Q. What's the most important question I need to be able to answer very well in consulting interviews?
A. Ideally, every question! The good thing is that for the most part interviews for entry-level positions in management consulting tend to follow a reasonably standard formula. You can absolutely expect behavioral or fit questions that relate directly to your own experiences, either at school or at a previous job or internship. For example, a typical behavioral interview question would be: "Tell us about a time in your life where you demonstrated leadership skills?" or “How did you handle an ethically difficult situation in a business setting?” Others might include questions about hobbies, recent vacations and other interests. Since most consulting firms pride themselves on having very specific cultures, it is key that you be open and honest here – there are no right answers per se – as both you and the interviewing firm want to make sure you’ll be happy together. Also be aware that sometimes interviewers also test general and business knowledge – these are trickier questions and of course there’s more of a chance of making a factual error here than in the “softer” fit interviews. Deloitte's student page has some excellent tips and tricks on how to best answer these kinds of questions.
The second kind is the case interview, where you will be given a scenario and asked certain questions about how you, as a consultant, would advise your client. This kind of interview supplements the cultural fit interview. The objective here is to assess how you think, what assumptions you make, what follow-up questions you ask and how quickly you come to a conclusion. This is the interview you absolutely have to study for – some schools suggest doing 60 sample cases to get ready for this part of the process. You can start preparing yourself by reading our Interviews" article in the Prepare section of the site for detailed information about the different types of interviews as well as tips and resources to help you get ready.
There's also a great piece on the most common interview questions asked and a quick cheat sheet of possible responses that you should tailor to make your own. Our friends at L.E.K have also weighed in on how best to avoid common pitfalls during the interview process.
Q. Where do you see the future of consulting?
A. Despite the shaky economy, consulting is one of the few industries that is expanding – and rather aggressively at that. Of course, some segments are performing better than most – operational improvement consulting (e.g., supply chain and production optimization, cost cutting programs etc.) appears to be the strongest segment going forward, mostly because it’s so easy to identify and achieve significant ROI’s on the investments made in the consulting project. Interestingly enough, strategy consulting is not expected to show the same strong growth due to the current tight economy and the hesitancy of many companies to make investments that don’t have clearly defined pay-offs. That said, strategy consultants have strong brands and are always a great place to start a career.
Most of the other segments (e.g., HR consulting, Business Forensics, etc.) lie in-between these two poles, but all of them are expected to grow profitably over the next 1 to 3 years. There are also lots of fast-growing and interesting niches, in particular Corporate Social Responsibility, Risk Management, Developing Markets, Business Analytics and so on.
Q. What do you see as critical for people trying to join consulting (after MBA) in the next couple of years?
A. Keep your finger on the pulse, do this anyway but especially if you are seriously considering a fulfilling career in the consulting industry. Being aware of what's going on in the world will give you insight into what clients are thinking and worrying about. Successful consultants thrive on being creative and quick on their feet, so always be active as you're reading the news or even talking to friends and family. Don't just read, but really think about potential issues that might arise and consider how you would work through them….and prepare well for your interviews, especially the cases!!
Q. How do experienced hires size up against entry-level hires? What about hiring preference i.e. Executive MBA Vs Full-Time MBA?
A. You can’t really compare experienced with entry-level hires – the recruiting process and skill sets tested in the interviews are so different. If you're in a full-time MBA program you will easily be able to identify firms that will talk to you about an entry-level position as long as your school invites consulting firms on-campus to recruit. The process for entry-level employees is much more structured and transparent than the process for experienced hires. (Also more junior, full-time MBAs are less expensive and therefore pose less of a hiring risk than Executive MBAs.)
However, there are so many more avenues into consulting firms for experienced hires (e.g.. through executive recruiters, friends and family, business contacts, etc.) that it doesn’t take a lot to get in front of companies that might be interested in you if you have the right background. It just might take a little more entrepreneurial spirit to go out and find the right firm to talk to, especially since generally fewer companies recruit on campus for this group.
Ultimately, consulting companies have needs for both groups and are actively recruiting for all the good people they can find.
Q. With an Aero Engineering degree, what area of consulting do you think I would be better suited for?
A. Most likely operational optimization consulting would be the good fit and/or a group that focuses on the aerospace industry.
Q. What would you say are the essential skills for a successful career in consulting?
A. Creativity, the ability to think quickly and logically and good people skills are just a few characteristics that are absolutely necessary to survive and thrive as a consultant; this isn't a job for the faint hearted. Check out the article on what it is consultants actually do and what skill sets are most valuable.
Q. Is the consulting industry well represented across the country or are some pockets/areas more concentrated than others?
A. For the most part and as you can imagine, consulting firms tend to set up shop in major cities. Some territories may have sector specialties, so DC for example will be home to firms working closely with government, Philadelphia will have many firms with a life sciences focus and Texas will be home to firms working predominantly for the energy and utilities sector.
And if you have a particular interest in government contractors, media and entertainment and/or technology you will find a wide range of consulting firms in the Southwest that will want to talk with you as those are the main industries that call that area of the US home.
Q. What are the best parts of a job in consulting?
A. Everyone is different and what is one person’s passion is another person’s poison. Most people who love consulting love the challenging intellectual work and the feeling of accomplishment when a client has accepted and acted on recommendations. Consulting companies are generally less overtly political internally than other industries and the camaraderie is very high, especially in teams that spend almost every waking moment together – as is so often the case when on a consulting engagement. For those of us with some level of ADD the variety of consulting assignments can be very attractive.
Q. What are the major consulting firms? (by industry or by size)
A. The largest firms are in the IT segment: IBM, Capgemini, Accenture, Tata Consultancy Services, etc. IBM is the largest consulting company of all at $56 billion in revenue. The Advisory Services of the Big Four Accounting firms tend to also be multi-billion dollar enterprises. They are Deloitte, KPMG, PwC and Ernst & Young. A lot of their work is in the operational performance segment. The three largest HR consulting companies have revenue of between $3.5 billion and $5 billion which is slightly smaller than the largest Advisory Services firms: AON Hewitt, Mercer and TowersWatson.
The largest Strategy companies tend to be about the same size as the HR consulting companies, but have the biggest and best-known brands in the industry – McKinsey, Boston Consulting Company, Bain and Booz & Co. are the largest.
The smallest “large” firms are in the Business Forensics segment – FTI is about $1.5 billion in revenue and Navigant is less than $1 billion. They are also less international than firms in the other segments.
Q. How big a component is travel to a career in consulting and what if I don't want to travel so frequently?
A. If you don’t want to travel extensively then find consulting firms that not only fit your interests and personality but also make a point of working with consultants to find projects closer to a particular consultant’s home and/or don’t require consultants being on the client site all the time. Certainly ask appropriate questions during the recruitment interviews to ascertain how a particular target firm handles such things. Once you’ve started at a firm, you should have these discussions with HR, your practice lead or your mentor early enough so that the firm can work with you to meet your travel objectives. It often takes a while before all the pieces fall into place.
One important note: many cities in the US and abroad are home to a few key industries. Therefore, it’s a good idea to determine early on which industry you would want to “major” in and then live in that area. Most big consulting firms have offices in just about every large city in the world and/or are increasingly comfortable with employees living in cities where their company doesn’t have an office and working virtually. Thus, if your interest is in Financial Services, you should locate yourself in NYC or London, if it’s media and entertainment or defense contracting, Los Angeles might be a better fit, go to Stuttgart or Detroit for automotive and so on and so on. Conversely, if you have a particularly city you absolutely want to live in or near, make sure you are also interested in the industries and/or companies in that area.
Q. How do projects and responsibilities change as one’s consulting career advances?
A. The best way to think about a consulting career is like two slices lying on top of each other – one is delivery and the other is business development and management. At the beginning of a consulting career the delivery slice is very thick and the Business Development (BD) and management slices are almost non-existent. By the end of a career, it’s exactly the reverse – a senior partner manages large teams and is responsible for selling millions of dollars of consulting engagements and almost never “puts pen to paper” except to write a proposal or a pitch, although even that is often taken care of by the team.
Q. What qualities stand out most to recruiters and what is it that companies are looking for?
A. Most recruiters’ first test to see if there is a personality fit with the company a candidate is interviewing for. There are as many different cultures as there are consulting firms and just because someone is smart doesn’t mean he or she will succeed at every firm. Recruiters check for professional demeanor, general intelligence, ability to handle stress, etc. Unlike later in life, past experience plays a minor role at this stage in a consultant’s career – “campus hires” have extremely varied backgrounds and experiences. That’s what makes the profession so interesting and exciting.
It’s always a good idea to be knowledgeable about the consulting industry and the major (and, if appropriate, the smaller) players when going into an interview. Having that information will provide fodder for deeper conversations and show your commitment to consulting and the firm you are interviewing with.
However, for many firms the rubber hits the road when it comes to the case study. Thousands of very capable students and future excellent consultants don’t pass this test. Likewise, a lot of candidates who came across only so-so in the” fit” conversations will race to the front if they ace the case study. The good news is that performing well in this part of the process can be learned – whereas it’s difficult to hide basic personality traits. Candidates should take part in as many seminars and study sessions as possible. The hard work will pay off.
However, not all firms use or require case studies as part of the recruitment process. Be sure you understand exactly what the recruitment process sis exactly for each firm and what’s important to them.
Q. What are some good ways for non-MBA applicants to acquire business knowledge and skills?
A. It may sound counterintuitive, but most consulting companies don’t look for developed business skills when recruiting non-MBAs. They’ll get those types from the MBA programs and/or will train them in what they need to know. Most firms look for cultural fit and basic intelligence when recruiting – chances are if you have a medical degree, a PhD in Physics or a Masters in Art History, you have what it takes to learn those additional skill sets.
That said, look for seminars at the business programs of the school you are attending that teach you how to solve cases in an interview setting. Of course, if there are some basic courses in finance, accounting and strategy available to you, by all means take advantage of those.
Q. Is there a hiring bias towards Ivy-league schools? How do I get my foot into the door if I attend a non Ivy League school?
A. The issue here is less about Ivy-league vs. non-Ivy-league schools and more about the size of the school and how well set-up they are to handle the complexity of the recruitment process. The biggest MBA programs – many of which are not Ivy-League – have an advantage in that they know all the players and have extensive programs to prepare students for the recruitment process. They also have the critical mass of students so that it’s worth the time and expense for a consulting company to commit significant resources at that school. If you are committed to consulting, then this is the best route. However, if you don’t think an MBA is for you, then at least pick a graduate program that has something in place to get you in front of the major players and prepare you for the interview process. There are multiple routes into consulting and MBA programs are only one way in.
But even if you don’t start your career in consulting, you might find yourself at a consulting company at some point. The industry is always looking for good talent at all levels.