Navigating the Interview Process
Being a top-tier management consultant makes for a very competitive candidate at Fortune 500, Private Equity, and thriving startup companies. Beyond the high-performance record and skills gained in that role, however, there are many areas in which a candidate can further differentiate him or herself from the rest of the candidate pool. Raines International has placed hundreds of current and former management consultants at the Manager through C-level, and the quotes included in this section come from hiring managers at your target firms. Here we highlight the things you should expect and consider in every corporate interview that will help navigate your transition out of consulting with a competitive edge over your peers (which can be as simple as avoiding common mistakes).
What To Expect in the Interview Process
Things to consider in every interview to better fit your target company
PREPARATION: KNOW YOUR TARGET INDUSTRY
Fortune 500 / Corporate:
“For Director-level and above candidates, they should know my competitors, what analysts are saying, and key concerns…Those who are good will do the prep, and if theyʼre still with the firm will be savvy enough to use BCGʼs inter-company knowledge database. Simply put, enough candidates do the prep that I can just hire one from that group rather than risk it on someone who didn’t. Not doing the prep makes it easier for me to make my selection.” (E-Commerce Executive, BCG Alum)
“You need to enjoy the dedication and getting into the nitty gritty of what drives change, versus managing seven different projects where youʼre zooming in and zooming out. This is a very different skill set and DNA. Do you enjoy doing work on your own? How do you handle being thrown into the weeds without a support system? Be very honest with yourself about whether you are up for this aspect, otherwise it will not be the right move.” (Private Equity Executive, AlixPartners Alum)
PREPARATION: KNOW YOUR TARGET COMPANY
“With the level of people I hire (Project Leaders and Principals), I feel confident going in that they have the intellectual, analytical, problem solving, and project management abilities and skills that we need. Very few candidates at this level donʼt meet these bars…thatʼs the up or out model. So I spend most of my time on ʻfitʼ for our company specifically. I know our culture, and I need to feel comfortable that they can work with the corporate and divisional executives.” (Vice President, Fortune 500 Manufacturer, BCG Alum)
Fortune 500 / Corporate:
“In these kinds of roles, theyʼre looking for a skill set very close to the BCG skill set. The questions are, are you amiable, are you really interested in the company, and why?” (Fortune 500 Technology Executive, BCG Alum)
“Donʼt just say ʻI want to work for _____ because youʼre a great company.ʼ Tell us what youʼre passionate about that lines up with our business. We are fast-moving, entrepreneurial, and very tech focused – thatʼs what we look for.” (Fortune 500 Technology Executive, McKinsey Alum)
“All PE firms are different, and there are several different models, so research the firm in question through the executive recruiter, mutual connections, etc. One of the other firms that is also a big hirer of consulting talent has more of a coaching model or armʼs length approach, where executives oversee the work but do not necessarily execute it. Others are even more distant. My firm is the polar opposite – you might be deployed at a single portfolio company for 3 to 4 days a week for 6 to 18 months. Show that you can work and thrive on working on your own.” (Private Equity Executive)
PREPARATION: KNOW YOUR INTERVIEWERS
Whenever possible, know the backgrounds of the people who are interviewing you, and whether or not they have consulting backgrounds. Former consultants will expect you to be more on the ball in some senses (how to navigate cases, etc.) but may be more lenient in others (seeming overconfident or arrogant). Remember to use your network and connect with consultants at firms you are targeting. When possible, ask the recruiter whether this is acceptable, and be thoughtful with messages you share, as they may circulate to your detriment.
When they say it is “required”, it means it is required. Most companies will ask you to fill out an online application, and occasionally a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Take into consideration that every person in the company has likely done the same thing, and that many times the hiring process cannot move forward until administration has certain things on file. It is fine to ask questions, especially if an NDA is involved. It is fine to ask your lawyer neighbor for an opinion, but keep in mind that you are sending messages to your potential future employer. If three candidates comply and you donʼt, their selection is easier.
References may be asked for before your profile is introduced to a client. Or they may be conducted after the offer letter is extended. Be prepared to provide references that will be accessible quickly and easily. If you havenʼt announced your intentions to transition out, think of two or three former colleagues whom you can take into your confidence. Donʼt slow down your own process by a week or more.
Be patient with elongated interview processes – coordinating the schedules of executives on both the candidate and interviewer side can be challenging.
Donʼt be needy. If you are not alerted that you are “the winner” quickly after your interview, this does not mean that you did not get the job. There are many components that can lengthen the process such as scheduling, ability to meet for feedback, and logistics. Try not to communicate annoyance / frustration…soften the message. Restrain yourself from offering the hiring manager / company your recommendations on how to make the process better. Get the job first!
Many companies do not utilize psychological testing in the interview process at all, or only do so at the senior level. Some examples:
Hogan Personality Test (HPI): A 15-20 minute test consisting of 206 true or false items. Scores are instantaneous and based on the Five-Factor Model (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness). Distributed online.
NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R): Comes in a shorter and longer format, lasting 10-15 minutes or 30-40 minutes respectively. The test contains 240 questions based on the Five-Factor model with a rating scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Distributed in written or digital form.
SmartAssessment®: A 4-hour assessment conducted by ghSMART in which candidates are quizzed extensively about their career history. The client then receives an in-depth assessment on the candidate’s leadership abilities including interpersonal skills, enthusiasm, and intellect. Distributed in-person.
Caliper Profile: The test is not timed, but is usually completed in 90-minutes. The assessment analyzes 25 personality traits and evaluates how well a candidate is suited for a specific role. The test provides information on the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, capabilities, and motivation. Distributed in written or digital form.
Things To Remember
There are ways to differentiate yourself positively from the consultant candidate pool, and there are also ways to distinguish yourself negatively. This section highlights what to keep in mind as you are going through your interviews, as well as some typical interview process components that you should be prepared to handle accordingly.
CONSIDER THE LEVEL OF YOUR TARGET POSITION AND MARKET YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY
“For Director-level and above, they have to have that executive presence, because they will be working face to face with a guy running a $2 billion division. They have to be good listeners, make eye contact and demonstrate their ability to talk, but also know when to stop and listen to give interviewers an opening to ask a question. They canʼt write everything down and ask ʻCan you give me two minutes to think about this?ʼ – that doesnʼt fly with a CEO. He wonʼt give you two minutes to think about it.” (Fortune 500 Manufacturer Executive, BCG Alum)
“It is difficult to find consultants who are not too junior (who need a lot of coaching and training) but also not too senior (already a salesman). For senior people, they have to convey they are still doers, and can lead teams and roll up their sleeves. Many consulting firms claim they implement, but there are few that do, so candidates have to be ready to speak to their bias for action with concrete examples.” (Private Equity Executive)
A phone interview can be with HR, Talent Acquisition, a peer, or a hiring manager. Take them seriously. Oftentimes they are your first impression with the company, and with a person who may have a large say in your candidacy down the road (a la “Every Vote Counts” below).
If you schedule the phone interview several days in advance, try to avoid being in an airport, donʼt take it while driving, try to be in a quiet place where you can focus, ideally on a landline. Sadly, lots of phone interviews donʼt go well because candidates talk too long (unfocused) or sound tired (because you are). Pump up the energy.
EVERY VOTE COUNTS
Oftentimes the entire interview team, not just the hiring manager, decides whether a candidate should receive an offer or not. From formal scorecards to a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down approach, each person you talk with could have a large impact on your application status. Remember that every interview and interaction must go well, even peer to peer, reception, and admin conversations. Seriously, this sounds like common sense, but most candidates will say to us after their interviews “I really hit it off with the hiring manager, but didnʼt connect as well with the others, but I think the hiring manager is the real decision maker here”. Wrong, unless the hiring manager wants to risk alienating his or her peers while demonstrating poor judgment in team building.
DON’T BE TOO MUCH OF A CONSULTANT
Executives at major companies constantly cite overconfidence and perceived arrogance as a major flaw in consultant candidates. “They have to remember that all of these line managers have worked with external management consultants before…and are already very successful because they are great managers. The ʻIʼve done all these great thingsʼ approach doesnʼt work; it isnʼt humble enough. Itʼs difficult because a candidate wants to impress the interviewers in an interview, but cannot come across as a know-it all” (Fortune 500 Manufacturing Executive, BCG Alum). Remember to exude confidence rather than superiority, and to adjust accordingly to the interview style and personality of your interviewers.
Focus on the positives and upside, not just the risks facing the company in question. Consultants love to quickly get a sense for a company’s strengths and weaknesses, and seem to gravitate to the weaknesses when asking questions during interviews. This can make you come across as a negative person, whereas companies want people who “make things happen.” Obviously, take the time to discuss potential threats to the company, but don’t weight the discussion that way. At one extreme, it sounds like, “I’ve spent 15 minutes assessing your company, which I wasn’t previously familiar with. But in the 15 minutes I spent thinking about you and learning about your industry, I’ve come away concerned that your business model is fundamentally flawed and that the most recent app I downloaded to my iPhone for free will replace your business within a year or two.”
“I don’t see how my compensation is relevant at this point” sounds like nails on a chalkboard, especially when it follows a candid discussion about your career, strengths/weaknesses, why you’re open to a new challenge, and what you’re hoping to accomplish in the next stage of your career. Some recruiters, primarily inexperienced ones, may let you get away with not disclosing what ~95% of normal executives share matter-of-factly. There are two groups of people who are typically reluctant to share their compensation information: 1) those who are underpaid, and 2) consultants who are 0-2 years out of business school. Basically, everyone else “gets it” and is either upfront about their current compensation package or will share it when we explain why it is important. It is up to you whether or not you are upfront, but we recommend that you bite the bullet and share the information. If 10 people express interest in an opportunity, and 9 of them are transparent and 1 of them is not, and all 10 have pretty similar backgrounds (same academics, same tier consulting firm, comparable pre-MBA experience), being fishy about compensation will simply eliminate you from consideration. Even if you can begin the process with an attractive company, you will stand out as being somewhat deceptive. Not the best way to begin a relationship.
For those in corporate settings: surprise endings can damage the positivity surrounding your candidacy. Know your compensation breakdown and history, and be prepared to disclose the information.
Respect the travel budget of the company at which you are interviewing. Corporations can have a strict cap for candidate travel, so try and be flexible with what you are given. If you arenʼt, it will not only complicate matters, but could highlight an unwillingness to follow their practices.
Keep the recruiter, HR, hiring manager (whomever you are coordinating with directly) updated with a) upcoming vacations that will reduce your availability, and b) other interviews and pending offers. This helps them speed up their process, if possible (donʼt bluff, though).
They are interviewing you. Yes, there might be five companies lining up to meet you, and you might expect an offer or two to come in, but don’t let that go to your head. If you have been presented by an executive search firm, then you are one of several candidates with the right skill set for this position.
If things go well, they will extend you an offer, and you will work there. Begin building relationships on Day One. Let your reputation precede you in a good way.
They want to hire someone they like. Be Likable.