Regardless of whether you’re interviewing with McKinsey, BCG or Bain, one thing will be consistent: they’ll want to see you demonstrate leadership, collaboration and drive.
In this final post on the key skills consulting firms test for, we will cover what exactly the elite firms are looking for and provide the context of why they care about these skills so much. Before jumping in, let’s quickly recap the skills we’ve already covered in this series:
- Analytical skills: problem structuring, charts analysis, mental math
- "Soft" skills: communication, leadership, collaboration, personal drive
Leadership, collaboration and drive are the “holy trinity” of what the elite firms are really looking for in the “fit” portion of the interview. When many candidates perform well on the case (which happens a lot given the talent pool applying), the “trinity” skill sets often function as tie breakers, making the difference between landing the job or not.
This is the no-brainer. While the firms will refer to the other “soft” traits by varying names (e.g., we’ll see this below on drive), leadership is the consistent trait you’ll see highlighted on the career pages of McKinsey, BCG, Bain and every top consulting firm.
Since there’s no doubt the firms hire for this, let’s focus on why the emphasis on this skill is so high. The answer is that firms expect you to lead from day one! As you grow in your career, the only thing that will change is the type of leadership expected of you. For example, as a newly minted analyst, they’ll expect you to lead yourself through the twists and turns of any analysis with minimal guidance. As a Consultant, they’ll expect you to lead a whole work stream. As a Manager, they’ll expect you to lead a small team and so on. As you go up the ranks, Principals, Partners and Managing Directors, the leadership stakes keep rising.
So the key question is: how do you best demonstrate your leadership capabilities? I have two key recommendations:
- Focus on quality, not quantity
- Demonstrate lines, not dots
First, focus on quality. Since you’re interviewing with a top firm, it’s likely you’ve got lots of leadership experiences to point to and it can be tempting to rattle them all off if asked. However, you’ll benefit most from highlighting a handful of key examples that demonstrate your track record, style and results of your leadership. Interviewers won’t remember a endless laundry list of accomplishments or titles, but a great anecdote (or two), will go a long way to painting a true picture of your ability and making a positive impression.
Second, you want to demonstrate a history of leadership (a “line”) versus an isolated example (a “dot”). Firms like McKinsey want to see that you’ve consistently taken up leadership roles throughout your personal and professional life. That’s what we call a “line,” a series of leadership experiences over your life that you can point to. Why does this matter? Well, firms want to see that you consistently challenge yourself. After all, they’ll expect you to continually challenge yourself and grow throughout your consulting career too.
Every firm has their own term for this, but they’re looking for the same trait. McKinsey calls it “entrepreneurial drive,” while BCG refers to it as “internal motivation.” Regardless of the verbiage, they mean the same thing: they want to hire people who run through walls. Not literally, of course! But, these firms are looking for people who’ve demonstrated grit and the ability to push ahead and accomplish a task despite repeated, difficult challenges.
Why does this matter so much? Well, consulting is a really tough gig. Yes, there are great parts, like extremely talented co-workers and great compensation, but day in, day out, the job is extremely challenging. You’ll have demanding clients, challenging work, extremely tight deadlines and a laundry list of obstacles. In the face of these challenges, many people would throw in the towel, and say this isn’t worth it. McKinsey, BCG and Bain are looking for the small minority that press on to get the job done.
How can you demonstrate drive? The key here is to find stories of projects where you faced so many obstacles that if the end result achieved was mediocre, no one would have blamed you, but you managed to press on, overcome those obstacles and achieve a great outcome. Think through your professional past and if you find an anecdote that fits that mold, chances are it will be a great way to demonstrate impressive drive and motivation.
Finally, let’s discuss collaboration. Given the analytical chops of elite consulting firms and their reputations for hiring the “best of the best,” candidates often mistakenly think they must demonstrate that they know it all and are a one man/woman case machine. Let us disabuse you of that notion right now!
Your ability to collaborate with a team and client is critical to your success in consulting (and thus critical to securing the job offer first). While each consultant will own important, mission critical pieces of a case, your client will only care, and is paying millions for, a cohesive, strong recommendation to his/her problem. Thus, while you’ll own a significant chunk of the case yourself, you’ll have to continually integrate your work streams with your teammates.
To create the cohesive result your clients will demand requires that you work extremely closely with your teammates to integrate data, share findings, productively debate strategy and approaches, coach junior team members, brief partners and countless other tasks. The unifying element of these myriad tasks is that each requires you to successfully collaborate. Finally, add the stress of tight timelines, busy partners and the challenging nature of the problems you’ll be solving and the premium on good collaboration just goes up!
Consulting interviews are notoriously challenging. As we’ve seen over this series, that's because they are designed to rigorously test you across a basket of analytical (mental math, problem structuring, charts/data analysis) and soft (communication, leadership, drive, collaboration) skillsets.
The great news is that these skill sets are extremely valuable and any work you put into developing them in preparation for consulting interviews will pay significant dividends, regardless of whether you end up going into consulting or not. Think of your interview preparation as skill building that will pay compounding returns on your investment for the remainder of your career.
Kenton Kivestu is the Founder and CEO of RocketBlocks, an online platform that helps students prepare for case interviews. Prior to RocketBlocks, he worked as a strategy consultant in BCG's San Francisco Office, launched online ad platforms at Google and led the Zynga mobile poker franchise. He has successfully navigated hundreds of case interviews himself and believes that the case interview is an important recruiting tool that helps simulate the on the job experience. He started RocketBlocks to help candidates hone their analytical skills so they can put their best foot forward on interview day. Kenton graduated as an Echols Scholar with distinction from the University of Virginia and holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
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