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Joining McKinsey from the Military

Meet Eliot, an officer in the US military with 6 years’ experience including combat experience in Iraq, leading a combat platoon and economic planning team, and a subsequent deployment to the US Central Command where he was responsible for logistical planning for Middle Eastern supply lines. Aged 30, he has risen rapidly through the army and completed an undergraduate degree from a top private US university and two masters in engineering and economics from the same institute. Although up for a promotion soon, he now wants to make a transition to consulting. What should he do? Two wars in Asia have made this profile and career decision point not uncommon. We regularly receive requests from ambitious soldiers to review their profile and determine the best route for them to follow.

McKinsey and BCG tend to favor successful applicants from the military forces since they have a type of drive and practical experience consulting firms want – they get things done.

What follows is the typical conversation we have and what we search for in the candidate before advising them. The key takeout is that not all profiles are the same, so it is almost impossible to give proper feedback from simply analyzing a resume. We have to speak to the candidate. That said, McKinsey and BCG tend to favor successful applicants from the armed forces since they have a type of drive and practical experience consulting firms want – they get things done. Walk me through your resume and key accomplishments? For whatever reason, we find that candidates do a rather poor job at reflecting their accomplishments in their resumes. This is more so for military profiles. We invariably find that a candidate’s true accomplishments are usually better than those they have captured. That is usually because a candidate is trying to put down what he thinks the consulting firm is looking for versus what consulting firms are really looking for. Consulting firms are looking for evidence of leadership, analytical ability and strong evidence of a track record of excellence in getting things done as well as the intellectual capability to manage the course load. Excellent career progression and significant milestones are also critical. However, most candidates capture these points in boring generalizations which are non-specific and lack any important detail whatsoever. A one page resume has so little room that every word must be carefully considered before it is inserted. It is better to describe one initiative in detail versus listing every initiative done.

We invariably find that a candidate’s true accomplishments are usually better than those they have captured. That is usually because a candidate is trying to put down what he thinks the consulting firm is looking for versus what consulting firms are really looking for.

Why management consulting versus industry or investment banking? Just about anyone who thinks they are smart believes they should be in management consulting. This rationale is not good enough. The candidate needs to show they really understand why they want to be in consulting and why they do not want to be in their current role or in another role. Crucially, I want to hear a personal story which led to the decision. Ask yourself this, if anyone could provide the reason you have for applying to McKinsey and get away with it, is your reason meaningful? These personal stories shows us how much thought a candidate has applied to their decision, and whether or not they are merely providing canned responses. Management consulting is about critical thinking and while the candidate may not have all the skills to have applied this process to their own careers, we would at least like to see the attempt. As mentioned many times before, candidates with a glamourized view on consulting almost never enter our program. We are looking for people who are serious about helping themselves grow and helping clients make tough choices.

It is better to describe one initiative in detail versus listing every initiative done.

What is your regional flexibility? This is the key glamour question. Candidates who mention they are targeting London, New York, Paris or Milan set off so many warning bells I need to use ear plugs to block the warnings. The bottom-line is that the candidates must have very good reasons for choosing these offices. Why have their backgrounds, areas of interest and planned careers post-consulting made them chose these offices? Does their rationale make sense? Can they explain why they want to join these offices versus the Cleveland office, for example? It is perfectly fine to pick an office for personal reasons. In fact, to a consulting firm that can sometimes be the best reason. Just be honest about it. Would you prefer McKinsey, Bain or BCG? Again, this is a test to see if they really understand the differences between the firms and also if they have at least thought about it. While most people would unlikely have excellent answers to these questions, we at least want to see they have thought about it and honest. That is crucial. We can teach you the case approach and coach you on fit interviews, but we cannot teach you inquisitiveness. The best answers are not generic. It is far better to say you do not actually know, since you don’t, but have spoken to x, y or z and read magazine p and learned the following. I can assure you even 3 year veterans of Bain or McKinsey cannot see the differences so no one is going to ask such a question. We use it to test sincerity and your level of prior research.

Ask yourself this, if anyone could provide the reason you have for applying to McKinsey and get away with it, is your reason meaningful?

How do you prefer communicating? Communication is a major part of consulting. Polished consultants are skilled communicators. In this question we are really seeking self-awareness. Is the candidate aware of their communication skills? For example, is there a difference between the way they actually communicate and their self-assessment? We tend to find that the majority of candidates need lots of help in how to communicate. Through this process, we want to see just how much help is needed and if we can provide that help. More than just asking the question, we typically immediately pivot and use the style the candidate prefers. We do this to see how a candidate behaves when in their comfort zone. This indicates how they could perform outside their comfort zone. Have you done any preparation for the case interviews? Actually, we prefer people who have done no training. It is a lot easier to teach you the correct approach than to “un teach” you bad habits. Yet, we play this by ear. If you have done preparation, we may do a mini-case to see how you fare. If you have the correct basic skills then that would count in your favor. There is no right answer here.

I can assure you even 3 year veterans of Bain or McKinsey cannot see the differences so no one is going to ask such a question.

What is your plan in the military assuming you did not get into any firm? Far too many people see consulting as a way out to kick-start a stalled career. If you have reached a ceiling in your career and see consulting as a “nice” way onto another career highway, you need to think very carefully if the reasons why your existing career has stalled could ultimately lead to a rejection at the consulting firms. If so, be careful. The time, effort and money to prepare for consulting interviews are not insignificant. Ensure you are realistic in your reasons for making the career switch and whatever impacted your current career is not being imported into your new role. Using these seven questions, we can easily assess the ability of a military candidate to succeed in our program and ultimately succeed in his/her interviews. Military candidates can make outstanding consultants if they are aware of their strengths and can harness these in interviews. Their mix of operational and planning, if they have them, experiences are invaluable.

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