Between them, Eugene Goh and Olivier Muehlstein estimate they have interviewed close to 1,000 candidates for the Boston Consulting Group. That’s thousands of hours in the interviewer’s chair, assessing some of the best and brightest MBAs who aspire to a career at one of the big three consulting firms in the MBB acronym: McKinsey, BCG and Bain.
Much of that time, they say, was wasted.
“We do a lot of consulting interviews and the number of people who pass is extremely low,” Muehlstein tells Poets&Quants. “While it’s clear that most candidates have clearly prepared something, they aren’t prepared for what the interviewer is looking for.
“It’s a waste of our time as interviewers and it’s a waste of their time and effort.
“We are trying to break that cycle.”
‘From the Interviewer’s Seat’ is available online at Casey Interview.
WHAT CASE INTERVIEWERS ARE LOOKING FOR
Breaking the cycle of wasted time and energy is the impetus behind Muehlstein and Goh’s new e-book, From the Interviewer’s Seat: The Insider’s Guide For Aspiring Consultants, published this month by TalentKraft, a strategy consulting firm that focuses on helping SMEs and startups address their HR challenges.
Goh, co-founder of TalentKraft, is a former principal at BCG where he worked for more than eight years. He was an active member of its recruiting team and conducted more than 300 case interviews for the firm. Muehlstein, ex-BCG managing director and partner, led the firm’s recruiting efforts in Southeast Asia and conducted hundreds of interviews.
When it comes to job interviews, the case interview is a beast all its own. It assesses a candidate’s ability to solve a realistic business problem presented by the interviewer. They require hours of preparation, the ability to synthesize complex problems, analyze data and situations, and organize solutions in a compelling but understandable way. And it’s all done in a high-pressure interview room with a consulting professional who may have already completed half a dozen interviews that day alone. What is unique about this book is that it breaks down the process from the interviewer’s perspective.
“A lot of books are really focused on the interview from the candidate perspective. We thought, why not write a book from the other side of the table?” Goh said. “Really understanding that perspective, I think, helps candidates better hit the marks of what the interviewer is looking for.”
Goh and Muehlstein sat down with P&Q to offer practical advice to MBA candidates aspiring for a career in consulting. More information about where you can get the book is available at the end of this story.
BUILDING A CV WITH IMPACT
From the Interviewer’s Seat is divided into four sections: Securing a Consulting Interview, Tackling the Fit Interview, Tackling the Case Interview, and Putting it Altogether. To nail the case interview, you first have to be invited to try.
Landing an MBB consulting interview requires a standout CV. That means a high GPA, ideally from a good school, and strong relevant work experience. But that just secures you a place in a heaping pile of excellent CVs from the top students at the best business schools submitted to the MBBs every year. You need a bit of personality to rise to the top.
“Extra curricular activities are where your personality can shine. You’re not going to differentiate from someone else with a 3.9 GPA versus a 3.94. You’re going to differentiate by impressing us with who you are. I want to see someone that I would enjoy having in front of me in the interview. Avoid the platitudes, that’s what will make me a great CV, on top of the other elements. And, for the work experience, don’t tell me what you’ve done, show me the impact that you’ve had,” Muehlstein said.
Eugene Goh (Courtesy photo)
Goh agreed, but cautioned to not underestimate the importance of your personal interest. “Make sure that they are actually interesting. Reading, swimming, travelling — it’s very hard to impress a consultant with an interest in traveling. Be a bit specific. I’ve actually had good conversations with candidates whose interests were reading political philosophy. That’s part of my degree, so we had a discussion around what books they were reading. When you have 50 CVs with perfect GPAs, and they all work for blue chip companies, interviewers are also looking for someone interesting,” he said.
NAILING THE FIT INTERVIEW
The fit interview occurs within the first 5- to 10-minutes, and while not as grueling as the case interview, aspiring consultants ignore it at their peril.
In fact, trained interviewers often eliminate candidates in the first few minutes, or notice candidates who are going to stand out. “The first few sentences are actually the most important,” Muehlstein said. “How you carry yourself when you walk in the room. Are you arrogant? Do you let me talk? Are you yourself? Are you comfortable? I can tell then if the day will go well or not go well.”
Other candidates disqualify themselves even before the interview starts. Being rude to the recruiting coordinator, others in the waiting room or anyone in the process from the moment the firm reaches out will eventually get back to the interviewer.
“I know of one case where the building security called up to complain that the person coming through had been rude to them,” Goh said. “There are many ways to disqualify yourself in an interview, especially in a firm like BCG which prides itself on being the nice guys. We work in teams all the time, and we want people who we are going to want to spend many hours with. The percentage of people who actually get eliminated, even before they start the case, is actually higher than expected.”
PROBLEM SOLVING VS FRAMEWORKS
One thing that sets this book apart from other case interview preparation is its problem solving framework for cases, the authors say. There are plenty of frameworks out there that trainers prescribe for this type of case of that type. It’s often rigid and mechanical, however, and the interviewers can see through it.
“Even with a good framework, you will likely get, maybe, a 60 or 70% score on the case, but you’re never going to be the top rigidly following a framework,” Goh said. “We advocate using our problem solving process as a guideline to work through the steps in a case, and that leads you to be able to adapt your approach to all different kinds of questions.
“We actually do this in our work. We use this problem solving methodology with our clients, corporate as well as other consultants, and we extracted the essence and applied it to a 30-minute case discussion. If students take nothing else away from the book, defining the objectives of the case is one of the most important things people often forget. Both in case interviews and in real life problem solving. That’s why it’s more powerful than memorizing frameworks,” Goh said.
Seeming rigid and rehearsed is not a good example for how you will solve problems with a client of the firm, Muehlstein added.
“I think it’s a fundamental difference with our approach to case interviews. I always tell younger consultants, or even aspiring consultants, that the one thing that will make them the most marketable is how well they know how to problem solve. Start with hypothesis based problem solving in the case interview, and you will be much more likely to get it right,” he said.
MINDING THE PREPARATION TIMELINE
If your goal is an MBB consulting job, when should you start preparing? Probably yesterday. While the recruiting interview process typically starts the year before you graduate, it seems to be getting earlier and earlier, Muehlstein said.
“I recommend that people start prepping as soon as they start the MBA, not just for the sake of doing the case, but starting with understanding what consulting is all about and trying to see what kind of consulting they’re interested in. The large consulting firms have different types of consulting, so there are a lot of questions that you should research and then start preparing for relevant cases in a smart way,” he said.
Olivier Muehlstein (Courtesy photo)
AUTHORS’ KEY ADVICE
“From the Interviewer’s Seat” walks readers through the skills interviewers are looking for in a case interview, and then breaks down a sample case with their problem-solving approach. It’s quite detailed, and applicable for MBAs preparing for other high-level interviews in other professions. Its scope is more than can be covered in one story.
But the authors did leave P&Q readers one piece of advice for MBAs preparing for their dreaded case interviews.
Goh: “Don’t over practice. You need to prepare, but there’s definitely over practicing.I think one of my favorite quotes is that it’s not true that practice makes perfect; Practice makes permanent. If you are practicing with people who are encouraging but who aren’t telling you how to do the right things, you just get used to doing the wrong thing. As an MBA, you probably have pretty good access to former consultants. Find the ones who have done interviews before. Or find MBA alumni who can help or friends who also want to go to consulting firms.”
Muehlstein: “The people that impressed me the most in case interviews are people who I can see are generally enjoying the process of solving a business problem. It’s people who immediately jump up when they see a whiteboard with a marker because they want to jot down some ideas and reflect. It’s the people who are standing up, people who are owning the problem, people I’m having a great discussion with.”
FIND THE BOOK
From the Interviewer’s Seat: The Insider’s Guide For Aspiring Consultants is available at Casey, an online hub for case interview preparation. Go to caseyinterview.com to learn more.