Q&A with the Coaches & Mentors about The Consulting Offer Season I, Lessons Learned, Best Practices and Advice for Subscribers To Use the Program in Their Case Interviews.
What is “The Consulting Offer?”
It is a fully interactive case training program led by ex-partners from BCG and McKinsey. As well, Kevin Coyne, the ex-McKinsey director and worldwide strategy co-leader, helped by mentoring Felix, and led the entire training for Season 2. Kevin also leads several other programs on FIRMSconsulting.com
If you follow this program, you can replicate our case coaching program in its entirety.
It is an immersive experience on case interview preparation.
How does this idea of video recording the program fit Firmsconsulting’s philosophy of never revealing client identities?
The simple answer is that the 4 candidates in TCO are not clients. TCO participants are participants. If they were clients, we would not have used them in the recordings since we never disclose client identities.
1-on-1 case interview clients are in a different program. There they sign an NDA and we do not disclose their identities. Nor do we publish their recordings. They are very different programs.
In developing this program we looked at ways to work within our principled belief of not sharing client details. It is a rule we will not breach. The show is the solution. We take very bright students/graduates and send them through the same training we take our clients.
We treated the participants like clients and we did everything for them that we do for clients, they are even real students, but they are not clients of Firmsconsulting. In fact we do more for TCO participants since there is no cap on the hours we allocate to them. Coaching is capped to 12 hours and no email support.
What was the inspiration for this very interesting program format?
In a nutshell, we wanted subscribers who were not part of our selective case coaching program to still have access to it in: a similar problem that universities try to solve by launching online courses. This program mirrors our case coaching program in its entirety – but is even more rigorous than the coaching program. Given the selective entry requirements of the coaching program, we wanted to find a way to reach more candidates without reducing the rigor of the coaching program – in fact, the selectivity of the coaching program was tightened in the last few months.
That is the motivation.
Yet the inspiration is a different story.
It did not come from any one place, but it was heavily influenced by several people we spoke to. None of these are in order of importance but rather the way I can recall them.
This was sort of the prequel to our thinking. A very nice client received interviews with BCG and Bain but withdrew due to a lack of confidence, stemming from her preparation. She absolutely was fantastic in every possible respect. She was smart, had extraordinary values, deeply analytic, worked ridiculous hours, very diplomatic, great communicator and great at cases: the perfect consultant in every respect.
We managed to get her a new round of interviews with BCG, Bain and McKinsey in early 2014. When I saw the material she would be using to prepare I was not happy with the quality since they were very average and did not cover key areas like estimation, brainstorming and the different types of cases. It really was a disservice to someone like her. At that point we started thinking about a new program she could use to train herself. That client remained central to helping us think through the program.
There were some other important sources of inspiration.
First, we had a PhD graduate in Asia who due to misfortune twice did poorly in his PST and is trying to write it again. Over the last year, we have maintained very frequent contact as he prepares. In one discussion he was telling me about his father who became unemployed and only recently found employment in building maintenance. This client and his brother were trying to find a government subsidized apartment for their parents.
You have to pause for a minute to understand the magnitude of this. He is not dreaming about $350K junior partner salaries or travelling around 5-star hotels eating nice food and flying business class. No, his motivations are completely different. He may very well want to change the world, but he is dead set on changing his parents’ world first.
We should never ever lose sight of the fact that some candidates just want to do better. Here is a candidate who just wants a better life and to give his parents something peaceful in their latter years. It forced us to think about how we can help determined clients who have the drive but lack the resources to get there.
Second, we have an MBA candidate working at SAP. He wrote to us explaining that the coaching with us was unique since it taught him, in his words,
“The training from Firmsconsulting is not just about tackling cases but it is also about value, ethics, conduct, humility, mistakes, and most importantly about not giving up. This will be an eye opening experience for students, as they will realize that school (its brand name) is only one hurdle, and there is more to look forward to. These kids will have a real shot at consulting firms.”
This client felt we needed something targeted to get clients from tier-2 schools conditioned for what to expect so they could make the most from the sessions. We started thinking about this.
How can we create a program where candidates learn at their pace and around their availability, yet with the highest quality material?
That did not exist so it seemed like a worthy problem to solve.
Third, as mentioned elsewhere, several clients from HBS indicated that in 2012 they would be traveling during their internships and needed a different way to study: something portable which gave them the opportunity to observe; take notes and replicate the way we solved cases. They wanted something that was interactive and they felt the video library was a start but not enough. The comment on the video library is interesting because it is very popular and effective. So challenging us to step back and come up with something much more effective was worthwhile.
This core HBS group was heavily involved in the program and used the materials about 8 months before everyone else. Their feedback was used to design what you now see and you will notice their imprint across the program.
Fourth, the President of the Graduate Consulting Club at an Ivy League school sent us a very, very detailed list of suggestions on what she thought excellent consulting training should look like. That email basically became the blueprint for what we wanted to do technically. We will layer in her suggestions in phases and what you see now across the changes in Firmsconsulting is the first phase. More phases will be rolled out soon.
Fifth, a PhD client in computer science put together a consulting report on what Firmconsulting should do next. The ideas where very insightful but the thing that stood out for us the most was that we need to engage more with clients and allow clients to engage among themselves. This document became the philosophical blueprint for the changes we made across Firmsconsulting and this program.
As an aside, I think we must give credit to our very, very loyal and involved clients who contributed a great deal of their time to provide material, comment on ideas, test concepts etc. There are many others stories I can provide of clients who contributed ideas and content. We are doing this interview in January 2013 knowing “The Consulting Offer” will only be unveiled in August/September 2013 which is fitting, since that is the 3rd year birthday of Firmsconsulting.
Sixth, a significant amount of our own clients wanted a place to share ideas, communicate and interact in a confidential environment. This is a request we receive on a daily basis – easily the most requested item. We have always worried about providing a sub-par platform to do this. We were even more concerned about using platforms like Facebook/LinkedIn where confidentiality and sharing of data could be a problem.
We remain opposed to sharing client data and placing said data on external sites meant we would relinquish control of that data.
We prize confidentiality and discretion at Firmsconsulting. We wanted to create a compelling set of content which could stimulate this discussion, without having clients disclose their own personal information/circumstances to explain a concept. Talking about someone else who is in an open domain, like the candidates in this program, seemed like a good idea. It could spark ideas and conversations.
Seventh, we have trained 279 clients in our case coaching program and there are three consistent, how shall we say, complaints about the program. First, they want more time with their coaches but that is not practical since we have a finite number of coaches and only so many hours in the day, though we feel it will certainly help clients and we do want to help them – as evidenced by our addiction to Skype.
Second, clients want more self-practice material. So we wanted to develop something to solve this problem. We also wanted one program which teaches all of the techniques we developed for our prior clients, but taking as much time as we wanted to explain the techniques. With case coaching clients, we have to focus on their development areas – we have no choice since we are chasing a fixed target.
That means we sometimes skip areas they don’t need but could benefit from knowing. We distinguish “need” from “want.” We wanted to download all that knowledge into one program.
Third, clients wanted to communicate and contact each other and we tried facilitating this but it just became a pretty horrible process. We were the bottleneck and having to manually connect clients would never ever work. There is great value in sharing ideas and practicing, but it needs to be a frictionless process where clients have control over how much they would like to share.
These were all great inspirations yet the mechanism/medium was still missing to turn this into reality.
How do you actually do this?
How do you create an interactive platform for students to prepare for case interviews?
In the age of multimedia, books and audio files alone seemed like trying to engage a 13 year old with a 1980 arcade game. Why would she/he engage such an outdated medium when she/he knows an Xbox already exists?
Books, audio files and stories do not have memorable impact by themselves. They are “manufactured” by the authors and not realistic. We wanted people to engage, to basically connect with the material. We knew real characters, real people had to be introduced to make our clients want to observe and learn from the training. Real candidates introduce surprises and real challenges that we could never think of. That realism was essential to us.
Let’s look at a simple example of an event in the program that we could not have predicted. Felix does not even apply to an office, but the recruiting officer is forwarded Felix’s resume and Felix is declined before even applying.
The odds of us discussing such an event in a book we could hypothetically write is close to zero, because the probability of it happening is close to zero.
Yet it did happen and we needed to work with Felix around this. Only having real candidates can introduce such real events to the program. You can watch how we get Felix back into the process with some very counterintuitive steps. There are many such “real” issues we need to navigate in this program.
We wanted to find a way to show subscribers the entire process from first hearing about a consulting firm until they receive the offer. We wanted to create something that subscribers could follow step by step to plan their case interviews, manage their applications, submit applications and manage the interview process. That does not exist. A book felt dead to us.
By using real candidates, we are responding to their training needs, which are the training needs of any subscriber/client.
What makes this program unique?
Upfront, I must state that candidates write their own resumes, emails and cover letters. We simply provide extensive guidance and editing. We check every single word and repeatedly do so. Yet, we do not produce work which candidates will call their own. Given our strong focus on ethics, we would never ever do that. We are very careful in that regard. We will not do something that can one day hurt a candidate, and even if it never came out, it would still be wrong. We must have principles. It is all we have at the end of the day.
Obviously having great candidates in the program made a significant difference. We are grateful to have such an excellent group who really trusted us and worked with us. That was an important part that should not be overlooked. The candidates did incredibly well under extreme pressure.
Even so, there are some key qualities that make this program so effective.
We wanted an immersive experience.
First, where else in the world can you listen to the former worldwide leader of McKinsey’s strategy practice providing tailored career advice?
Second, you can see us take real candidates from the beginning of their journey and guide them all the way to the end.
Third, you are watching real candidates go through the program in real time, and have the supporting material to replicate their journey.
Fourth, we have had cameras, albeit internet cameras, on the candidates throughout the entire experience. All that data is available and the videos are painstakingly edited. Each video contains notes as the candidate speaks: summaries and guides.
Fifth, the planning from the beginning to the end was substantial. This is not something we dreamt up in a week and put together in a month or two. The initial idea was developed around January 2012 after the internship recruiting in the USA. We spent spring and summer working through the idea. (FYI: TCO is not in its sixth season in 2019)
In July we asked for applications and conducted screening all through July and early August. We started the program in mid-August and it has continued until early 2013.
Initial videos were released to our 32 HBS students from September 2012 onward and we spent December working through their feedback. The editing began on December 24th 2012 and continued until June 2013.
That is 11 months of training, recording and editing work. For some candidates, we continued with guidance and that is also recorded so you will see their folders updated into February and March, possibly April as well.
The effort was/is substantial.
It is the biggest case training show in the world.
How did you get eminent strategists like Kevin Coyne, ex-McKinsey worldwide strategy director involved in the program?
Note that Kevin was involved with Firmsconsulting before this program, and is a mentor of the firm who advises our case interview clients. He runs his own firm, the Coyne Partnership, but helps with our training program and runs 6 other training programs we have. We appreciate his continued support and commitment to our value system.
We are the only firm using such eminent ex-directors to guide candidates. We just felt if want candidates in this program to succeed they should go through exactly what our case coaching students experience. If our coaching candidates work with Kevin, or another ex-partner, then candidates in this program should work with Kevin as well.
It comes down to values. Firmsconsulting will only work with people who share our value system. It is that simple.
So once the value side is in order, the rest is easy since we are marching to the same beat. It is not a question of making sure Kevin, myself or the other mentors or coaches are doing the same things, but more a case of knowing they have the best interests of the client in mind. When you have the right intent, good things naturally happen.
How did you select the candidates?
At the most basic level, we chose very challenging candidates with good values.
Subscribers should not be fooled into thinking that since we have Ivy League PhD’s this would be easy.
The candidates had major obstacles to face. Felix was applying to the most competitive foreign offices, Germany, where she had no language skills or local industry knowledge. That made her application practically “mission impossible.” Yet, we thought it would be a good challenge to take on.
All candidates we selected had their own unique hurdles which we needed to overcome.
We were also careful to select candidates with a strong value system, and I believe we did very well in this regard.
We posted a note on our website about the program in intentionally very basic details. That was picked up by consulting clubs and sent to their members.
In about 7 days, we had 180 or so applications. That was much more than we expected and driven purely by some consulting club Presidents who really helped us. We are very thankful to them. Again, some schools like Yale, Wharton and INSEAD were more responsive than others, with Yale generating about 35% of all applications.
We first selected based on merit. We only looked at the quality of the resume, cover letter and other supporting material. We did not look at the accompanying photos and video biographies that some people sent through.
If the person passed this “document” screening, we invited them to a screening interview where we gave them a battery of communication and case questions. If they communicated well, whether or not they passed was not important, and everyone who made the final cut actually failed the questions, we invited them to another screening round.
In this second round, we wanted to dig deeper on communication and understand their resumes. We did not want any surprises later on because, for example, we had forgotten to check something really basic about their eligibility to work in a country. Just to be sure, it was never about people misleading etc. That never happened. It was more about ensuring Firmsconsulting took the time to understand the constraints around an applicant’s profile.
Remember, all of the screening rounds are video recorded so we could always go back and compare applicants.
In the final round, a decision had been made before the round begins. We simply have a discussion and look for consistency. That is it. We then make an offer in that final round of screening.
Those making it through this round go through a background check and if all is good, they are in. Again, the background check is not because we don’t trust people. We want to make sure someone putting in all this time and effort is not going to be derailed by something very simple that could have been fixed ahead of time, like an unpaid bill.
In one case, we had to point out to a candidate that they had 2 unpaid parking tickets.
At what point in this screening process do you know someone will be in the program?
We are very sure at the end of the screening, but see strong signs from the beginning.
Honestly, it is the first five to three minutes.
Consultants speak and manage their image in a certain way. If I can see someone has those attributes, I know we can teach them everything else. Cases are not that tough. The speaking, listening, confidence, behavioural traits etc are the foundation.
If someone has these speaking skills, then the rest of the screening sessions are really theirs to lose. If someone does not have these speaking skills, then they need to work really hard in the rest of the sessions to show us they have additional skills on which we could build.
Felix, for example, stood out in 2 minutes. In that time we knew this is an unusually exceptional candidate who would go far. She was relatively weaker on cases, but high on emotional intelligence, her business judgement was off the charts and she spoke very well. Up to this time, I have yet to see someone who has such good general knowledge and efficiency at using it. In other words, if you give her just three clues and the average person just three clues, she will generate more insights and most will be correct. That is a very rare skill. It is like striking gold with a candidate. That said, she had other weaknesses but this singular spike took her through the screening.
She also could communicate her ideas. There is no point being smart if you cannot get your ideas across.
Right at the beginning of the program, we felt Felix would perform the best and that is what happened. So, our screening techniques tend to be very accurate. Rarely does a client perform much differently from their first session. That is why we ask clients to always begin well – it usually sets the tone for the ending.
Yet, we know the screening process is not perfect. That is why we introduced the mid-point feedback step to only keep the most promising candidates. And, I stress, by our definition of “most promising” in relation to the time requirements of this program and our capacity to manage 4 candidates of varying skills. The candidates released from the program will be able to get in; they just need to keep practising over a longer time and in their own way.
Cutting off two candidates at the mid-point: was that easy to do?
We actually cut of three candidates: 2 at session 13 and 1 at session 21.
That was the most difficult thing we have ever had to do. Candidates were made aware of this eventuality at the beginning when the contracts were signed, so there were no surprises. Even so, it was hard to actually pull the trigger and you noticed we gave Samantha and Rafik a full two weeks to prepare between sessions 12 and 13. We hoped they could use this time to improve to the level we wanted.
They needed to score at least an 8 to force us to deliberate – because at that score, all the scores would be too close to rely solely upon the scoring.
Anything less, they would not have done well enough.
Since the two candidates were released at the mid-point we have remained in touch and have always kept communication channels open to assist them. Those channels still exist.
You need to put this in perspective though.
Remember we spent weeks screening candidates. Even more time was spent communicating before the recordings began and we spent plenty of time together when the program began. In some weeks, we would spend 3 sessions with a candidate, where each session was 2 hours long.
So while we use the word “candidate,” they are not really candidates. They become your friends and you want to see them succeed. Yes, we do push for results in the sessions, but after every tough session I always email or call a candidate to help them prepare for the next session just to make sure that maybe the next session can go better for them. Not all of the after-hours communication was recorded. Yet, I believe we tried our best to help candidates be ready.
At the end of the day it came down to personal drive. We feel the best we can do for candidates is when we are guiding them on cases, office strategy, communication guidelines and so on. Things they could not find anywhere else. When I felt we were spending too much time on other areas, like reminding a candidate to read their own notes, we realized it was not productive for them. We thought it would be prudent to spend more time with candidates who seemed to be benefiting more, by using our specialized training skills.
Being released at the mid-point is not a judgement on the candidate. That is important to remember. Given the way the program works, with about 2 sessions a week, and the need to be ready by 20 sessions, candidates had timelines set for them. These candidates would get offers if they had more time to prepare. So we encourage them to keep preparing at their own pace. They simply were not suited for a training session with fixed timelines and should work at their own pace.
And of course, we learned a lot from this as well. This was just season one. Season two and three will have big changes as a result of what we have learned to do better.
Why would subscribers want to watch the candidate’s cut-off when they can just watch the top 2 candidates?
I would correct you to say top-2 within the definition of this program. The other two candidates can still be placed if they continue practicing at their own pace and in their own way.
You have asked a good question and the logic behind the answer will surprise you.
It is like watching 200 hours of Tiger Woods playing at the Masters and trying to learn what Tiger does when he fumbles that very first swing of the day. Yet, Tiger will never fumble the first swing of the day.
It never happens and therefore you can never observe your mistake by watching him.
If you can never observe that one mistake, you cannot see how he fixes it.
If you cannot see how he fixes it, how can you improve?
You cannot fix that problem.
Coming back to the question, subscribers need to watch someone actually make the mistakes the subscriber makes and learn from this. That is where the weaker candidate’s videos are useful. You can watch their mistakes and watch our advice to fix the problem.
The best performing candidates do not make the mistake average subscribers make. Therefore, they don’t show the average subscriber how to respond to these mistakes. That is a major reason not to only watch the best candidates.
It is very powerful to see your own performance reflected back on you.
Here is the big insight. The relatively weaker candidates were not weaker because we could not identify their development areas. We could and did. They were weaker since they struggled to internalize the feedback in the time available.
For example, watch session 6 of Rafik and see how we give him 4 action steps to fix his performance. Then watch his huge spike in performance between sessions 7 and 9 as he follows these simple steps. Then watch his dip again in session 10. He had to follow just 4 really simple steps, yet he did not. What happened between session 9 and session 10 which caused this precipitous drop in performance?
Why did he not follow the advice? That is ultimately a big question we are trying to answer right now at Firmsconsulting.
This is not an immaterial point. If we can find a way to get candidates like Rafik to push through and stick to the plan, I believe we can help many, many applicants who encounter the very same problems – and it was a really simple plan; just 4 points.
Interestingly, when Rafik showed that massive spike in improvement from sessions 7 to 9, he actually overtook Sanjeev to become the most likely candidate to succeed after Felix. In fact, based on his rate of improvement, he would have overtaken Felix. You can see that in his probability graphs. I clearly recall taking time in October to rethink how we would run the program if Rafik and Felix made it through to the next round, versus the expected Felix and Sanjeev combination.
So, we identified the 4 things which could improve his performance but somehow never could get Rafik to follow the plan. That is a pity.
On a related note, many readers tell us they read or saw something in book/forum x, y or z, but do not know why it was done, but chose to do it.
That is a bad idea and will hurt them. The first thing we ask someone in a case is “why did you do that?”
The answer must be eminently logical or you might as well just say “I copied someone.”
You need to understand something and choose to do it because you understand it. The world is full of experts. You should never rely on experts. If you do not understand something, seek understanding. If it still does not make sense, either it is explained poorly or never made sense in the first place.
Experts hide behind convoluted ideas. Consulting is about making complex ideas simpler.
So, seek understanding. After all, that is what a management consultant would do.
There are a lot of videos, recordings, etc. How does this all work behind the scenes to come together?
The behind the scenes activity is substantial. Just editing and preparing the finished material took us 7 months were we worked on this 5 days a week.
You have to understand this entire program was recorded while we were travelling heavily. So at each site we needed to set up, test equipment etc. Thankfully, online recording tools make that easy and we had a good technical team.
Still, there was a lot to coordinate. At the start of the program, each candidate receives a 20 page guide to the sessions so they know exactly what to prepare, which videos to watch, what reading to do etc. We asked candidate to create a new online calendar which we checked daily to ensure they were preparing correctly, and sent lots of reminders to ensure things happened as planned. That calendar was updated daily with all their preparation and subscribers can access that here.
We also created an online folder were candidates could archive all their preparation material.
Before each session, every candidate records a video diary using a set of suggested questions we provide as a guideline. We use this to tweak the session for any questions, concerns or criticism they may have: that is because unless a session is unique to the needs of a client; it will be an absolute failure.
Let’s look at what happens within a session.
We start with questions we have as coaches and any questions the candidate may have from the video diary. We then practice cases together, all the time allowing the candidate to lead, until McKinsey cases, while we provide guidance. At the end, we sometimes talk through the solution, or use the whiteboard to explain concepts.
The whiteboard is exactly that: an electronic whiteboard where we can solve cases and the candidate watches what we do. The whiteboard is very common at the start when all concepts are new to candidates and they need us to draw diagrams to explain things. It is used much less later in the program when candidates know what we mean when we say, for example, “marginal-cost curve”.
Clients cite the whiteboard as the most effective training tool within the videos. So we used this tool heavily at the beginning.
Once the session is over, they are about 2 hours long, we process the recording to a video file and produce a text transcript of the entire discussion. For each session, the raw footage is about 15 GB. You can do the math at 4 candidates where some did 23 sessions and others 13. That is a lot of recording data: over 1 terabyte.
We then compile statistics from the recordings. We count the number of mistakes, errors, math mistakes, logic errors, time to answer questions, body language gaps etc. We will almost certainly make more statistics available once we find a more appetizing way for them to be presented – there is such a thing as worthless data if it cannot be intuitively understood.
We thereafter adjust the scored performance if needed. For example, after analysing the footage, we may realize we were too lenient/critical on a candidate and not consistent with our scoring.
The statistics are very important. So many candidates rely on anecdotes in blogs and forums. That is dangerous and we do not do this. We have hard data backing every decision we make. It is worthwhile looking at some of the statistics and how we used this to change the program.
All the data we collect goes into a master program were we can track correlations between time spent watching videos per candidate, errors make etc. We also collect self-reported data from each candidate, emailed to us after the call, where they rank their enjoyment of the session and their learning of the process.
Their self-reported scores are useful to manage the program. For example, if someone records a drop in enjoyment from 90% to 50% in just one session, we try to find out why and adjust the sessions. If someone continuously self-reports a learning score of 50% then we try to understand if the content, our style of coaching or their learning method needs to change.
We then review the transcript of the sessions and footage to see where the candidate struggled. We use this to design the written solution guide to specifically address those weaknesses. We will then develop a recorded podcast feedback providing a high-level summary of what we think happened and where they need to focus their improvement – always highlighting just the top 2/3 which can lead to a 30%/40% spike in performance. We also then take the role of the candidate and record the “perfect” answer. Although, a better word may be suggested answer since we deliberately provide the best answer for the time available in a case interview, versus the best answer we could have possibly developed with unlimited time. The latter is unreasonable and not expected in case interviews.
Finally we edit the recordings, which is a huge task in itself worthy of its own answer.
We kept the documentary feel, but removed things like broken feeds, when the connection breaks etc. The edit takes a long time because we embed text guides and summaries into each video. Each video took between 3 to 4 hours to edit. There are about 90 videos (of full case training sessions only and double this number if we include the diaries), which means about 380 maximum hours of editing occurred or 48 full 8-hour days. This explains why the recordings started in August but is only airing now.
All the videos have summaries, notes and guides provided in text overlaid onto the video so key points from the candidate’s experiences can be emphasized. This ensures subscribers can watch candidates and learn at the same time.
And this happens for each and every session for every candidate. A lot of data is collected. About 8,400 minutes of footage. Something like 233 separate cases done. For each case a separate written solution file and finally a separate video solution recording or podcast are prepared. And there is much more like the mentoring recordings, resume edits, networking practice sessions, general consulting discussions.
Finally, we needed to construct a database to sort and manage all the final documents. The final database contains 1,000 separate files. One file may be a video, article, resume edit etc.
One of the big challenges we had was in presenting all this data in a way which was intuitive and easy to use. We have constructed one version on the site but we can easily present things in different ways and connect the data better. That is something we will continue to do. We encourage readers to let us know what will work best for them.
What surprised you the most about the program?
One thing this program confirms is that our selection process is very good at picking people with good values. I would say that we only had one incident of a values-breach and the candidates were exceptionally pleasant, meant-well, hard-working and willing to help. I think if you look for the good in people, they will give it to you. We thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent with the candidates.
Even today, we keep in touch and send them short notes about different things. We have a close relationship.
Through a more training-based lens, we felt the candidates would suck in the information and gallop along. We had this mental image of reining in the candidates with a leash, who were so aggressive to make the program work for them.
In fact, the opposite happened. Right until the end, you will see us driving candidates to get things done and constantly reminding them about networking, completing next steps, checking documents. Not all clients were lagging here terribly, but the theme was very consistent.
I found that anything we, the coaches and mentors, were not carefully watching and tracking was not being done. Candidates regularly overestimated their abilities and frequently introduced long delays due to work/study commitments. This did impact their preparation and performance.
So we learned to assume nothing. Even then, this did not always work. The networking became something of a problem for some candidates since they would just not begin networking and only started networking about 12 days before Christmas and expected fast results at the slowest time of the year. In fact, networking was delayed so much that the candidates had not started networking until we were at session 18 out of the planned 20 session. We had to actually increase the number of sessions to accommodate this delay.
Some, like Felix, received quick results but Sanjeev did not. How they reacted to this determined who would stay in the program.
This need for the coaches to constantly drive the process, I must say, introduced a lot of fatigue on our side. It is definitely strong lessons for seasons 2 and 3, and we made significant changes to the program to cater for this.
The other surprise is how little candidates practiced by themselves. I felt at the time and still think ignoring practicing is a bad strategy although it worked for Felix and largely did not work for others. I believe all candidates must take the time to practice cases, when they are ready, since we only teach. It is better to practice what we teach with someone else.
These unexpected “delays” from the candidates forced us to design the final coaching sessions to be very thorough and we actually extended the program beyond the contracted time since candidates delayed so much. Rather than assuming candidates would practice by themselves at the end, which meant we would only perform drills with them in the latter sessions, we switched to heavy sessions testing everything in detail.
The other surprise is something I have never really considered before I actually saw it. We always tell candidates to get sleep and be well rested before an interview.
Yet do we really know what happens, beyond anecdotal evidence, when they do not?
You can watch actually video footage to see how a candidate’s performance drops dramatically with no rest.
Watch Sanjeev’s session 18 or 17 and then watch session 19. On the day of session 19, he slept around 1am since we arranged for him to speak to Kevin. He also left early for work that day and came home very, very late. I let the session proceed, though Sanjeev should have postponed it, since I was interested to see how his performance would drop.
Everything in his performance was down that day, even though he is a good candidate. It is pretty remarkable to watch. I think subscribers must definitely watch that. It drives home the importance of good rest before an interview.
Did you have a favorite candidate?
No. At the beginning, there were people we thought would do better, but there were no favorites.
Yet, that changes as the program proceeds. You work with someone for over 70 hours and you are bound to like them. You know every inch of their life, every personal motivation and can understand what drives them. You see them go through some big personal and professional moments. We speak to them while they are on vacation. We watch them as they are moving countries, applying for visas, networking with countless consulting partners and trying to navigate so many obstacles to get into McKinsey et al. They even send you wedding and graduation photos.
They are like family.
Most days we are the first people they call when something happens and the last people they write to. We are always on Skype sharing ideas, reviewing their emails etc. It is a true immersion in the Firmsconsulting way – exceptional clients with exceptional personal values groomed for careers of significance.
We essentially “live” with them through this process.
How can you not like them?
That said, I tend to like candidates who prepare well, even if they do not understand everything. When I find candidates becoming disorganized, not preparing, missing appointments etc, we are disappointed. A candidate should always take their personal development as seriously as we do.
We also tend to like sincere candidates. Far too often students can come across as arrogant or defensive. As your coach, I need to see the real you.
Is there a favorite moment in this season?
I just believe it is helping someone achieve their potential. That is the favorite “part”. Of course, the least favorite part is watching a candidate struggle to improve. That was hard to watch, especially when a candidate is just refusing to follow a basic suggestion which can make a 40% – 50% improvement in their performance. We saw this with both Samantha and Rafik. Though, I will say they both improved a lot between sessions 12 and 13. For them. it was really a question of given them more time. Hopefully, they have realized this and are continuing to prepare with more practice sessions between new concepts being taught.
I listed some of my personal favorites below but there are many other moments subscribers may find more interesting. All of the items below are recorded for subscribers.
One of the best moments was when a candidate was rejected by the recruiting manager of her preferred office. She was naturally not pleased about this. Who would be? We arranged a quick call and explained to her that our plan was to get her to network with the most senior directors and that plan was still valid.
We further explained that the recruiters would reject her since she did not fit the exact requirements of the office and our plan was to get her in front of partners who could then assess her innate skills. The candidate was obviously worried and slightly skeptical, but trusted us.
Literally two days letter, she gets an email from the worldwide managing partner offering to review her resume, speak to her in January and discuss her application. That was a memorable moment for sure but also a validation of our counter-intuitive approach of only networking with partners.
Other interesting moments include rushing through a session at Yale as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the North-East USA following a very unpredictable pattern. Making sure the candidate got home in time was a little scary. Of course, some candidates had no power for about a week thereafter which impacted the training schedule as well.
Session 10 was memorable. We try to show candidates that it is very tough to remain diplomatic and professional when asked “controversial” questions. In this session, we don’t tell the candidates what to expect and for about 30 minutes ask them these intentionally emotionally charged questions like, “Why is China economically inferior to Japan?” We want to see if they can remain diplomatic and professional. It is interesting to see how the candidates react – they don’t know what is happening or if we really believe the questions we are asking.
Session 6 and 7 with Rafik particularly stands out. Here is a candidate who was struggling with cases, because his personal life was a little stressed. He was making basic mistakes, forgetting steps and a little unprepared. We had a special, and tough, post-session 6 call and gave him a 4-step action plan to fix his image, communication and preparation.
It was just 4 simple things to do and you can see this dramatic increase in his performance in session 7, and this continued through sessions 8 and 9. This is memorable because none of the things we asked him to do focused on technical case skills. All of the 4 steps were about planning and image. Yet, it directly impacted his case performance which immediately soared.
The lesson here is that case performance is driven by non-case issues. That is an important lesson.
Would you have done anything differently?
Of course! We are a firm that is constantly learning and it would be ridiculous to have gone through this program and not discovered newer and better ways to teach candidates.
But you need to watch season two and three to know what the changes are.
We did learn and correct some things in Season 1. Those I can share.
One thing we stopped doing in the sessions was a tactic to deliberately confuse a candidate and see how they responded. We tried that with Felix in Session 7 and it was clear the debate on pricing margins and all the different types of margins was not helpful to her development.
Simply put, if we introduce these “tricks” and a candidate does poorly, did they do poorly due to lack of case interview skills or due to the trick? It is not easy to know and we stopped introducing tricks in these sessions.
In Session 8, you will see we also do not correct Felix in the key question of that case. We should have and that is something else we did thereafter. Thereafter, we immediately corrected major mistakes quickly so candidates were using the correct information as they attempted the rest of the case, thereby making the effort meaningful. It was wasteful letting the candidate proceed and waste 20 – 30 minutes of their lives only to be told the assumptions they had made earlier, and which we could have corrected, where incorrect.
The other thing we tried to stop doing is changing some of the data in the case to see if the candidate was paying attention. I think they found it confusing.
A credit to Felix, with whom we tried these tests, is that she picked them all up very quickly and could mostly explain the main problems – even though we tried really hard to make it tough for her.
How did you plan each session?
The planning takes a lot of time. We do not prepare the sessions with each candidate before the program begins. That would be worthless since we have no idea beforehand what their unique needs would be in session 6, 12, 15 etc. We plan each session before the session itself.
The way we set up a session is as follows.
We know that we need to get the candidates into an interview, ready for an interview within about 20 sessions and in a position to secure an offer in that time. No matter what happens each day or week, we don’t drift off-course since that overriding objective is our beacon.
We have to get candidates started on their resumes, cover letters, reading, fit preparation and networking as soon as possible since it takes a long time for results to come through. In the sessions you can see us putting pressure on candidates but they delayed for a variety of reasons.
Let’s leave aside these networking-related items above which continue in parallel to the case, communication and country preparation.
• We know we first have to teach candidates foundation skills. This is session 5 to 6.
• We second have to teach them basic case techniques. This is session 7 to 12.
• Third, we need to teach them how to handle more complex cases from as many sectors as possible and with data and mixed hypotheses etc. So you can see we are going broad on the first three teaching techniques. This is session 13 to 19.
• Fourth, we start tightening the training around a country, like Germany. This is session 20 onward.
• Fifth, we tighten the training around core sectors in a country. This is session 20 onward.
Basically, when you get to stage 3, around session 16, I want to be able to call you at 3am in the morning and do a case without any problems. The candidate should be ready for interviews.
If they are not ready, then they have a learning style challenge and that needs to be fixed before continuing.
At stage 4, I want to call you at 3 am in the morning and do a case about a sector that is vital to your office choice.
Stage 1 should be like shooting fish in a barrel. This is sessions 5 to 6 of the training. You watch a video and basically repeat a similar case. If you do badly here, it is due to personal lack of discipline to prepare. Yet, these are foundation sessions so candidates need to prepare well. You will notice Samantha and Rafik’s struggles started here since they did not prepare correctly and had unresolved gaps going into the tougher sessions. In other words, they were trying to build tougher approaches on a weak foundation.
Case preparation cannot work done this way. The foundation must be very strong.
Stage 2 of the training onward is more focused around the advice we give in sessions, versus relying on the videos only for guidance. The videos help a lot but the coaching feedback is essential. This is sessions 7 to 12 of the training. A candidate needs to pay attention to us to do well here. If they don’t pay sufficient attention in the session, it’s not a process of simply watching videos to catch up. No video can ever explain all the permutations and combinations, or communication advice, or the way BCG etc. examines a case. Here you see Samantha’s detailed note taking process hurting her. To take such detailed notes, she is paying too less attention to our reasoning, and too much attention to capturing, but not necessarily understanding, every detail.
In stage three, session 13 to session 19 we constantly adjust each session to expose a candidate’s weakness and force a discussion on this. Sessions 13 onward are focused on McKinsey and Bain cases. Videos are more like reminders and do not really help at this stage. We are past the training wheels stage.
Stages 4 and 5 are more fun, for us and hopefully the candidate. This is session 20 onward. The candidate should be very good at cases at this point – and ready for interviews. Our job is to find the small things which could hurt them and build this into the session. That is why stage 4 is dedicated to office choices. We never planned it that way, but in preparing the candidates we realized they had no idea about the offices to which they were applying and we needed to prep them heavily.
It takes us about 60 – 120 minutes to plan each session and prepare the material. It is a constant process of adjusting the material as a candidate’s preparation levels change.
What one piece of advice do you have for viewers?
I have more than one, but they are all linked.
Getting into McKinsey etc is like anything in life. You need to have a plan – objective and tactics to get there. The objective should not change but the tactics must be constantly reviewed and adjusted.
Beyond that, I am a big believer in having options. We basically forbid candidates from having one path to their target firm. If your goal is McKinsey etc do not just have one strict path to get there. There are too many surprises and that one path you were banking on could be easily ruined.
This happened to both Felix and Sanjeev. In Sanjeev’s case, despite extensive warnings this could happen, he felt his recruiter relationships would be sufficient. They were not, and a single link into the firm rarely is. I remember speaking to Felix after her first path to McKinsey was blocked and being quite calm about it. We fully expect these things to happen, but until it happens to the candidate, they are a little taken aback.
One thing we teach our candidates is to create multiple entry points to the same goal and constantly cultivate these. That could mean speaking to two different partners or even staggering applications to learn from mistakes. Having multiple contingency routes is vital. Related to this, candidates almost always misunderstand networking. Networking is the process of building a relationship over time. It is not about a few coffee chats and submitting an application. Candidates, like Sanjeev, were getting frustrated yet they started late and did not take the time to build relationships. They simply expected referrals with one or two calls/emails. That is not networking and it hurt them.
Next, I would say viewers need to be very careful of the way they treat practice-partners/coaches/mentors they have. You will quickly see that if a candidate in the program prepares well, we respond well by opening up more time and effort for them. You can see that in session one. Compare Felix and Samantha.
The preparation was very different. One watched the videos in detail and handles the cases very well. The other, by her own admission later in the sessions, fast forwards through the explanations and just notices the steps involved. Her preparation is weak and this influences the rest of that session.
If you prepare well, the people supporting you gives you more time and tends to give you the benefit of the doubt. Never ever start a relationship poorly. It defines the dynamic for the rest of the relationship.
Linked to this, you need to be efficient. If the videos have the answers, and you skim them through and miss key areas, you are wasting time. I find that some students are super-efficient in draining everything useful from the videos and being extraordinarily prepared while others just meander. What you get out of this is a function of what you put into it.
Bring energy to the sessions. You can watch Rafik in action, a great guy, but starts off the sessions looking really tired. That sets the tone for the rest of the session. Rafik lightens up at times, but you notice how much effort went into getting him to manage his image. He did this well from sessions 7 to 9, but then let things slip from session 10, when we started focusing on other areas. In Rafik’s case, we provided a 4-step guideline to help with this, which he forgot. This is not Rafik’s fault at all. It is hard to do for anyone, but needs to be done.
Be especially wary of following the advice of friends/colleagues or juniors who just got in. One experience is not a trend, and someone who was only an associate/analyst at the firm is not going to understand the firm. They may understand one office, but not the firm.
Finally, follow the suggestions and timings in the videos on when and how to prepare. They work.
Enjoy the show.