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Case Interviews & How to Think (Weird) Like a Consultant

Case interviews are the preferred way to identify promising candidates for jobs in management consulting. They are a core part of the interview process at Oliver Wyman, McKinsey, BCG, Bain – everywhere. I think they are interesting because they reveal what consulting is like and highlight the fact that consultants think (are?) weird. I find them fun.

While case interviews are ‘coachable’ and not always a perfect predictor of success in consulting, if you don’t like thinking through a case, you probably wouldn’t like being a consultant. To succeed at both requires you to look at the world a bit differently.

Thinking Like a Consultant

Let’s take the following example to show that successful consultants are a little bit crazy. Suppose you walk into a grocery store. You see a bountiful display of inviting fruit: How do you react?

Normal Person: Wow, what a beautiful produce arrangement! I wonder…grocery store produce

  • How many different kinds of fruit do they have?
  • Do they have what I’m looking for?
  • What are the prices?
  • Is it as fresh as it looks?

Consultant: Wow, what a beautiful produce arrangement! I wonder…

  • How many SKUs are represented? Is the assortment localized?
  • How does the store manage shrink? What is the labor model used for this display?
  • What kind of availability problems arise? How frequent are stock-outs?
  • Was it distributed from a main distribution center or from a third-party service?
  • How are the prices managed? Are there regional or localized price zones?

Now, it doesn’t mean that the average consumer isn’t savvy… just that they will look at a display through different lenses. After I worked on two retail grocery projects, it’s difficult to take off the consultant-glasses at the grocery store, making every walk down the aisles a harrowing experience in optimization…

Good management consultants are highly analytical and curious, and that’s not something that just ‘turns off’ when not doing casework. (Wait, there’s time for things besides casework?). This is why case interviews work (mostly). They can give the interviewee a fair chance to show their skills and thinking, and most importantly - they actually reflect what it’s like to be a consultant.

Thinking like a consultant doesn’t mean going around like some caricatured Romney-meets-Up-in-the-Air-Clooney cutting jobs and costs right and left and crushing middle class dreams, or whatever. It just takes an analytical outlook, natural curiosity, and an interest in business problems and creative solutions to them.

Case Interviews

It’s important to recognize that just because a kind of interview seems to have predictive value, and current employees find it fun, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right way to interview. There may be more room here to criticize some of the ‘puzzle’ games that have historically been enjoyed by tech companies as brainteasers. (Description and a great book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle). I enjoy those a lot, but they’re still massively subjective and may simply be a kind of IQ test. It depends how you use them. I appreciate that case interviews have an ‘educational’ component but delight in the abstract play of puzzles…

Because it is recruiting season, I’ve been going to schools a lot in the last few months and talking with current college seniors, and hearing about their experiences with different case interviews, asking for tips. I generally emphasize the following:

  1. Structure – clear, crisp, logical, and effective structure.
  2. Numeracy where it’s needed. I am no stranger to the experience of a table full of Ivy League grads struggling to calculate a tip, but being quick for interviews is important, as is not making simple mistakes
  3. Creativity & curiosity in one’s thinking, answers, and communications
  4. Reasonable (business) judgment when discussing business problems
  5. Structure – clear, crisp, logical, heavily emphasized, and effective structure.

That’s it! There are no other secrets. Poise / maturity / etc. goes without saying, and is table stakes.

There are a lot of very talented people who come to interview, and I know lots of very bright people who stumble from lack of practice. I think the fact that case interviews are highly ‘coachable’ is a problem, to some extent. Someone from Wharton at UPenn will necessarily have a stronger background preparation; you can take that into account to some extent… but individual differences are harder. I’d like to see a large sample size, with a control – people who were randomly given jobs in order to calibrate the rest of the interview process.

But that’s probably not going to happen anytime too soon.

Did you do case interviews? What do you think of them? What’s your ideal interviewing process? How does it compare to other industries, companies, disciplines? Welcome comments…

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