had someone read me her answers to the interview questions from a piece of paper. She figured we’d ask her the standard questions and so just recited what she’d prepared in advance.
Once we make an offer, we try really hard to make sure everyone accepts. I actually worry this sets the wrong expectation sometimes. Before you join, you might get taken out to dinner, sent a bottle of champagne, etc. Then when you start work, some photocopying might need doing, or we ask you to google a list of every DIY store in Toronto and make a list of the addresses. Of course there’s lots of interesting work too but I worry that we create a sense of entitlement at times and set the wrong expectations.
Do you have any questions for E? Post a comment below and the Q&As can continue.