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It’s a question I am asked many times and I have never posted my thoughts. Now, a good few years after leaving, I think it is worth giving my reasons for becoming a management consultant, staying as long as I did and exiting as a managing director. Not everyone will agree with my thoughts, but it is an honest opinion.

Management consulting is a meritocracy. No matter how old you are, your background or views, if you are smart, can solve problems and clients like you, then you will move up rapidly. I have friends who entered their professional careers at the same time as me. They joined exceptional companies like GE, Nestle and a host of other blue-chips and investment banks. No matter how fast they were promoted, there was always an expectation they would need to work longer in a position before moving up. And they did. If you are truly intelligent and want to be recognized for this, then management consulting can get you to the top and cut out all the waiting time. The path to partnership is 6 -8 years as a principal and another 3 to 6 years as a director. If you are at the top of the pack that is just 9 -10 years to get to the top. Though, there is a wide range between the senior most partners and newer and younger partners.

Management consulting is a meritocracy. No matter how old you are, your background or views, if you are smart, can solve problems and clients like you, then you will move up rapidly.

The salary is exceptional. Many consultants downplay the salary as if it is dirty to talk about money. All the way from business analyst to managing director, you will earn more than your peers outside the industry. The only people who beat you consistently are investment bankers who actually earn much lower base salaries but take home a larger bonus. The salary allows you live a great life, save and plan for the future. The salary is a great motivator and is more than worth the lifestyle.

No other sector or group of companies outside of world of McKinsey, Bain and the BCG can look you in the eye and say we train tomorrow’s leaders.

It is the only industry that specifically trains its people to become executives. No other sector or group of companies outside of  world of McKinsey, Bain and the BCG can look you in the eye and say we train tomorrow’s leaders. GE does produce many executives. However, as a percentage of their total employees, a mere fraction of them go on to leadership positions. Within the elite consulting firms you are being trained for that one goal. To be an executive advising other executives or to be an executive running a company outside the consulting firm. The percentages that go on to leadership positions are far higher.

You are allowed entry to the world’s most exclusive and powerful social network. Getting into these firms is incredibly tough. Staying and making it all the way to the top is even tougher. Yet, that does not matter. Once you are in you are now an alumnus of an incredibly powerful network and you can tap into that network whenever it is needed. Alumni of consulting firms like to help each other. They also want to help each other. They are proud to have belonged to these institutions and it opens many doors.

Once you get over the fundamentals learning curve, it is an entrepreneurial and dynamic place. Lots of consultants will tell you that the elite firms have their way of doing things. That is true and there is a reason for it. Management consulting firms understand problem solving better than anyone else. They are staffed with some of the smartest people on the planet obsessing about the best ways to solve problems. Unless you can show you also understand problem solving they will never ever allow you to be creative. They want you to be creative with solutions, not with the approach you use. Learning these basics takes about 2-3 years depending on the person. Many never learn it and are managed out. However, one you pass this learning speed-bump it can be a very fulfilling place. These firms will then actively support you to try new things, enter new markets and experiments with ideas. Yet, only after you earn the right to do so.

You work with some of the smartest people on the planet. If that excites you and you enjoy the intellectual jousting, then you will enjoy consulting. The more senior you become the more and more you will be lead things which have a massive impact on clients and the world. That chance to make a difference is worthwhile and is something to strive for.

These are just some of the reasons but they are very important reasons.

Behind The Feature: Michael & Irina on Women in Emerging Markets and their ambitions.

Michael Boricki, a Firmsconsulting Principal, edited September’s Quarterly article about the significant challenges of women in emerging markets who lack career guidance to join the likes of McKinsey, BCG et al. Irina (see footnote 1), a Big-3 consultant and co-writer of the article, was the source material for the article and the main consultant profiled.

The photo-essay above follows a young lady, who lives in Irina’s old apartment, through her typical day. This essay aims to provide some context for Irina’s former life in Ukraine. Photos are copyrighted to Firmsconsulting.

How do you think women should use the inspiring stories in this piece?

Michael: Well, I can answer that by telling you how women in emerging markets, or of disenfranchised backgrounds, should not use the article.

When we wrote this article I was most concerned with readers looking at these stories and thinking that if they spent a few thousand dollars on advice, along with tens of thousands of dollars on an education, they could achieve an amazing career outcome. That keeps me awake at night. I worry that all of the advice will be taken literally.

What Irina and the other women profiled here achieved is remarkable. That is why they have been profiled. It was very tough for them. And Irina will tell you that I am not an easy person with whom to work. I simply push people until they reach their maximum potential and let’s not kid ourselves, that is not fun for anyone. So this journey is not fun, not a Disney-Adventure and certainly not guaranteed. So, it can be done but the obstacles will be great and readers must be aware of this. Do not think this is a question of simply raising the cash to follow the game-plan. Many will not make it. That is why we write about those who do make it.

Irina: I agree and disagree with Michael’s views on this. And he knows I do not always agree with him!

I agree about his cautionary tale. I was also defrauded by a shady visa program which promised to help me with my career searches. So, you definitely need to be very careful in doing this. When I was in Donetsk it would have been unthinkable to spend so much money on my career. It is just a different world as they say. So Michael is right about this need to not throw money at a problem.

I disagree with Michael about how hard he was and the toughness of the program. Maybe it is because I am from Ukraine and we are tougher, I do not think I went into this expecting something easy. Anyone pursuing McKinsey and who has struggled as much as the women profiled here know how tough and unfair things are. So certainly, for the people who commit to this journey, they have clear expectations. For others, maybe not so.

Why did you choose this particular story to launch “The Women Premium” theme?

Michael: Irina’s story was inspirational and I found our dialogue to be sincere. She was more interested in telling the truth as she saw it, even when she disagreed with us, than being politically correct. I believed she would be a strong role model for women because she does not pander to conventional wisdom.

Her story also lent itself well to the photo-essay format we wanted to use. Pictures are far more effective than words. We wanted to tell the real behind the scenes story but also motivate female applicants. That was crucial for us.

For the former, we did not want anyone reading this and saying, “Oh, I read about a lady with this challenging background and she got into McKinsey so it can be easily done.” We wanted to profile the extreme hurdles Irina needed to overcome and we wanted readers to understand that particular journey versus focusing on the relative glamour of just getting in.

Personally, I grew up in an emerging market and feel women in these regions get a really bad deal. They have to overcome a discriminatory culture, traditions, laws etc. They have to overcome the ingrained expectations that they are not worthy and do not deserve the same chances as everyone else. It is tough for them and we were hoping firms like McKinsey, and even the banks where some of our clients ended up, would read this and take an anthropological view of things and try helping clients before the recruitment process.

It is too late to do anything at recruitment where firms are merely picking up the survivors of the gauntlet called life. An anthropological view means looking at the circumstances why people do well rather than merely selecting the best. Doing well when the game is rigged in your favor is not doing well.

On the motivation side, we did not want to only profile one story since one data point proves very little. So we approached all 8 clients who had been through the turnaround and asked if they would contribute. All said yes and we went to great lengths to ensure they were happy with the material before it was released. To see where they came from and what they achieved is incredibly remarkable.

It always bothers me when McKinsey or BCG does not profile these stories on their website. I think McKinsey currently has a featured profile of a successful lady on their website. It is just a slight twist on the usual theme of someone from a strong background doing well.

To connect with younger women in emerging markets and help shape their careers earlier, you have to reflect their background onto them so it is relatable. A female high-school student reading a McKinsey career page about someone attending Bryn Mawr College followed by a Wharton MBA is likely going to be more scared than inspired. We want to inspire and open up possibilities.

People like Irina do that and their stories are so personal, so detailed and so inspiring that you come to think anything is possible. That is what we wanted to leave with young women.

Irina: In November 2012 Michael asked me to contribute to the Firmsconsulting strategy meeting in January 2013 by thinking about significant themes in management consulting and prioritizing them. I did not recommend this theme but we spoke several times about my experiences and the challenges I had faced. We slowly developed this idea and thought it could be written-up to help other female clients. Writing the article opened other interesting side-stories and that is how the theme developed.

I liked Michael’s focus on emerging markets or emerging markets students trying to succeed in the west. I was first embarrassed to share my life story but Michael convinced me I should be proud of what I achieved and use it has an asset. It should not be hidden.

I liked the photo-essay idea so much! I have not been home in years so this was almost like going back and seeing how much had changed. I could not recognize anything but it is good for high-school students today since everything seems so much is better. My old apartment is still the same! I could even recognize a table we had!

I also appreciated the idea of telling this story about someone from Eastern Europe trying to succeed in the western education system. I knew foreign students were struggling to adjust but this article helped me frame this better. My MBA career counselor ignored these background issues when advising me. I felt he thought I was the same as everyone else because I had joined a good MBA program.

The counselor’s advice was lukewarm and very unhelpful. For me this article explains why my search happened as it did. The article is based on my experiences but I learned many new things about myself when reading the final analyses. It was a penetrating psychological study.

This was written almost three years after Irina’s program started. Did you find anything change in your original views on this experience?

Michael: Yes, there was a big surprise when we sent our photographer to capture a day-in-the-life-of Irina. Irina provided the street addresses, names of her school, names of friends, names of family members, her favorite hangouts etc. and the photographer took about 300 photos over a week-long period. We picked the best for the feature article but still had many interesting photos.

One of the most interesting photo-essays was not released in the original article. We have released it here and you can see it above.

The photos above followed a young women who lives in the same apartment where Irina and her mother lived many years ago. That woman was kind enough to let us follow her around for one day.

We wanted to show readers what Irina’s life was probably like, considering she was even poorer when she lived in this apartment.

What surprised me a little in these photos was the level of poverty. Everything seems so small and crowded.

I grew up in an emerging market economy so this resonated with me at a very personal level. We take a lot of things for granted in the west and we see the word “poverty” so much that we become desensitized to it. The photos were tough to see and forced me to reflect on the advice we give candidates.

How practical is it for our clients to do some of the things we ask of them? For Firmsconsulting, that was the very surprising benefit of this article and the photo shoot. We really have to think more carefully about the very practical hurdles female clients face in emerging markets and guide them through that.

Irina: I never thought there are other clients like me having a similar background. To find 6 others like me and have the opportunity to communicate with them was a great surprise and benefit of being involved in this article. We can support each other and have started doing this.

We were all trained in the same way and tend to have similar views so this makes it easy to relate to each person’s experiences and challenges. I come home after some bad days on an engagement, sit at my laptop and open up a chat to see if anyone was having the same problems. About 8 of 10 times I could find answers from this group and if that failed, I went to Michael.

I have always asked Michael to open up the Firmsconsulting network even more because this was a useful sounding-board for me. It is one of the most important benefits of the experience. Michael likes using the word “curated” and it is a good word. Everyone in the network thinks along the same values but they are not afraid to state their minds.

Is this a descriptive or prescriptive article? Can others apply the lessons?

Michael: Yes, it was designed to be prescriptive. We definitely did not want a descriptive article which sounded interesting and tried to force facts onto what we wanted to write. It is crucial to note that there was a control group of women with similar backgrounds where we used the strategies we use for our typical clients. So we could compare results between the groups to isolate success factors.

Since we had these clients working with us concurrently over about 3 years, we could also adapt our techniques to see what worked and what did not worked.

It was one big career experiment. I would like to think it is ongoing because we are always testing new ways to improve the results. The Harvard Project which eventually became “The Consulting Offer” was another huge career experiment. We also had controls in that situation. If there are no controls, the findings are just useless to us.

If you are reading this, and in a similar situation, we wanted you to see the path that can be taken but at the same time understand the difficulty. My advice is not to do the same things but to understand why it was done and then see how relevant it is to your situation. It is not wise to blindly follow any recommendation since the advice is perfectly aligned to just that client.

So the different categories and sequence of actions can be followed but must be adjusted for each reader’s unique profile. Only about 5% will achieve the same result but I think most will end up better off than they were before they started.

In general, I do not like descriptive pieces like “Good to Great” or “Tipping Point.” Even “Blue Ocean Strategy” is a descriptive piece. They are not grounded in research. The authors describe what they see and then try to explain the success. They are back-fitting facts. Prescriptive pieces explain why something happened and how to replicate the strategy. In scientific terms, descriptive pieces do not have a control: they cherry-pick facts to support their stories.

Anything which makes the New York Times bestseller list, while an interesting read, is usually descriptive since the audience would not relate to more rigorous analyses. We definitely want to move away from pithy descriptive pieces. They help no one though they can start interesting conversations.

Irina: I think to some extent it is. If I look at other women in similar roles I think they can safely follow most of the recommendations in the article. I cannot see how it could not help them.

I volunteer at some schools in suburbs around the city, and the advice is very useful to these students. For that group of females and males it would be very effective and this is a large group of millions of students. The piece is timely.

Do you feel female aspiring consultants have a tougher road ahead of them than males?

Michael: Are you kidding me? Females have a horrible time. We apply terrible double standards and then apply the ridiculous escape clause, “females now have it better than ever before in history,” because somehow that must make it better. That’s true, but we are starting off a ridiculously low base. I really do not want to get started on this subject because I could talk forever so I will keep this brief.

The bottom line is this: until male and females are equal in every single respect, they are not equal.

If you think about many of the things we do, they are driven by culture and tradition. Tradition is basically routines we follow without even thinking it through. All routines and traditions come from a time when women had not much power or respect, but we take them for granted because they are routines. By default, many routines must be sexist because they developed in times when it was normal to be sexist. I would go as far as to say most routines are sexist.

Business routines are all the same and many discriminate against females. I think this situation is the same in developed in emerging markets, though I think in developed markets females have recourse with the law on their side most times. Though I think you will agree that we have a terrible system if females need to go to the law to get what is theirs by right!

I think many outlets and publications write about females in business because it is the hot new topic. They do it to sell stories and gain traffic versus offering something useful about female leadership.

We wanted to really address this issue at its core and I believe this anthropological view is tougher to do, but generates much more meaningful data. It is not just a bunch of ex-McKinsey and BCG partners sitting in the west repackaging our accumulated wisdom/biases.

We went back into each candidates files, reconstructed their journeys, interviewed them, had them fact-check all our assertions, edit the article, re-interviewed them, sent photographers to their homes, interviewed neighbors, friends and peers at school to produce this composite of primary data versus second hand assertions.

That generates powerful insights that are more relatable to the reader. This brings more facts to the challenges females face. It is harder to dispute and provides useful context. That is because advice ultimately means very little without proper context.

Irina: Did you not read the article? Of course it is tougher! I really felt things were tough for women in Ukraine and though it is better in the west, it is still tough for me. The worst part is that we teach women today to not feel complete with who they are. We teach them they are not as good as men. I agree with Michael that we need to change traditions.

I see the same thing in consulting and in the west. There were many unsaid rules which gave my male peers an advantage. I think the firm is definitely as good as it gets but there is always room for improvement.

There is one important point I wanted to make. I always thought I was some sort of “freak” when I joined. I would openly challenge people and was very confrontational. I was told I had too many “sharp edges” and because I had no way of comparing myself, I would have continued believing this. It helped me tremendously when Firmsconsulting allowed me to communicate with the other women in this article. We could swap stories, compare notes and support the other. Due to that single benefit, I have come to see my “sharp edges” as a source of inspiration to myself and others. I would never change them now.

In my home they say a porcupine has quills for a reason. You could say the same thing about my sharp edges.

Do you think these are all the strategies that can be used?

Michael: This is not a comprehensive list and is not meant to be a comprehensive list. We wanted to show readers that you can be very creative in plugging gaps in your profile and that no matter how bad things may seem they can be overcome. I would not recommend readers creating a list of every tactic followed by those profiled in this article. It will be far more effective to simply look at your profile and analyze it the way we did in the article and then think of what works best for you.

That said, someone editing a journal, launching a start-up or leading a political campaign strategy/effort is almost certain to get an interview. Those things are naturally impressive on a resume.

Earlier, I mentioned that seeing the photos of Irina’s old apartment made me seriously reconsider the practicality of the advice we sometimes offer. When I speak to clients living in such an area, I seriously don’t expect them to do lessons late in the evening at a library and walk home in those conditions. It is not safe. That is such a simple thing that this photo essay exposed me. Some things are just not practical outside the west. So, think about the limitations of your own circumstances be it finances, safety, internet access etc. That is just one example of how we are adapting the ways we mentor clients.

My one caution is not to first spend money for advice. The mistake many students make is to spend a fortune on advice thinking they will gain access to this master list of action steps to follow. It does not work like that. I would strongly caution female applicants to first read these articles, converse on the Firmsconsulting website and then build their understanding of what is required.

Never ever delegate your accountability for your own development.

Irina: I think anyone must do what works best for them. It was very hard for me to follow the right plan. Imagine the trouble of following the wrong plan? It will just lead to failure and there is no time to experiment with different things. I think readers should spend a lot of time planning. Michael forced me to do that and we planned for 2 months.

We made changes during our program but we followed the plan very closely. There were no big changes to the goals we set and I think any changes we introduced were due to my limitations on capacity. I sometimes could not complete initiatives on time, or I did them incorrectly.

I must elaborate on this point. Michael pushed me very hard to get things done. Many times I would be tired and wanted to quit, and I would slow down. I would keep getting these reminders by email asking for updates.

So I think you need the ability to reinvent yourself in this process because doing more of what you did before will not help. That is a good thing because you become a new person out of this. He was a good mentor because he sees your potential even if you cannot see it.

This is probably the most important part because you feel intimidated and horrible every day during the MBA. If you believe what you see and hear from your MBA peers, you will never make it. A good mentor will break apart all these bad advices.

Where have the clients featured in this article ended up after joining McKinsey, BCG et al?

Michael: All remain at the major consulting firms, though a few went to banking and one in that group went into banking en-route to consulting and will interview in 2014. They were a very successful group.

I think it is too early to say where they ended up since they are just starting. Just because they ended up at McKinsey or BCG is not a success and I am not going to belittle their potential by thinking that will be their greatest accomplishment. Those firms are mere stepping stones to where they will eventually go, and I believe it will be the C-Suite. Two have political aspirations so I hope to see a mayor, regional governor and ultimately President one day.

They have only been at the firms for a few months and we need to follow them over a few years to see what happens. We will definitely do that to see if they maintain this solid trajectory. I have no doubt they will. They are special people with special skills. They will change the world.

Irina: Michael trained us to always see consulting as a finishing school and never as the destination. There was no wild partying when I received the offer and Michael was almost a party-pooper in that way:-) He always kept things grounded and focused on the long-term picture.

So while I was happy to get the offer, I also am very determined to be on the correct client issues and working with the right partners to learn the skills I need for the future. I do not know where I want to go after consulting so I think I am still developing professionally in that regards.

It is too early to say what will happen but I feel very positive about where my life is going professionally and personally, and I am very grateful for all that I have achieved. I never would have expected so many changes in 3 years.

I think females can follow some of the role models I follow. I interviewed with Polina Yampolska of BCG and she is an amazing principal who had the same life I did, though she avoided all my mistakes and delays! I thought she was this amazing Eastern European woman who had achieved so much and was extremely passionate about her work. She is so humble and so successful. She was the type of person you wanted to follow and impress. There are surely others, but I remember her and one day hope to work with her.

Do you feel consulting firms are doing enough to help females with great potential, in emerging markets, become management consultants?

Michael: Yes, they do a lot and they deserve a lot of credit for that. McKinsey and BCG in particular have good programs and a good culture in place to drive that behavior. That is not to say Bain is not good as well, I just do not have any recent data on their efforts. My feeling is that they probably do not get enough credit for their efforts and successes.

Can they do more? Of course they can but I also feel that this is a trial and error approach and we do not always know what works and what does not.

My feeling is that if we ask consulting firms to hire more women that would be epically underwhelming in the impact it can have. First, it is not about hiring more women but rather developing those that you have. Orit Gadiesh was just one person but her imprint on Bain is painfully obvious. She made Bain a friendly and relatable firm. So it is not about quantity, but the quality of the impact.

Second and I think this is where consulting firms should focus; they should be encouraging their clients to develop cultures, principles and procedures to encourage the recruitment, retention and promotion of females. That could have a much broader impact.

Irina: I do not think enough is done. I think the firm is great at developing female consultants once they join but not enough is done to get females to join. We recruit at all the great schools and I have attended those events as a recruiter. Deep down I wonder if there is someone like me in another school who just does not apply because she does not feel she is good enough.

A strategy of hiring the best from a limited pool is not a great strategy. I am not advocating hiring anyone who does not have the grades, natural leadership profile or cannot solve the cases. I am saying it may be worth speaking to females earlier in their careers and more broadly to encourage them to explore consulting and avoid the mistakes I made.

I know that many people do not want to be a leader because they think it will lead to nothing meaningful in their life. So they never try. I was such a person.

Footnotes:

(1) Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information.

Unemployed to The Big-3

This article was co-written with eight clients including those featured in this article. 

 Feature Begins: Unemployed to The Big 3

Irina did not follow the path of a typical Ukrainian high school graduate. Unlike her peers who studied the arts, economics or mathematics at university, she did not have the luxury of pursuing post-secondary education. She could not afford the opportunity cost. The only child to a widowed and ill mother, she had grown up with the expectation that taking care of her mother was the natural next stage of her life. Therefore, despite graduating 1st in her class, she pursued the unlikely path of shunning an essentially free university education to seek full time employment in Ukraine’s black-market economy.

Irina openly admits that even if her mother had been healthy and able to work, she was unlikely to have pursued higher education since there was no one advising her of its value. Irina did not have many role models in her life, yet was inspired by US television shows to dream of a life on the US west coast. An option she felt was out of her grasp.

Both her grandfathers had succumbed to alcoholism, and her father had passed away when she was 4 years old – also due to alcoholism. Irina remembers a happier time just after the fall of communism when her father still had hope for the changes to come and tried to keep the family together. Visiting the port as a family and watching the navy battleships sail out was a fond memory of hers, especially since her father always allowed her to eat as much ice cream as she wished.

Things changed when he lost his machinist job at a local metal works; a job he had held for over 30 years. He could not handle the loss of his role in the family, their deteriorating fortunes and hopelessness, and quickly drank himself to death. Her mother was ill-equipped to handle the loss. Though educated as a physicist, a poor respiratory system and limited employment opportunities forced her mother to work just 2 days a week at the local technical institute. The salary was far from enough to pay the steep food and heating bills.

After high school, Irina worked for 3 years in informal retail and printing jobs before realizing that working her way to a middle-income lifestyle was not a reasonable plan. She could barely make ends meet on her meagre salary which was not always paid on time, if at all. Her hopes of moving to Moscow were dashed when a close friend recounted the challenges of finding employment in the metropolis and the stringent permitting system for non-city residents – let alone non-citizens. Irina either needed an education to succeed in Ukraine or to leave Ukraine altogether. Irina became even more resolute about gaining an education.

Again, poor advice led to poor choices further hampering her chances. She was encouraged to pursue vocational studies over an accredited degree. Therefore, by the age of 22 she had completed her engineering trade certification and was earning a small but sufficient salary working as an electrical assistant for an oil services company. She was able to support her mother who was let go due to budget cuts. To Irina, things seemed slightly more promising.

Yet by the age of 24 Irina had had sufficient exposure to visiting European and American technical specialists to realize she had far more potential and she needed to leave Ukraine to enhance her chances of success. Sadly, her technical credentials were not sufficient for any type of US work visa. Irina eventually, after spending over $500 for visa advice which was basically copy and pasted off the information on the Immigration Canada website, applied to the Canadian government’s special-skills visa program for the province of Alberta. The province was looking for professionals with trade skills heavily in demand across the burgeoning oil sector – and Irina barely qualified.

She arrived in Canada and had to share a room in a youth hostel which charged her $50 a night – a staggering sum considering she only arrived with $870 in cash and Travellers checks for the remainder of the amount required by immigration. The Travellers checks were also issued on borrowed money and she hoped to return them within a month to avoid stiff penalties, which her mother would need to pay. She spent her days at Starbucks – for the free Wi-Fi – scouring ads for any jobs in her field and quickly found a promising role in the booming oil sands industry. Irina had to pay for her own credentials verification process and submit to an extensive background check which took 4 weeks. Sadly for Irina, the company chose to hire someone who was already based in Alberta.

Learning from her mistakes, she moved to Alberta and began the process again, eventually finding an entry-level technical support role. Irina focused on creating a stable income, securing her job and sending money home monthly to help her mother. A disciplined, creative, bright and hardworking employee, Irina was promoted 3 times in 2 years to lead her own electrical reticulation crew. At the age of 26, she was the only non-degree manager and the only female. She was usually the first person on site, the last to leave and was routinely cited for “lacking work-life balance.”

Irina recalls her decisions:

“Successfully coming to Canada was important. It was my first step to something better. The day before I started working there I had only $91 in cash left – I celebrated my offer by ordering a hamburger and fries! I couldn’t use the traveller’s checks since the money was borrowed and we needed to pay them off. So I was misleading immigration by carrying the checks with me – it was not my money and I could actually not use it to survive in Canada. When I look back and think about 3 promotions, I am proud of myself. The work was difficult for everyone. Yet, only I needed the money and I had to constantly prove myself. No matter how bad it was I was always the first person on the work site. That is how I earned respect. I was a thin person and I weighed less than 55 kilograms. That did not stop me. Once I dropped my insulated gloves down a tank during an inspection. Rather than calling for help I spent the next minutes turning that screw as fast as I could. I hurt my hands badly from the sub-zero temperatures but did not lose my dignity. That is how you earned respect with male operations employees. All the preaching about equal rights meant nothing on the field when it was just you, your all male crew and physical labour.”

Irina’s typical day meant going to sleep with her cell phone under her pillow and getting up as needed – very quietly so as not to disturb her roommates – if the new distribution lines or converters stopped working. In her worst night she had to lead her crew through a marathon 4 hour assignment to get the distributors online while installing a backup generator – during a snowstorm. Irina felt she had finally vanquished the legacy of her poor decisions and was ready to move forward. She believed she was on firmer ground.

During her 2nd year at the company, Irina was called into her managers’ office and asked if she would spend time with the McKinsey team benchmarking energy efficiency on the heating and thermal insulator units. Irina’s enthusiasm, quick wit and solid grasp of the business made her a firm favourite among the McKinsey consultants who asked that Irina be allocated more time for their engagement. Irina was soon travelling to meetings at the head office, validating McKinsey findings, helping with workshops and guiding the team’s hunt for important data.

Irina was easily bitten by the consulting bug. This was the life she wanted – “helping large companies fix big problems and making a tangible impact each and every day,” a desire she did not know she had until working with the consultants. She could not imagine a future fixing electrical generators at 3am in the middle of the Albertan expanse in sub-zero temperatures.

Irina used her performance on the McKinsey engagement – overwhelmingly positive feedback from her operations manager and McKinsey team – as validation that she could do the work and would fit into the McKinsey culture. Over lunch on the final day of the engagement, Irina politely broached the subject of applying. She was excited and thrilled with the prospect of getting ahead. The engagement manager, who felt Irina was an exceptional employee and liked her, gently explained that Irina needed at least a recognized undergraduate degree and possibly an MBA. Although he tried to let her down easily, Irina was crushed.

Irina recalls her emotions on the day:

“I felt sick that day. It was like he kicked me in my stomach. I thought everyone was listening to the conversation and thinking: who was this stupid girl who did not even know what McKinsey needed? I could not eat and wanted to just go home and hide in my room. If I had known my technical training was so limiting I would not have done it. The money was good but at least I could have studied part-time and not wasted so much of my life. Good advice was the most essential requirement for graduates in Ukraine and we did not have it. I made so many mistakes because I just did not know better.”

In that moment Irina felt the desperation of her situation. She was 26, never had a childhood, had worked her entire life and had been rapidly promoted at a Fortune 100 company to the position of crew leader. Yet she had no degree and no way forward. She had a vocational qualification which would make her an outstanding operations crew member but would never allow her into management, let alone management consulting.

Irina did not have the luxury of going back to school, had limited funds to go back even if she wanted to and had no plan out of her predicament. She had reached her ceiling and dreaded the thought of becoming an operations specialist while her peers and friends were given greater opportunities, largely due to their degrees.

In that time, it dawned on her that she would likely never wear a suit, she would never get the type of respect the McKinsey consultants immediately garnered and never know the feeling of having achieved something others felt was significant.

At that moment Irina decided to use her savings and embarked on what we call a “personal turnaround.” What this meant in practice was that Irina would need to rebuild her resume, and life, from scratch while navigating three atypical obstacles.

First, she had to simultaneously maintain her existing fulltime work commitments while playing catch-up on education and skills.

Second, Irina would need to complete this turnaround in a much shorter time frame because she was starting 8 years later and had to accelerate the process to catch up to her peers.

Third, her achievements needed to be stellar to compensate for her earlier mistakes – parity to her peers was not an option. This is not easy to do, even with the best guidance.

Irina was the first of these “personal turnarounds” undertaken by our firm. It was an unproven and risky career strategy which could only be executed over an arc extending 2 to 3 years. The phrase we use for this kind of career strategy is “parking a super tanker in a swimming pool.” There is zero-margin for error as the displacement on her life would be dramatic.

Irina’s quest to turnaround her professional life led to her working full-time while completing her undergraduate degree at night over 2 years, ultimately graduating with a 3.90 GPA – a distinction. The day she wrote her final undergraduate exam, Irina went home and signed up for the GMAT. Over the next 6 months Irina wrote her GMAT, prepared her MBA applications and entered a ranked MBA program.

Though, there were many stops, starts, mistakes and stumbles along the way, Irina’s bold determination and fear of failure ensured that she stayed the course – a very challenging course.

Just over 3 years after she began her personal turnaround Irina was hired by one of the Big-3 firms.

Given the accelerated pace of events over the last 3 years, it is not altogether surprising that Irina has only recently had time to reflect on her multi-year journey and understand the significance of what she accomplished.

How did she change the trajectory of her life 180 degrees when conventional wisdom said it was impossible to do so?

It was largely due to having a truthful view on the critical path she needed to follow to recreate the foundation for management consulting missing in her profile, and her unprecedented stamina in following through on that critical path of her plan.

Irina’s experiences, common to less than 3% of clients, shows why such personal turnarounds are possible but require an unusual set of skills and sustained determination to execute the plan. It also illustrates the importance of focusing on the basics and not lowering ambition when the journey becomes tougher. This article examines the three phases of Irina’s journey.

Irina recalls her own experiences:

“I pursued a 2 year MBA but it felt more like a 1-year program. I was very tired having worked minimum 18 hour days to focus on my career and studies and then jumping straight into my MBA without a break. My friends would talk about the vacations they took before the MBA and I had nothing to say – because I was reading and catching up. I lied about having a social life. My MBA was hard because I did not have a strong business background and needed to translate everything from English to Russian and back into English. I was networking and building my understanding of consulting. I was trying to compress, into a very short time period, things all my peers took for granted. The first time someone mentioned the Harvard Business Review, I had to Google it! I had no choice to follow the advice I was receiving – there was no time to argue about it. All my questions were about executing the ideas. I had to trust the advice.

Phase 1: Seeing the truth for what it is

Building confidence without pressure: Clients going through a personal turnaround suffer from an almost paralyzing lack of confidence – though they demonstrate an astonishingly overwhelming outward display of confidence. While their actions appear to be stridently confident to peers, what they do is far less important than why they do it. They engage in seemly confident behaviour due to the need to not fail, rather than a natural ability to respond in a confident way. In other words, it is a significant act of will power, concentration, sacrifices and determination for them to present this image.

One client would spend all night preparing all her MBA cases, reading all the exhibits, preparing her notes, going through all assigned readings and challenging her colleagues in class – even when she was the lone voice of dissent in a class of mostly males. When asked why she did this, she recounted that she did not want to be average in life – she would rather die. What made her look confident to outsiders was an inherent belief she was average and a need to break free from this.

A common mistake typically occurs when these candidates are mentored by career counsellors, friends or peers. The client’s relative lack of early success may erroneously lead many to conclude that they lack ambition, intelligence or the capacity to work diligently. They are routinely admonished for their lack of success and told to work harder. This is extremely damaging advice which causes far more harm than good. These clients are very receptive to criticism and respond by working even longer hours, yet without a clear idea of what needs to change. The end result is a fatigued candidate who will have little to show for the additional work because they simply worked harder, hoping to improve, but having no plan to do so.

The insight is that these candidates underperform not because they lack ability, but because they lack direction. It is myth that exposing them to greater pressure will force them to magically reinvent themselves. They lack confidence since they are far more critical of their actions than any outside review could ever be. Therefore, more pressure or criticism is pointless and damaging. These clients respond best to inspiration and motivation. In a sense, they need to be cocooned from pressure and given a very clear roadmap.

The important preparation strategy for these candidates is to find a strong mentor who can reduce the pressure points and work on building their confidence. One simple way to do this is to simply point out what they need to do to improve. They need to be gently given information on how to prepare. In our experience, the environment must be created where it is expected the client will be successful in obtaining an offer, and therefore, no attention should be drawn to the issue. If the client notices any concerns, their internal criticism goes into overdrive, which hurts their performance.

Irina remembers this part of the process:

“I would spend hours on the internet finding forums and articles about strategy and finance. I was very excited about my findings and shared them all the time with my coach. I was once asked why I read the blog of person so and so, and why I did not read the Harvard Business Review, Capital Ideas or the McKinsey Quarterly. My answer was that I did not know these were the best publications to read. I was encouraged to read the work of the best thinkers who were at the frontier of their fields. On another occasion I forwarded Economist articles on new finance and strategy studies. I was gently corrected and asked why I trusted the Economist so much that I read their opinions on someone else’s research – I should have read the original studies and formed my own opinions. These were obvious things but I never before would have considered doing them. The low stress environment helped me because I don’t think I could handle any more stress. My heart was hurting and my hands were shaking after some classes so anything more would tip me over.”

An alternative, though rare, response to a lack of confidence is a yearning to fit in. Turnaround clients may appear too eager at times and are predisposed to volunteer for as many activities as possible in the hope of creating friends. While this is not a significant problem, carefully managing it is important to limit excessive commitments which could hurt their grades.

Benchmarking against the best: Suffering from such low levels of confidence, these clients tend to consider themselves unworthy of comparisons to peers in schools like Harvard etc., assuming they are MBA clients. They tend to believe they need to acquire more skills and/or credentials before they can compare themselves.

One client refused to consider her non-Ivy league MBA comparable to that of her friends at Wharton despite having a better resume and performing better at consulting cases. During her interviews, she was unable to explain the value of her profile relative to that of her friends, because in her mind, there was no additional value – despite all evidence to the contrary.

Without careful guidance these clients get trapped in a dangerous arms race to build credentials since it gives them comfort and feeds their yearning for respect. They incorrectly assume more degrees will change their perception of themselves. Many clients refer to a lack of unconditional support from family, during the developmental years of their life before the age of 15, as a reason for their low confidence levels.

The tangible value of proper benchmarking is very important. Only by knowing their real competitors’ strengths, can a candidate adequately prepare. This benchmarking process will, gently, introduce realism to the journey.

Many clients do not take the time to analyse their peers’ resumes to extract their real versus perceived strengths.

An interesting experiment we run for these clients is to take the resumes of 10 clients – sanitize them – and remove the name of the school and ask the client to select who joined McKinsey. They are surprised when we point out that the resumes which were successful originated from schools with a perceived lower standing in rankings. This exercise helps personal turnaround clients critically evaluate their positive biases for brand names. This is important for building confidence because they now can see proof that they have attractive profiles.

Parity is insufficient: Clients in this segment have, for lack of a better word, wasted large periods of their lives. Therefore, merely being as good as their competitors in this stage of their lives is almost certainly insufficient to compensate for past weaknesses. Some of these gaps are significant. Irina, for example, had three years of basic office administrative experience and possessed an undergraduate degree completed via night classes. These are hardly credentials to impress a consulting firm or consulting client.

Candidates who succeed with their personal turnarounds must reach parity on grades against the top students. Grades are vital since these candidates are typically graduating from a relatively weaker school for their undergraduate degree and will need to focus on grades and exceptional leadership in their MBA programs. For reasons mentioned earlier, it is difficult for these clients to enter elite schools for their MBA . Irina, for example, studied at a top twenty school in the USA but was declined at Stanford, Harvard and Wharton.

Exceptional leadership never means being the vice-president, leading any prescribed studies/courses, planning a start-up, or leading a case competition team. For these clients, it means creating something which is guaranteed to impress a recruiter. For example, Irina planned, wrote the code, built and sold her start-up while completing her MBA.

Irina recalls this accomplishment:

“I was content to be VP of the Consulting Club, join a social organization and maybe lead one of the leadership tours around the inner city – travelling abroad like everyone else was out on my budget and strict agenda. Everyone was doing these kinds of things and I assumed it was normal. I simply never considered pursuing anything else. I found my advice was different from everyone else but followed it since we were so far into the journey. I asked for lots of advice on what I needed to do and pushed really hard to execute it – I wanted to quit many, many times because it was so hard to do everything. And not a single person in my class had such a crazy agenda. Selling the start-up was not part of the plan – we had never planned for this to happen since it was not possible to build a roadmap into that – but the unexpected cherry on the top. It was a small sum, but enough to help pay for my MBA and differentiated me from my peers.

In another example, a client, Dinara, worked with a professor in the school of law to launch a peer-reviewed periodical on M&A law focused on start-ups in the region. She served as the editor and this successful periodical has now become an on-going publication at the business school.

These are not parity leadership roles. They are knock-out punches when it comes to leadership. They compensate for past mistakes and gaps.

This is where benchmarking is vital. If Irina and Dinara had benchmarked themselves against mediocre schools or mediocre students at good schools, Irina may have settled at merely writing a winning business plan and Dinara could have settled at launching an email newsletter. They did not, because they benchmarked themselves against their leading peers at the best schools and saw what good looks like at these schools.

Given the effort required by personal turnaround clients, the primary objective is for them to build sustainable assets on their resume. To determine if an initiative is worth undertaking, they need to ask one question only:

Will this enhance my resume in 10 or 15 years?

If the answer is “no,” they should never do it. Any effort requires discipline, stamina, planning and focus to do just a few things which matter. It is better to have led one meaningful initiative of significance than multiple mediocre efforts which take up space in a resume, for the sake of meeting resume submission requirements. In a well-known example of undertaking roles of significance, President Barack Obama’s abbreviated resume continues to list his role as editor of the Harvard Law Review: one asset of significance which is sustainable in adding value to his personal brand even after he took the highest office in the land.

None of the personal turnaround clients studied at the Ivy Leagues but they built resume assets of greater significance.

Set a clear point of differentiation: Clients in this segment typically have no basis of differentiation which is memorable. They lack a spike. The activities they undertake, usually in their studies, must provide this point of differentiation. In Irina’s case she was the oil and gas lady who built an oil analyses start-up and sold it. In Dinara’s case she was simply the editor of a law review, which she founded. For another client, she developed the wholly successful crowd-funding website which delivered the US mayor of a medium-sized town back to the mayor’s mansion despite predictions he would be crushed by well-funded oppositions. She was the “government girl.”

These types of goals look intimidating and tough to accomplish because they are. They require significant effort, time, planning, stamina and ingenuity to execute. That is why this is called a turnaround. All clients in Irina’s position who successfully managed a personal turnaround were able to develop clear points of differentiation during their studies.

Setting a clear strategy: In Irina’s case, while completing her completing her undergraduate degree, she worked in the field as needed and typically more than 15 hours a day. She would thereafter go home and study for her exams to complete her undergraduate degree. Given her background, she had to finish with excellent grades. Irina, therefore had no free time and was juggling multiple priorities.

Irina recalls her Christmas vacations:

“I had no time to travel anywhere, and not a lot of money even if I wanted to. Once I started this journey I spent every weekend and holiday studying. I had friends but did not want to impose on their families and felt if I visited, it would be rude to spend just an hour or two and leave. My Christmas dinner was taking a 2 hour break to eat canned turkey slices while watching TV. What gave me a lot of hope was that the strategy we had developed was working. I was able to finish my undergraduate degree with a high GPA and get into a very good MBA program. My resume was getting attention from the consulting firms and I was killing myself closing out the last parts of the plan.”

We asked clients in this segment what they would have done if they did not have access to a clear strategy: in other words, if they were working independently. Unanimously, they indicated they would be forced to seek out as much information as possible, constantly evaluate their plans and make adjustments which they were not sure would be of any use. In other words, they would waste precious time they did not have, analysing information of questionable value.

We find the clients who perform best follow a disciplined strategy set at the beginning. This allows them to give all their energy to the critical items and ignore the significant time commitment required to filter new rumours and suggestions from friends and colleagues.

Strategy is a matter of choice and a career strategy is no different. Not being seduced by common misconceptions is essential.

Phase 2: Execution of the plan is essential

Grades matter: Grades are important, especially for personal turnarounds. Given all the gaps in the resume, the client cannot show any further deficiencies. Weaker grades will make the process of exceeding parity that much more difficult. Across the clients in this segment, we find they all obtained exceptional grades of 3.7 to 4.0 GPAs for their undergraduate degrees and 3.7 to 4.0 GPAs for their MBAs. Though none of them graduated from recognized schools for their undergraduate degrees or completed their MBAs at the Ivy league school, they all graduated with distinctions.

Attending a lesser known school is fine provided clients graduate with high GPAs. A weak GPA from a weaker school raises concerns about the quality of the candidate. These are question marks turnaround clients can ill afford.

Grades are so important that our clients go to extraordinary lengths to secure them. One client would drive to work 2 hours earlier than needed, to avoid traffic, and study in her car before she was scheduled to start her shift. She would allocate at least 1 hour each night to prepare even though she only returned home from the office at 10pm each night.

Separate fun from the equation: The social element of studying is important, but the degree and necessity is different for every student. Candidates going through a personal turnaround do not study to have fun or socialize. They are trying to wipe out a career deficit they had built up over many years, lack the formative experiences of colleagues and are typically older. They do not have the time to socialize as much since they have higher priority assets/skills to acquire versus the skills/assets gained from socializing. In other words, the gap to close is so large that socializing is only possible if they decide to give up on the targets set at the beginning. Given how far they have come and how close they are to their objectives, no client is willing to do this. If they did, they would almost certainly not complete the turnaround.

Clients who underwent a personal turnaround unanimously agreed that they never enjoyed any part of their studies. It was a horrible experience for them. Most were compressing their undergraduate degrees and MBAs so they had no rest period nor they did have much time to apply their undergraduate study material before pursuing an MBA. English is typically a second language and one client had to spend 3 hours every night translating her cases before she could even begin her class preparation.

Irina recalls her experiences:

“Word quickly spread through the class that I would not attend any parties so I never received many invites. I attended one birthday party for a friend and that was it. I only stayed for 1 hour. I received great advice to focus on the second half of the first year, since many students give up trying to go for grades after trying and failing to get good grades in the first half of the year. They realize it is too hard and just stop. I tried to pace myself but suffered a little even though I met the tough grades bar set. I was always sleepy, hungry, tired and my hands would shake in class. Yet, I kept going because we were so close. I received promising responses from every consulting firm and that inspired me to push through.”

Poorly managing fatigue: Personal turnaround clients almost always pursue their goals at the expense of their health. Having grown up in typically poor countries, with limited opportunities and having struggled for a long time, they are unwilling to allow anything to derail their single remaining avenue to a different life. This leads to the dark side of ambition.

One client’s, who we will call Alana, lack of sleep, intense self-generated pressure and lack of confidence slowly caught up with her during her spring break. While her peers were away with family and friends, vacationing and recuperating, Alana holed herself away in a meeting room for eleven straight days and began practicing the cases we had taught her. She would arrive at 8am every morning, usually the only person in the building, work until 1pm EST, eat greasy food for lunch, and continue working until 11pm before heading back to her shared apartment. In the prior 2 years, Alana had not taken a single day off – including weekends. She soon started experiencing heart pains and was diagnosed with palpitations. Her excessive work load and poor diet had clearly exacerbated the problem. Things came to a head when Alana soon thereafter started fainting repeatedly. Turnaround clients like Alana rationalize that they cannot go to a doctor due to a lack of time. Although Alana met her goal of obtaining an offer from an elite strategy firm, she did so at great cost to her health: the real impact of which she is yet to experience.

We find that even in the face of such medical diagnoses, personal turnaround clients are unwilling to step off the accelerator. That is the danger of candidates who have too much internal drive. Having been given a clear strategy to the top with a defined expiry date, they are unwilling to back down until they literally drop.

Clients in this position must re-design their plan and re-prioritize their initiatives. They tend to assume that working at every possible moment, even when they are extremely exhausted, generates an incremental benefit, even when the evidence points to the contrary. A good strategy is to understand the objectives for each initiative and stop working once it has been achieved

Irina discussed her own experiences:

“Working on my start-up was brutal on me because my team let me down. Five colleagues quickly signed up and that made me happy. I very quickly learned they were just interested in the idea of being in a start-up. They were not interested in the process of starting up. Nothing allocated to them was completed. After many delays and poorly written documents, I took over and started doing everything myself. My coach guided me through the process of taking back control and I pushed through. I fell into the trap of perfecting my code and building a complex business model while my coach pushed me into a lean model. I found this to be beneficial and the reason I could get a working version out by the time of the MBA hackathon. My version wanted to fix everything, while my coach decided on fixing just one simple problem in the oil data processing centers and doing it very well. That reduced objective helped me. I only had so many hours in the day and my grades were a major priority.

Irina’s challenge is typical of these clients. They tend to focus on perfection, by defining perfection to be everything. Yet they quickly adjust when given good advice.

Empresses of ethics: Given what is at stake for personal turnaround clients, they could be forgiven for cutting corners, crossing ethical grey lines or even outright cheating. If ever there could be ideal candidates for having a convenient excuse to commit such acts, it would be them. Yet they do not, not even on little things.

One client, we will call her Sonja, once requested advice on a dilemma she faced. Sonja was the typically diligent turnaround client who wanted to extract everything from her experience. She had actually read her MBA ethics manual and understood what was permitted and was not permitted. The manual forbade students from using “any external material including internet sources” when preparing for case discussions. Sonja recounted that all students where using online sources to prepare for the class discussions, but she felt this was against the MBA code of ethics. Sonja correctly reasoned that, merely because the university was not currently prosecuting such behavior, even though it was blatant and rampant, it did not imply the university waived the right to prosecute such behavior in the future.

She surmised that it was better to obtain a slightly lower grade than obtain a marginally higher grade while having to live with the slight risk of being investigated in the future and having her degree withdrawn.

The 2012 Harvard cheating scandal raises this dilemma and outlines the consequences. Even if dishonest actions by students is rampant and condoned through lack of disciplinary action, does not imply such action may never occur. Turnaround candidates tend to have excessive values and believe anything which tarnishes their hard earned reputation and achievements are not worth the risk.

Another client, who we will call Emma, was interviewed by McKinsey and asked how much she explicitly knew about the company. Rather than misrepresenting herself, she politely explained she had never met anyone in the firm before but had extensively read about the company on its website and in magazines, and could cite specific reasons why she believed she was a good fit. She also diplomatically reminded the firm, shrewdly, that the interview process was an opportunity for her to learn more about the organization and determine if a fit truly existed. This answer clearly resonated with the interviews since she was successful despite great odds.

Personal turnaround clients are not empresses of ethics. They do not go through life knowing what the correct decision is or, when they do know, calmingly avoiding the less painful path. Knowing that an easy option exists is extremely seductive and they constantly debate the merits and risks of taking such action. Yet they almost always chose the ethical path because the potential cost to them is too high. Their peers may have fall back plans if their studies are not successful, but turnaround clients typically have none – they are the fall back plan for their entire family.

The honesty of personal turnaround clients is refreshing to most consulting firms who typically meet applicants who confuse arrogance for confidence and who are predisposed to offering diluted answers rather than answering truthfully. This honesty, because it is sincere, allows them to build strong bonds with their interviewers and sometimes obtain new interviews where an initial attempt may prove unsuccessful.

Networking helps, if done correctly: Given the initial low levels of self-confidence, these clients are typically unwilling and unable to network with partners. Ironically, this occurs at the final stage of the personal turnaround when they are merely two steps – interview invite and offer – away from achieving their objective. This inherent lack of confidence plays itself out in two ways.

First, they tend to place an excessive emphasis on tangible assets like grades. They would rather spend hours learning a concept which increases their GPA from 3.75 to 3.80 versus investing time in initiatives to obtain an interview. They believe grades can never be taken away from them while the value of a network can deteriorate in time.

Second, we find these clients tend to assume networking is simply the process of submitting their details to secure an interview. They do not appreciate that taking the time upfront to slowly build a relationship will lead to a higher probability of receiving an invite when the application is submitted.

We have found that the best way to manage this is to encourage starting the networking process during the first 2 months of classes, when the workload is less strenuous and most of their colleagues are not focused on recruitment.

Irina remembers her experience:

“I was never able to get the point of networking until it was almost too late. It seemed obvious to me that good grades would get me the interview. It took a lot of energy from my coach to explain why I needed to network, why I needed to start networking so early and why grades, by themselves, where required, but insufficient to garner interviews. When I look back this was the one part I should have done much better. I am still learning how to build relationships and not assume that people will like me because I am good at my job. It is my biggest weakness.”

Phase 3: Managing the interview process

Accept you are now a new person: During a McKinsey interview, a personal turnaround client whom we will call, Nargiz, was doing an exceptional job of structuring the case and communicating her recommendations. It was a difficult case and her performance was all the more striking. Impressed, the interviewer wanted to test her management skills and asked Nargiz how she would structure the work plan if she had a business analyst supporting her. Although an unusual McKinsey case request, it does occur and when it happens, should be treated like a standard case question.

Nargiz handled the question well. She drew on her personal discipline and work ethic to construct the correct work plan. In fact, she found some creative ways to reduce the overlap of work between the teams and could articulately explain how she would manage the team. The interviewer was very impressed with Nargiz’s intellect, commitment and intensity. He gave her the highest marks for her structuring skills, communication and analytic abilities.

Yet, Nargiz was declined because her work plan for her team ignored the time away from the office for weekends. By omitting this, Nargiz had indirectly assumed the teams would work on weekends; a practice frowned upon at McKinsey.

In Nargiz’s mind, she had made no mistakes and should be rewarded for her thinking. She had performed better than others and felt her commitment, dedication and intellect were sufficiently superior that such an oversight on planning could have been overlooked. She was bitterly disappointed to learn much weaker peers received offers. To understand why McKinsey does not overlook such issues, we need to go back to Nargiz’s lack of confidence – a major stumbling block for clients involved in a personal transformation.

The issue comes down to the difference between what Nargiz thinks the interviewer sees when he looks at her and what he actually sees.

By the time of the interview Nargiz’s personal turnaround is almost complete. Her resume will be exceptional against 99% of all applicants. In fact, personal turnaround clients tend to have the best resumes, given the effort made to alter their career trajectories, and do not struggle obtaining interviews. Nargiz has also been carefully trained to handle all types of case interviews, speak with poise and communicate confidently. That is indeed what the interviewer sees. He sees a confident and articulate leader who is mature enough to be given the opportunity to mentor and guide younger analysts, and possibly her peers as well.

Yet that is not what Nargiz thinks the interviewer sees and Nargiz responds to what she thinks the interviewer sees.

Nargiz is still driven by an innate lack of confidence and thinks this lack of confidence is what the interviewer sees. She therefore, mistakenly, does things to try to placate the interviewer and compensate for artificial weaknesses.

First, she assumes she is still the pre-turnaround Nargiz who needs to constantly prove herself and is not worthy of leading others. Therefore, she constructs a work plan to demonstrate her stamina and her intellect when these are not in question. She is so focused on her self-generated inadequacies that she ignores her role of building a work plan to both manage and nurture her team of analysts. Her plan will ultimately lead to burn-out for her team. Nargiz fails to realize that not everything is about her.

Second, she is emotionally confused that she is even worthy of the role and is constantly wondering if the interviewer is wondering the same thing: will he figure out she is a fraud and does not deserve his time? She tries to over compensate on her performance so that no one focuses on her lack of performance. She feels if her performance is investigated people will quickly realize she does not deserve to be there.

Nargiz’s action to overcompensate for her erroneous understanding of her self-worth is what sabotages her. It is that simple.

This affliction, the neurotic impostor, afflicts many credible and highly capable executives, not to mention all personal turnaround clients.

To fix this problem positive and negative reinforcement must be provided by her coach.

The coach must encourage Nargiz to take the time to reflect on how far she has come in the last 2 years:

• Completing her undergraduate degree with distinction.

• Getting into a competitive MBA program.

• Completing her MBA with distinction.

• Launching a start-up successfully and securing funding.

She is not the same person who started this journey. Crucially, she must avoid comparing her reality to the projected image her peers always generate of themselves. Comparing her unflattering internal feelings with the carefully crafted projections of others is an unfair comparison. Nargiz will always feel like a failure if she does this.

Nargiz must no longer be praised for her hard work and ability to overachieve by burning up her time, energy and resources. The turnaround is over and she must now be treated like any other outstanding client. She must be encouraged to rest, focus on her personal interests and be encouraged to measure productivity and not output. During the turnaround clients focus on output, even if productivity drops.

The shift from output to productivity is a vital shift to understand.

Personal turnaround clients tend to be so enamoured with their successes at the end of the program that they tend to forget how unproductive they had been in achieving their goals. During the turnaround, Nargiz would have poured resources – time, effort and even finances – to achieve her objectives. Even if Nargiz was taking 9 hours to study for an exam to generate a 90% grade, it would not matter if her peers where studying just 2 hours to generate the same grade. Nargiz’s strategy was to achieve grade parity with the best students.

This is not a sustainable strategy and always leads to burnout. The essence of a personal turnaround is about deploying significant, usually excessive, input to get a fixed output. That fixed output is an offer at McKinsey. Once that objective is close to being achieved, Nargiz should focus on finding ways to reduce her inputs to simply maintain her achievements, while avoiding burnout.

The most significant way a coach or mentor can demonstrate that Nargiz is past the turnaround phase is to carefully listen to Nargiz’s opinion and make a material change to the program based on her suggestion. This sends a clear signal that Nargiz is now considered a peer and does not have to burn up every resource to be heard.

Ending a turnaround

Dismantling the wartime controls: A personal turnaround client, whom we shall call Samira, frequently referred to her journey as a war. Samira would use war analogies to describe various initiatives in the program.

Samira was correct. She was at war and we run personal turnarounds in such a manner.

Productivity is sacrificed. Personal liberties and luxuries are withheld for the greater good. Samira would count her money during lunch time during her MBA to ensure she could pay for extra lessons. She was enormously proud of only spending 5 dollars over lunch. Over the three years of her turnaround, she never once visited her parents in Central Europe nor did she take a vacation. All her privileges were rationed, usually wholly eliminated, and Samira did not permit herself to take an evening away from her studies, reading or case preparation.

The unforeseen problem is that some clients forget these are special circumstances requiring special treatment. The intense approach deployed during a personal turnaround will hurt a client unless it is dismantled immediately thereafter. Clients who try to maintain the same strategy after leaving the program always suffer from burnout.

We find clients can adopt five best-practices to dismantle the personal turnaround “wartime” controls while still pursuing ambitious career agendas.

(1) Take a vacation. Turnaround clients must realize they were successful since they had a coach mapping out their strategy. Going forward, they must develop the skills and creativity to self-generate their own career roadmaps. Taking a vacation forces them off the treadmill and allows self-reflection to start plotting their own careers versus merely being fast-followers of a coach’s advice.

(2) Set one or two big goals. Do not assume a career will magically blossom at McKinsey and thereafter. Have a clear objective for time at the firm and a clear objective of what will be extracted from the experience.

(3) Create a powerful network. Actively cultivate and curate a network of influential and supportive mentors to guide development and provide direct feedback.

(4) You are your friends. Develop superior judgment in evaluating others’ potential, using demanding standards for leadership and integrity. Surround yourself with the type person you want to become.

(5) Periodically raise the bar. Take time each year to reflect on skills gaps, opportunities and limitations. Benchmark against the best peers in the firm and life, who are striving for the same objective with similar resources: context is important.

This article is dedicated to clients like Emma, Irina, Nargiz, Samira, Ang and many others who prove that hard work and determination can be rewarded. By analyzing their journeys we hope their experiences continue to inspire others to achieve their greatest goals.

Michael Boricki is a Principal at Firmsconsulting.

Clients Respond

Emma’s View. Emma is a PhD candidate completing a doctorate in computer science in the North-Eastern USA.

McKinsey, BCG et al are known for their highly regarded, and more importantly a unified culture, especially in McKinsey where Marvin Bower set a high bar. It seems to be true that behind these blue, green and red façades, there are homogenous profiles of consultants as well.

However, this article unveils the true stories behind a general misconception: that if consultants look and act the same, they must have followed the same paths.

The most intriguing part is not just the fact that all of them are female, but these females went through extraordinary adversities. When we think about female leaders, it’s often the powerful women we read about from Fortune, or about the high-flyer’s who are often in media, such as Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer.

What is the general impression we have of these female leaders? They are glamorous overachievers with stunning backgrounds. We rarely see the tears and sweat they expended over the decades. So this is the first impression I had after reading this article, the painfully honest truth of how these females struggled to be successful.

The article honestly describes the side effects of experiencing, and overcoming, such adversities. Resilience is an emerging theme for developing new leaders. It is emphasized both by Roselinde Torres, a senior partner and leadership specialist at BCG, and Dominic Barton, the worldwide managing director of McKinsey. There are also numerous Harvard Business Review articles alluding that resilience is a must-have trait for leaders.

Moreover, many studies show that women tend to be more resilient. However, everyone is only focusing on the benefits of resiliency, and no one talks about the price of becoming resilient.

The article gave us a brutally honest picture that becoming resilient has both physical and mental costs. Alana was diagnosed with palpitations. Nargiz overcompensated for her erroneous understanding of her self-worth. These are just some examples of the prices women have to pay on the way to being resilient.

While I enjoyed reading the stories from these amazing women, I am a little confused: why do they all sound like men?

That is if their names were changed into male ones, I probably wouldn’t notice anything unusual about the stories.

This raised additional questions:

Do women have to act like men to fit in?

Can we have a female style of leadership?

These questions are also pertinent having watched the recent interview with Sheryl Sandberg on McKinsey Quarterly. She seems to think that women should be like men and act aggressively.

I personally disagree with her.

I must clarify that I am not trying to be sexist by associating certain behaviour to one gender only. However, I am acknowledging that men and women are inherently different. We have to broaden our definition of leadership to allow new styles to emerge, especially those which females are predisposed to practice.

In the interview, Sandberg suggests that women should be as aggressive as men, and the society should accept that. This is fine if some women are naturally born with that kind of character. Indeed we should provide a proper social environment to accept this style.

However, we should also think about why, in general, women are less self-assured and less aggressive? More importantly, are there any benefits at all to such characters?

If there are benefits, we should certainly think about how to bring out these benefits that result from women’s natural leadership tendencies. It would be much easier to work with a woman’s natural tendencies than to encourage women to be who they are not, as Sandberg suggested.

Being a female PhD student in computer science, I am in debt to many people who influenced me. Because of these people, I was able to take a rare study direction: economics to logic to computer science.

The role these influencers played is heavily shaped by my formative years. Both my parents worked over 100 hours weekly for the most part of my childhood. I, therefore, never had any Tiger-Mother experiences. While many typical Chinese students had their parents checking their homework daily and forcing them to have extra tutoring every weekend, my parents often didn’t know which school year I was in.

As a result, I had extreme fluctuations in grades throughout my schooling. I had, therefore, considered myself somewhat lucky to get good grades and was always in doubt about my own intellectual ability.

Fortunately, because of my self-doubt, I learned to listen.

I listen to different people, especially when they have suggestions for my personal development. For example, if it was not suggested to me by different people, I would never have thought of pursuing graduate level mathematical logic studies, especially since I had a bachelor’s degree in economics.

At first, my economics degree colleagues told me that I was especially good in math. Yet, I naturally assumed math proficiency was common for Chinese students and paid no heed to this.

My math professor thereafter told me the same. Later, my bachelor thesis supervisor made the same remark. Little by little, I started to think about it and eventually decided to give it a try.

I was admitted to the most selective and recognized graduate program in logic worldwide. I only later discovered that entry into the program was a feat in itself.

Such an evolution of events tends to occur quite frequently for me. As a result, I learned to filter guidance generated by my social network.

What types of people give me objective feedback?

What types of people give me subjective feedback?

To what degree should I take the information seriously?

Despite conventional wisdom, subjective suggestions from friends can be very informative. Occasionally they can actually make the impossible possible.

In 2008, as a first year masters student, I wanted to apply to a prestigious summer school, the Complex Systems Science Summer School at a prestigious institute. This is widely considered the birthplace of complex systems sciences. The summer school offered lectures by professors from Harvard, Princeton, the Brooking Institute, etc. widely considered to be at the edge of their fields. Admission is highly competitive with about 50 out of 1000 applicants accepted yearly. In addition, most of the applicants are Ph.D. students from the Ivy Leagues. Some are already postdoctoral fellows or even assistant professors.

Given these facts, one of my recommenders suggested I not apply. Of course, I insisted on applying, because I received implicit feedback through one of the people to whom I listen.

A friend, Helen, is an experienced curator in visual art, and known for her impressive intuition and chaotic documentation style. We had briefly talked about my interest in complex systems that people use in daily life. Shortly thereafter, she introduced me to a friend of hers, Arthur, who owns an organic restaurant near the institute.

I reached out to Arthur who told me about a group of “the most chaotic but intelligent customers in his restaurant.” Several days later, I also mentioned complex systems and chaos to another friend, Adam, who is a director of theater dancing. He gave me a book, which he had never started but “felt” I should have.

There it was, “Complexity – the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos” by M. Mitchell Waldrop. I realized it is a book about the people who founded the institute, and the same group of chaotic yet intelligent customers in Arthurs’ restaurant.

At the end, I did get admitted as the younger of only two master students that year. To me, it was an example of leveraging the wisdom of the crowds to make the seemingly impossible possible.

Objectively speaking, my recommender, who is a specialist in the field of logic, should have had better information at judging whether I could get admitted. Yet, subjectively speaking, two of my friends, Helen and Adam have a stronger emotional motive to help me. Both of them implicitly identified me with the people from the institute.

I suspect that many female candidates also rely on their social network, probably because of their self-doubt. Such a mechanism, and process, gives us extra opportunities to develop our social intelligence, which can be used not only in personal development but also in other decision-making processes.

Ultimately it should not only be about female or male styles of leadership. We should recognize all kinds of differences and provide an opportunity to develop leadership in various ways. It should be authentic to the person versus what is most popular at that point in time.

I am curious to see how these amazing women from the article lead their career in the future. More importantly, how their experiences will help them become better consultants in their own unique ways.

Edward’s View. Edward is an experienced-hire candidate, with advanced degrees in engineering, employed by the federal US government.

A turnaround of any magnitude requires long-term thinking and dedication to pull off. In hindsight, my own took more than 5 years, although there were no material changes to my profile because I did not change jobs or add another degree. My objective was personal growth because I felt stuck and increasingly unhappy despite a satisfying, well-paid, and stable career. At first I had no professional ambitions, but after about 3 years in my role, I saw that I could leverage my personal development to realize a new career, and grew ambitious enough to try.

My approach was to focus on personal interests that built authentic confidence and mentoring relationships. I chose hiking, martial arts, and participated in Burning Man, an annual counter-cultural arts festival. Hobbies like photography and video games were fun to do but would not lead to growth, so they went onto the back-burner.

How did these activities lead to growth? Hiking taught me to face my fear of failure head-on and I learned how to challenge my limits to discover those which were self-imposed and how far they could be pushed. This led me to question my supposed limits in other areas, and gave me the curiosity to push myself. Martial arts forced me to recognize my own ability and progress I had made as a leader, because I was teaching internationally recognized teachers within a few years of starting.

Though this was not because I was any better than my peers, but because I was exposed to the correct training earlier than most, and I subsequently became very good at teaching it.

The nature of the training also required me to express myself unconditionally, with mind and body fully synchronized with outward-facing intent. This impacted my ability to communicate and form relationships. Finally, the art festival parachuted me far from my comfort zone, for one week almost every year, and taught me to express myself without fear of social reprisal, which had crippled my ability to connect with people since childhood.

Along the way, I met people who encouraged me and some who took me under their wings, supported my development, and challenged me to grow in ways I did not understand at the start. I owe these friends and mentors more than I can repay; so it is my responsibility to essentially “pay-it-forward” and mentor others with the same care when I can.

Looking back, the common theme is confidence, and there are two aspects.

First, I had to develop the interior confidence to overcome my reluctance, avoid desperation, and recognize the extent of my strengths. Interior confidence stems from strong core values.

Hiking taught me determination, and built the stamina to continue when I wanted to quit.

Budo taught me leadership is a form of service, and power comes from the humility and honestly face my own weaknesses and work through blood, sweat, and tears until they are strengths.

Even Burning Man instilled useful values I still follow: self-reliance, community, and civic responsibility.

This oddball arts festival taught me that bringing people together based on explicitly defined values is more likely to succeed than bringing them together based on a shared interest or goal.

The second aspect of confidence is its expression. In other words, the critical role it plays in building relationships. This can present steep barriers when trying to make a career leap.

For the final stage of my turnaround I was fortunate to work with Firmsconsulting. Without a foundation of authentic confidence and self-worth, I would not have survived the first, tough, screening call. I almost certainly could not have taken the direct feedback required to rewrite my profile or address my shortcomings honestly.

My training program – to the extent I understand what actually happened – was designed to teach me certain basic consulting skills, but also to teach me how to express my inner confidence to sound like the consultant I wanted to become.

This meant learning how to write resume bullets, how to send networking emails, how to conduct a call, and how to speak clearly and directly at all times.

One concept that changed my mind and catapulted my social and communication skills is the idea that confidence is attractive, networking is flirting, an interview is a date, and a position with a firm is a committed relationship.

This was eye opening, but it made sense and built on everything I had learned. Desperation, hesitancy, and neediness repel suitors, but confidence coupled with genuine interest in the other person and the requisite analytical and communication skills is very impressive and, hence, attractive.

People who are professionally impressed will offer to help, so despite having no recognizable brands on my resume, no MBA, no PhD, and a fair amount of experience with a single employer, I was able to secure an interview with a top firm based on the strength of my ability to connect with and impress consultants professionally.

Idea in Action: Learn from Alana’s experiences

Alana has created a group on the Firmsconsulting website called “The Women Premium” where she has uploaded all the case notes she used to prepare for her case interviews. Readers are welcome to join her group, ask questions, post your own stories, share your notes and download her notes.

Idea in Action: Are you a personal turnaround candidate?

It is important to understand whom we classify as personal turnaround clients. In its simplest definition, these are clients who, through no fault of their own, need to have their professional lives rebuilt from the ground up. These are clients who do not initially fit the McKinsey profile because they have material gaps in their skills and education.

They tend to lack the necessary degree/s, are usually older than their peer group, overwhelmingly female and/or are usually, though not always, from emerging economies. A very important element for personal turnaround clients discussed in this article is that they should possess an undergraduate degree and/or MBA, which they typically do not. The implication is that the process of fixing these gaps occurs over 2 to 5 years, through obtaining these degrees. Personal turnarounds never occur in less than 2 years.

The obvious dilemma when meeting such applicants who loosely fit the profile for a personal turnaround is trying to identify if they are indeed a victim of their circumstance.

This is the crucial distinction.

If they are not a victim of their circumstances, then to what extent did they make decisions knowing it would harm their career chances? If they had made harmful career decisions in the past, how likely are they to repeat this harmful pattern in the future?

Candidates who struggled despite their best efforts are the ideal candidates, versus candidates who struggled in spite of appropriate support. Our experience indicates that asking three questions about past decisions can help us isolate the ideal candidate.

(1) Did they actively seek out the best advice they could find?

Drive is innate. It is fundamentally difficult to transplant this human characteristic into a candidate. It is different from hope, which is the desire for something better or ambition, which is also the desire for something better. Drive refers to the willingness to act on hope and ambition. We find that ideal candidates for a personal turnaround push and tug at every morsel of information, support and advice they can find. They leverage every basis of advantage available to them and do not hesitate to ask for help. The crucial point is that they had access to poor, or insufficient, information rather than failing to adequately use the material available to them.

One client, we will call Ang, was such a person. She was studying in an unranked school in South East Asia and did not allow disinterest from her career counsellor to stop her. Despite her counsellor having never heard of McKinsey and his repeated attempts to talk her out of applying to consulting firms, Ang went all the way to the Dean’s office to encourage the school to at least contact the firm and determine her degree eligibility to apply. Ang could have easily accepted the career counsellor’s selfish desire to not help her. Yet she chose to push through. She was active in finding the best information to guide her.

(2) Did they use this information to the best of their abilities?

Once a candidate obtains advice, they need to act on it. This is another manifestation of drive. In one case, we spent 40 crucial minutes in a screening interview understanding why an applicant, we will call Ina, at a Latvian university, performed so poorly in her final economics paper, which took her GPA equivalency below 3.5. By her admission, Ina had been told grades were important so it was vital we understood why she did not appropriately act on that advice.

Was it her choice or was she a victim of circumstances?

In probing Ina’s decision, we learned her final econometrics paper was based on material taught in a recommended text book that was never discussed in class. Her course professor had repeatedly warned the class beforehand that access to the textbook would be vital to understand the economic theories required for the paper. Ina made the conscious decision to not buy the textbook which retailed for approximately US$20. The month over which she should have worked on the paper, Ina went on a weeklong vacation with friends and spent approximately $500 on the trip for food, room and travel. It was apparent that she was consciously prioritizing her personal happiness versus focusing on her grades.

Given Ina’s situation, she needed strong grades; she could not afford to do both.

Ina’s decision should not be judged since it is a personal choice.

Yet, it does indicate that in the face of the evidence provided that grades matter, Ina made choices which led to actions deprioritizing her studies. Candidates who consciously make decisions not to maximize the advice provided lack internal drive. They are pursuing short-term utility over long-term value creation. For many students this may very well be fine, but for clients like Irina, there is no room to do this. That is why the situation is unique for personal turnaround clients.

Given that a turnaround lasts approximately 2-5 years and requires stamina, discipline and motivation, applicants like Ina have exhibited past behavior which indicates they are unlikely to succeed, even with the best advice.

(3) Can they follow the career strategy developed for them?

The previous two questions assume the advice the candidate is receiving may or may not be appropriate. This uncertainty naturally impact’s a candidate’s drive. Many candidates are unwilling to invest the time required since they are unsure of the quality of the advice they are receiving. In the third question we must strip away this uncertainty by analyzing the candidate’s profile and briefly discussing a significant initiative they would likely need to undertake to improve their profile. We, thereafter analyze their response.

We once interviewed a candidate whom we will call, Nelda. She did and said all the right things until we pointed out the initiatives she would need to undertake. We discussed the requirement for her to either launch a publication during her studies or launch a start-up. Nelda’s resume lacked leadership and needed such an initiative to increases her profile’s attractiveness. Nelda’s response was indicative of her likely future trajectory in the program. Rather than understanding the rationale for the suggestion, Nelda spent 35 minutes explaining why it would be too much work, why other students do not do the same things and why it could not be done.

We openly admit that effort and time must be invested to explain suggestions to candidates, and the ideas may very well not be the best in these early screening sessions. Yet that was not the focal point for our concern. The focal point was Nelda’s default view that everything was impossible to do. She did not have an open mind and was mentally unwilling to even explore such a possibility.

A personal turnaround is very challenging. The hours are intense over years, stamina becomes a major problem and there will be major bumps. A candidate who is unwilling to open her mind at the beginning of the program will maintain a defensive posture throughout the program. In other words, the candidate does not do anything unless they are forced to do it.

Implementation Checklist

Who is not a personal turnaround candidate?

Holders of an undergraduate degree, MBA or postgraduate degree with poor grades, since we then have no study avenue through which to execute the turnaround. In rare cases, clients may elect to obtain another undergraduate degree.

Candidates looking for the easy-answer or quick-fix will fail in a personal turnaround. Many assume they can manage the extreme demands in a personal turnaround but quickly shrink in the face of the consistent multi-year demands.

Candidates who struggle to multi-task will find it challenging to manage very different initiatives simultaneously. The option of staggering priorities to be completed concurrently is rarely possible.

Who is a personal turnaround candidate?

Candidates who have tried every conceivable tactic to break out of their cycle of desperation but have a proven track record of rapidly progressing within the confines of their circumstances.

These candidates are characterized by extreme levels of demonstrated stamina and drive. Our clients have typically been displaced female minorities from Eastern Europe, South East Asia and Central Asia

Not possessing undergraduate degrees and therefore any form of graduate education, since this provides us crucial study avenues through which to execute the turnaround.

Candidates typically 30 years or younger with the sweet-spot being 25 to 30 years, since this gives us about 3 to 5 years to manage the turnaround bringing them to an ideal maximum age of 30 to 35 years.

Candidates should have some form of work experience to explain away the downtime in their resume before studying. There is no ideal experience though we find entrepreneurship and social endeavors create the best platform for us to build upon.

Emerging markets candidates are ideal. These candidates tend to get the benefit of the doubt from recruiters. Though their early experiences may not be prestigious, recruiters typically lack the context to fully appreciate this difference. For example, the phrases “Customer service clerk at Staples, Dallas” and “Assistant at OAO Zemfira” generate different emotional responses since the context for the latter is missing.

Single candidates are ideal. The demands of the program and sacrifices are excessive, and married candidates find they invariably neglect personal commitments.

What steps must you take?

Write out the resume, using the Harvard format, you would need when applying to McKinsey about 3 to 5 years from today. This forces you to create a timeline of prioritized milestones and goals. The next step is to achieve each goal in the resume.

Remove all non-necessities, costs and time, and focus exclusively on the plan laid out in the resume.

Immediately sign up to an accredited undergraduate program. It may be part-time or evening-based. Major in a pure science, applied science or analytical social science like economics. Aim to finish with highest distinction.

Join a brand-name firm, if you can, but at least aim to show rapid progression in your current role through consistent promotions.

If you possess an undergraduate degree with average grades, a personal turnaround may still be possible. You would need to join a good MBA program and graduate with distinction.

All other things being equal, aim to achieve a GMAT score of 700 or higher. All personal turnaround clients achieved scores between 600 and 650, but a higher score always helps.

You must also lead an exceptional MBA endeavor to demonstrate extraordinary leadership skills and differentiate your resume.

How we conducted this study

Between August 2010 and February 2013, Firmsconsulting trained 279 clients pursuing management consulting careers worldwide and successfully placed 64% at McKinsey, BCG and Bain. During the application and training period we constructed detailed data sets collecting extensive information on each candidate. All sessions with clients were recorded, transcribed and data analyzed for trends and patterns.

We have also maintained regular formal and informal contact with our clients. In December 2012 we conducted a survey of our clients. We received 151 completed questionnaires consisting of 10 open-ended questions. Based on these responses, we grouped all clients into common clusters and followed-up the written questionnaire with 71 recorded telephone interviews to rate various parts of the training program, explore how clients managed their case training and, thereafter, their consulting careers. In some cases additional questionnaires were used to generate time-based (longitudinal) studies exploring a client’s development since the program commenced or ended.

We have learned that successful clients are not uniformly similar and require strikingly different strategies to work around their development areas. They require strategies which are different to the learning styles and career planning they successfully applied in the past. In effect, they are forced to use customized strategies to fit the voids in their backgrounds and there is no standard set of guidelines for all applicants. At best, broad principles exist and even these require a wide range of interpretations to be applicable to all clients.

We identified unique client segments for further study, such as female management consultants and, in particular, those who faced unusual obstacles. The depth of the analyses of the female segment generated a theme about woman in management consulting. We have called this theme, “The Women Premium.”

The Women Premium presents unique ideas about women in management consulting. Based on 3 years of proprietary research, this Firmsconsulting theme challenges conventional views such as women must follow the same development path and preparation as males.

Through personal stories and working with female clients over a 3 year period, the study aims to establish the patterns and links between career success, career happiness and the distinctive career survival strategies women need to deploy if they are to thrive in a management consulting career.

Footnotes:

(1) Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information.

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.

***

Straight off, I want to say that I have never used a spreadsheet throughout my life.I tried to stay as far away from them as possible. Although I did well in high-school quantitative subjects, I deliberately chose literature since it was free and open to interpretation. I was never good with analyses. My internship at the FMCG was in the planning department but I physically never changed a cell in any of the economic modelling. Therefore, it was a bit of a surprise to me when I passed BCG’s screening test and even more of a surprise when I made it through all the interviews. I knew I could do it, but felt that some of my lack of analytics experiences could have held me back.

Straight off, I want to say that I have never used a spreadsheet throughout my life.I tried to stay as far away from them as possible. Although I did well in high-school quantitative subjects, I deliberately chose literature since it was free and open to interpretation.

Background. Within six months of joining BCG, and after being staffed on two organizational design studies, I was assigned to a pharmaceutical new division feasibility study project. It was an interesting engagement. One of the largest pharmaceutical companies was undergoing a complete transformation. The engagement was led out of the Boston office, and teams were sent to locations around the world to analyses different issues. Eastern Europe had been identified as a potential base for new manufacturing facilities. An abundance of talent, tax incentives, good universities and land made it a good choice. My home country was at the center of a discussion to build a multi-million dollar manufacturing facility. I was staffed on a multi-national team with six nationalities and overall led by the one of BCG’s most respected senior partners, David Matheson. In the world of healthcare, this man is given god-like status. So, although I was not expecting much face time with him, at least the opportunity existed.

Too many people, and consultants, do not understand the visceral fear others have of spreadsheets. If math is scary, than spreadsheets are the king of boogeyman.

Challenge. I knew less about Pharma than most sectors but the idea excited me since I had read so many medical thrillers. I was less pleased about the role. I was assigned to build the economic model to determine if the plant would be profitable. You have to imagine my feeling! Imagine never having driven a car in your life and being told you would need to go out the next day and drive a car to work. It’s similar to this, but with the added pressure that if you do not arrive at work, you will be fired! Too many people, and consultants, do not understand the visceral fear others have of spreadsheets. If math is scary, than spreadsheets are the king of boogeyman. It is widely believed that only the smartest and most numeric consultants can tame these beasts, and the ability to do so is an essential rite of passage to promotion. I left the BCG office that Thursday fully convinced I would be exposed as a fraud within the next 2 weeks.

That night I had a nightmare about a nameless BCG partner walking in and taking away my laptop, then escorting me to the front door.

Friday morning, the day of the team debriefing, I spoke to my mom for some advice, convinced that her eldest child, who supported the entire family of 4, would soon be unable to take care of everyone. She offered the usual encouragement of doing my best and not letting anything get me down. I dragged myself into the office and listened as this jumble of ideas fell out of the partner’s mouth. For the record, everyone at BCG was very supportive and the firm had plenty of resources on which I could draw.

Patient, deliberate and willing to answer any question I had, you would think it would be enough. Yet, it did not work.

It’s like having Ayrton Senna next to you and providing instructions. Sure, he is the best tutor, but am I ready to be the type of student who would thrive under him?

I went to see my assigned mentor, an economics graduate of a prestigious Grand Ecole in France. He gave me 6 power-point guides to read, two books on economic modelling and 3 sample economic models. He also spent a good 40 minutes talking me through how to build the model and how to get help. It felt like I was on a trip to Cambodia! I understood nothing. I visited the knowledge managers who also just gave me more reading material. I looked at the training videos and reached out to other consultants who had built similar, but not the same, models for other Pharma clients. That weekend was not a good time for me.

All the material was so confusing. I literally did not know the beginning point or the end point. We would be planning the engagement on Monday and meeting the client soon, yet I had no clue what was happening. I cried a little that weekend. There, I said it! Panicking, I admit that I reached out for help. I called Michael for advice. For the record, I did not share any details whatsoever but wanted help on how to approach the problem. What follows is how I applied his advice on the engagement.

Step 1 – Forget about the economic modelling, excel, spreadsheets, macros and formulas.

Model building does not start with economic modelling. It starts with plain logic. I was told to do a few things, which was different from what the BCG manager recommended, but impressed him no end. Later I would see my BCG manager was telling me exactly the same thing but I just failed to grasp his advice because I think he was speaking a language just a little out of my reach.

First, I was told to think about the problem I was solving. What was the key question I was trying to solve. The team was trying to determine if the new division and product should be launched, but surely the model was not meant to do be doing all of this? So, over the course of the first day I spoke to the engagement manager and the rest of the team to determine what they wanted me to do. Over coffee, pastries and countless scribbles on my notebook, I realized they wanted me to calculate the return-on-invested-capital (ROIC) from building the plant. Moreover, they had more than one way to build the plant and they wanted to compare the returns for each way.

At this point, we are still not talking about economic modelling. All I am trying to understand is what I needed to do. With my manager, we agreed the most important question I would need to solve was to calculate the ROIC for the new division. Mind you, I still had no clue what ROIC was (roy-EEk; sounded more like an Icelandic village!), but I knew that this was the main question I needed to answer.

One great piece of advice was to always place a +, -, x or / sign between the branches. If you cannot find this relationship then you cannot model it. I did this and it forced me to make sure I understood the relationship between each branches.

Step 2 – Write down the levers and drivers of ROIC

Remember, we are still not using excel or even talking about it at this point. I am also still following Michael’s advice, which is different to what my manager recommended but he is still incredibly happy so far. So I worked out the levers and drivers of ROIC. The early stage of this was easy to do. You can get it from any finance textbook and BCG has many guides with the ROIC tree. I just took one and worked with it. The hard part is in adapting it for the industry in which you work. So in this case, I basically had to do three things:

(1) Understand Revenue

This meant understanding the sources of revenue for this division. I knew they sold drugs to pharmacies, directly to patients, and online through their website. Since revenue is driven by price and volume of drugs, I had to get the pricing sheets and then estimate the volume of drugs sold. So you can imagine this ROIC tree expanding from left to right over the 2 meter width chart behind the desk where I worked. One great piece of advice was to always place a +, -, x or / sign between the branches. If you cannot find this relationship then you cannot model it. I did this and it forced me to make sure I understood the relationship between each branches.

For volumes sold (demand), it was a bit harder. I need to estimate the growth in each segment by looking at past segment growth and extrapolating it based on expected market demand. Easily explained here, but something I only figured out once my manager explained it to me.

(2) Understand Costs

As with the revenue side, I needed to continue building my tree on the cost side. I split costs in fixed and variable costs, and then collected information from the company to work out the relationship between variable costs per pill manufactured. This way, as I changed the demand, and the volumes of pills manufactured increased, I could determine the increase in variable costs.

For fixed costs, I basically needed to determine all the major cost categories and work out over what period to depreciate the costs. This was the easiest part to do in the model, but the hardest to understand when building my tree. In fact, I never really understood this part until I built the model. Depreciation is technically easy to model but intuitive hard to understand.

Key thing to remember here, is at this point, I have just done two things. I knew what the team wanted me to calculate and I also had built a large decision tree to calculate ROIC. That’s it.

(3) Understand Capital Use

Once I knew all the costs (capital) I would use, I could then split it up and divide its use for fixed or variable costs, and work out the return on capital. This was the easiest part since the formula is given to you.

Key thing to remember here, is at this point, I have just done two things. I knew what the team wanted me to calculate and I also had built a large decision tree to calculate ROIC. That’s it.

Step 3 – Map the process

This was the easiest and most fun part. I worked with a BCG internal pharmaceutical manufacturing expert and the client operations manager to build a simple process map all the way from the procurement of raw materials to the arrival to pills at the three customer segments. This took me about 3 days to do, but was really useful because I took my decision tree to the workshops and found a few parts where I had either misunderstood a part of the process or ignored a vital step. For example, in my decision tree, I assumed volume of pills produced was driven by the demand in the market. I found out that some pills were manufactured and shipped to developing countries, irrespective of the demand in the market. They were a type of gift whose volume was fixed and not driven by demand.

This took me about 3 days to do, but was really useful because I took my decision tree to the workshops and found a few parts where I had either misunderstood a part of the process or ignored a vital step.

I also realized how complicated the quality approvals process was for checking drugs. A huge amount of money was spent on equipment to screen drugs after they had been prepared. The amount was at least 15% of all capital costs and made me realize that by lumping all the capital costs together, I was missing opportunities to understand the cost structure and cost drivers better.

I had also assumed that demand drove prices. This was not the case. The 4 countries which this plant would supply all had regulated drug prices which tried to guarantee a net-margin, after shipping costs, of 7%. So the prices were basically fixed and could only change every 4 years. An important insight!

Step 4 – Model description

I was asked to write a one slide description stating what the model would do. I thought this was a joke! Just one slide! Surely I needed to put together a 10 page description at the least. This was the one part I wanted to ignore Michael. In the end, after a few more calls, I decided to go with the process. This was the toughest thing I had to do. I needed to write about 40 words which explained to people what the model did, and therefore, did not do. It took me about 20 tries to get this right.

Michael told me that Winston Churchill had a war-time rule. His cabinet was only allowed to present their ideas on a single-side double-spaced typed page! Irrespective of the size of the issue or its complexity, they had to get the idea, recommendation and required decision on one page. His view was that if Britain won the war with this approach, surely it could work for any other planning. It did.

Attempt # 1 – Too technical

Attempt # 4 – Forgot to mention the model outputs (Graphs I would produce)

Attempt # 8 – Ignored the key variables (data I could change in the model)

Attempt # 12 – Forgot to mention the 2 key assumptions (In my mind all the assumptions should be listed. Only when I ran the sensitivity analyses, did I realize why some assumptions are more important than others)

Attempt # 16 – Ran out of space

Attempt # 20 – Perfection!!

Michael told me that Winston Churchill had a war-time rule. His cabinet was only allowed to present their ideas on a single-side double-spaced typed page! Irrespective of the size of the issue or its complexity, they had to get the idea, recommendation and required decision on one page. His view was that if Britain won the war with this approach, surely it could work for any other planning. It did.

Step 5 – Building the model

By knowing the main question I was trying to answer, having a clear description of the model and the drivers of ROIC, it was very easy for me to sit down with my manager and take him through my thinking. To be honest, I was a little slower at getting this all done, but I think my manager was very impressed with my work. For example, I could show him, on the decision tree, what I would change to test all three different options for building the plant, as well as how I would test some assumptions the team was making. It is really simple to do so by pointing out the changes in the decision tree and together we could work out the likely impact by following the decision through the decision tree. It helped build my credibility. Many of my colleagues were surprised I even know of this approach since I lack an engineering background.

The model I built, pretty much mirrored the decision tree. One page actually had this big tree with all the numbers flowing in.

All he said at the end was to make sure I remembered to build an income statement, balance sheet and cash-flow statement. Which I forgot to do! Thankfully, my colleagues showed me that I already had all the data in the model and it was just a question of bringing them together.

The model I built, pretty much mirrored the decision tree. One page actually had this big tree with all the numbers flowing in. It was probably not the most beautiful way to depict data, but it was incredibly useful when it came to sitting down with the client and explaining how different issues and changes would impact the returns. The clients happiness at the end of the day, translated into some great feedback for me, and my continued career at BCG.

This experience taught me several things.

It is a myth that model builders must have math or engineering degrees. By attacking a model as just another consulting problem and trying to understand the logic, before thinking about the excel component, anyone can build models. The logic is far more important that any fancy functions in the model.

You do not need to know how to programme. My model was really simple but it worked well. It had no macro’s, vlookup’s and what-if statements or code embedded. I still do not know how to do these things and have now completed about 6 engagements where I have built or helped build a model.

You can only build the model if you really understand what you are doing. If you do not perfectly understand the engagement, you will never be able to build the model. Think of the model as translation of the engagement into another language. You must understand the nuances to complete the translation.

The best models DO NOT do everything. The best models only answer a few key questions. They are not meant to help the clients with other issues, or simulate ROIC and help optimize inventory. They are focused with a well-defined boundary.

The model is not the deliverable. This was a bit of a shock. I expected my manager to parade my brilliant model. He did not. The model did not even come up much in major client updates. Interestingly the team was far more interested in understanding the implications of the model output. I suppose that’s the difference between to the top firms and others. The top firms care about the implications of their findings.

Model building is easy; relative to building storyboards. That’s for another post, but in hindsight, I think building effective storyboards is far, far more difficult than building a model.

An arts degree does mean anything; positive or negative. Having an arts degree does not at all speak to your ability to build economic models. Your ability to think in a clear and structured way is far more important. So, measure that skill before thinking your arts background is a liability.

I urge everyone to seriously consider management consulting irrespective of the background they have. Please post comments if you have any questions.

Maria

“Hello Michael,

Thank you for a great website. I posted this to your forum and decided to email you too.

My question relates to understanding financial statements. I have a master’s in political science from a great school but have no clue what is on financial statements. I have an offer from BCG but my question is what would happen when I join. How important is this skill as a consultant, what must I know and how do I learn it. Everyone has a different opinion here.

I don’t want to get kicked out after all the work preparing to get in.

Thank you in advance!

Dasha”

***

Hi Dasha,

Thank you for the email.

I will not touch on case interviews at all since that has no bearing on your performance once you join the firm. The rest of your questions are also easy to answer, but I will take care to explain them since my advice may be counter intuitive.

You need to keep some facts in your mind as we discuss the answers.

Fact 1: Until you make partner at BBM, you are just an apprentice who is still learning the ropes. I don’t mean to sound harsh here, but logic dictates that if there are levels below partnership, capability separates the levels and the highest level is the most capable, then the lower levels are still learning. Moreover, you do not have tenure until you become a partner and there is always a strong chance of being managed out for poor performance.

Most people who claim to understand business finance really only understand the income statement side.

Fact 2: If you cannot understand the financial statements, you cannot understand a business, and cannot best advise management. That is not to say you cannot advise a client on marketing or organizational issues, but at the end of the day unless you can translate this to concrete shareholder value impact, it is just speculation on the ultimate impact that shareholder care about: shareholder value.

Choosing to ignore the balance sheet is like saying you are fluent in Spanish when you only know 10% of the words. I even know a few people who published business books but cannot read a balance sheet.

Fact 3: If you cannot understand the balance sheet, you cannot understand a business, and cannot best advise management. Most people can understand an income statement, and cash flow statement. They are intuitive. These are important of course but the real action takes place in the balance sheet. Most people who claim to understand business finance really only understand the income statement side. A colleague once joined a much respected bank in London and mentioned she was intimidated by all the sharp minds around. My response was to not worry, 90% of the people in her team sound they understand the balance sheet but even very senior people will not know what is happening. 4 months after she joined she regaled me with stories about some of the silly comments made which demonstrated a lack of understanding of the basics of balance sheet analyses.

Choosing to ignore the balance sheet is like saying you are fluent in Spanish when you only know 10% of the words. I even know a few people who published business books but cannot read a balance sheet. I am at a loss how they feel they can help clients create the maximum value, or even test the validity of their assertions.

You will hear countless stories from younger consultants – those very early in their careers, those who left early and those who were managed out early – that they did not need to know finance. Before assuming they are correct, there are a couple of things to understand here.

First, everyone is different. The people making this claim could have very well have picked up the finance knowledge needed quite quickly. So while they did not go through formal training, they picked up the skill on engagements. To say you did not need a skill is quite different from saying you picked up it easily and many people regularly confuse these two points.

Second, let’s look at someone making this claim but this person has yet has never had to analyze a balance sheet or build an economic model. Does this mean finance skills are not important? It is possible this person did not actually get staffed onto an engagement requiring much financial skill. They could have just been designing organizational structures. If so, how can they say they did not need it? Solving a finance problem without deploying finance skills is an example of “not needing it.” It does not mean they should not have used the skill or their results could not have been much better if they had used the skill.

Read that line again. Never being placed on such a tough project where you need finance skills is just good luck. If the person left management consulting too early, the opportunity to use finance skills may not have arisen, or the firm could very well have managed them out because of this lack of skills. In fact, since they never stayed to partnership, they could never know. So be wary of whose advice you take.

Third, many juniors can get away for a few months or even a year without being exposed to financial calculations. It is unlikely but possible. Do not use this one outlier of advice to draw a trend.

Fourth, I know several partners who were slightly weaker on the numbers side. I cannot say they led the most influential parts of the business, nor can I say I interacted much with them. There is a certain perverse logic here. You become a successful partner if clients like you. Let’s define “like”. No one likes a consultant. Given the money paid for a partner’s time, they either perform or are replaced. It is all about who creates the most value for clients and over time, unless you can read that balance sheet and dissect the numbers you will ultimately be leaving opportunities on the table: a process of natural selection. Yet, you can still become partner with an adequate grasp of the numbers. I can assure you many Harvard or Wharton MBA partners who focus on strategy, marketing etc. have a good enough grasp of the numbers but some will be better.

Psychologists should use balance sheets for Rorschach tests. I can assure you no two people are seeing the same thing.

Strategy partners always have a ridiculous grasp of the numbers. We have no choice but to be like this. When a client appoints and works alongside us, not only are we trying to bring value to them, we are also up against our client’s competitors and their armies of consultants. He who knows the numbers and understands the linkages always wins because they can see gaps and strategies others cannot.

Psychologists should use balance sheets for Rorschach tests. I can assure you no two people are seeing the same thing.

Even today, I am a numbers hog. But, I am never tired poring through spreadsheets and data because I like doing it. I always believe in speaking extensively with staff and then comparing this anecdotal evidence with the numbers. You must always do both. It is just naturally the way I operate. I always tell people it is easy to find me in a restaurant. I will be the guy with stacks of annual reports and spreadsheets. I have no problem eating and going through numbers.

Surprisingly many people know the numbers but do not understand the linkages. I know lots of people who can recite the meaning of ROA, EROC, EV, asset dissipation etc, but actually have no idea how to generate meaning from this.

Want to see an example of what I mean? Here is an interaction I had with a candidate, not a client, who wanted to understand why I said approaching a profitability case by cutting costs and raising revenue is flat wrong and I would fail you for it if you faced me in the final round and spouted this wisdom.

This guy took the time to understand the linkages. Most would not. And the scary thing is that this is such a basic concept on the income statement that everyone should understand it, and you can imagine the damage done to client if you do not.

See if you can follow the unedited discussion and extract the counter-intuitive understanding here.

***

Candidate: Relative to other podcasts I was a bit confused about what you are saying here [podcast 122]. I had to listen to it a few times before getting a clearer picture of the implications of what was said. I don’t believe that you are saying that it is “wrong” to explore top line cost reductions when looking at a profitability framework.

Rather you are saying that it depends on the context of the particular case in question. For example, if this case was GM circa 2008 where demand is declining, there is too much capacity in the industry, and the current compensation scheme is not competitive relative to peers. In this scenario the correct analysis would be to focus on reducing top-line costs (i.e. employee compensation) faster than the expected fall in revenue due to reduced production (i.e. due to moral, restructuring costs, etc). in such a case it would not be wise to recommend GM to expand into another industry where they have little comparative advantage (i.e. finance, airline manufacturing) to expand into .

However, if the external conditions are different or there is a market segment that the client has not fully penetrated then a top-line cost focused analysis would be counterproductive. What do you think?

Michael: I am not sure if we are in agreement. I will summarize the concept here. It is not an easy concept that is why so many people make a mistake here.

If a company merely cut its costs to increase profits, it would not grow.

If a company merely focused on revenue to increase profits without cutting costs, it would grow unprofitably.

In the real world, you cannot just pursue one angle.

You have to increase costs since costs must go up to invest in revenue producing initiatives.

However, you know the costs are well used if the return they generate exceeds the original cost incurred.

Therefore, increasing costs is not bad if the returns are there.

In fact, any company is increasing its costs to grow, but the returns are greater.

Therefore, to say you will merely cut costs to increase profits does not take into account what shareholders look for: growth and ROIC.

Cutting costs is not a solution by itself.

Does this make sense?

Candidate: OK, just to be sure that I understand what you are saying:

1. Shareholders always want growth and ROIC

2. To create growth you must increase the total cost

3. As long as the return from the marginal dollar invested is positive, total costs should increase

4. If costs is beneficial if the ROIC is positive.

What I am having a bit of trouble with is understanding how to apply your position to the case where ROIC is negative due to an overinvestment in fixed and/or variable costs. I would find it helpful if you could apply your perspective to GM in early 2008 or another industry currently experiencing overcapacity such as petroleum refining.

Michael: Let’s discuss GM. The most important thing to remember is that you are looking at GM’s aggregate ROIC.

Second, I went through Bloomberg and skimmed GM’s 2004 to 2008 annual reports; costs were driven by retirement costs and finished goods inventory, versus in-process inventory. The first is not a capital fixed cost but just as bad.

The second is more interesting. GM built factories to build products no one wants.

These reinvested savings will show up as a cost on the income statement of the division which received the capital.

That said…

GM’s ROIC across different divisions would be very different. So, it should cut its costs in those areas/divisions where it is not able to produce products earning a marginal positive return.

It should then take that saving and invest it in divisions where the marginal return is positive.

These reinvested savings will show up as a cost on the income statement of the division which received the capital.

Moreover, if the investment works and revenues increase, variable costs will have to go up.

This is what BCG actually recommended and did 3 years ago.

Candidate: I see, that is a very nuanced point you are making. Even if the aggregate ROIC is negative and the firm needs to cut capacity in some divisions, the reallocation of capital will be placed on the costs side of the ledger.

This is counter to intuition that costs have actually decreased due to the company on aggregate getting rid of stuff while it figures out how to invest the proceeds of the released cash flow. If I understand this correctly then the only way costs could decrease from an accounting perspective were if the company began to horde cash, deleverage or increase dividends.

I agree that this is not desirable from a consulting perspective as it is akin to admitting that shareholders have a better use of the firm’s capital than the firm itself. From perspective of an investor that holds a portfolio of companies, some companies will have a higher return than others making the return of capital beneficial under certain circumstances.

Michael: This is not a nuanced point. This just requires the ability to follow a $ though a balance sheet, which is not something people do.

Yes, the savings/capital reallocation must go to the cost side unless it is just sitting as cash or gets displaced to shareholders. Neither option is preferable.

This view is important to understand the life cycle of value. Savings mean little unless you can understand how it is going to be recycled back into the business.

At the end of the day, a company is merely an investment vehicle and needs to do just that.

***

Granted, you will not face an interviewer like me every day that pushes for the deep insights, but this case is also something I do with our corporate finance clients and the failure rate is through the roof.

My point is that it is vital to think deeply about the meaning of even the simplest concepts. Every single person attacking a profitability case assumes they know what they are doing. This discussion indicates how a good understanding of finance can unlock so much more value for clients.

Now ask yourself how you would have done the case: It is 2008 and GM’s profits are down from over-investment in fixed assets and a demand drop. What would you do?

To be clear, “really understanding finance” does not in any way imply you should know more than another person. It means you extract deeper meaning from what you do know.

This goes to the heart of my earlier argument. The average consultant would merely approach this as a plain vanilla case of cutting costs and boosting revenue, naively thinking they are mutually exclusive. The one who really understands finance can tackle the logic above and come out with a much more nuanced strategy.

To be clear, “really understanding finance” does not in any way imply you should know more than another person. It means you extract deeper meaning from what you do know.

Here is something very counter-intuitive. Having an MBA or being trained in finance does not in any way mean someone understands how to read income statements. Think about that for a minute.

Daily we read about financial scandals not because of some sophisticated chicanery, but because investors are sometimes just unable to check even the most basic things due to lack of knowledge. As shocking as this may sound, I have found the same thing with MBAs. Many, in fact the majority, cannot read a balance sheet. Anyone can read an income statement – even a bull. Place a bull in front an income statement bleeding red ink and it will charge it. Place it in front of an income statement in the black and we have a peaceful Zen master.

Lots of people and consultants will tell you how easy it was for them to pick up the finances to analyze and build an income statement and some variation of a cash-flow statement. That is nothing, if not too easy.

Even with MBAs from great schools, most will struggle to read the balance sheet and extract the implications. They can tell you what each item means and loosely the impact, but to understand its implications is a vital skill.

That said, you do not need an MBA or finance degree to read balance sheets or build them. I know many consultants who made partner without this formal degree. They did not have the degree, but they knew how to read balance sheets and help companies. An MBA helps but consulting firms provide sufficient training on the job, though that is harder to pick up given the work load.

In summary:

• You need to understand a balance sheet.

• You need to learn to do this over time.

• Having an MBA would imply you can read a balance sheet. It does not guarantee it.

• You do not need an MBA to learn this skill. You can learn it on the job – though an MBA can make it far easier.

• You will never make a great partner or business person unless you can understand a balance sheet.

• Knowing more about finance is not the same as truly grasping the implications of what little finance you do know – he latter is always preferred.

“Hi Michael,

Thank you for taking the time to discuss my career. I thought your stories were a little funny but really insightful, especially the Paris Hilton analyses. I never looked at it like that before.

You were right, Joe Davis is a great guy to work with, and he likes constant contact.

If you recall, I mentioned I would be going onto my first BCG business case engagement and wanted to know if you had any specific guidance on what I need to know to support my manager. I do not have a quantitative background and read history at Oxford. Any tips or guidance will be greatly appreciated.

I would prefer printing the advice, so if you could kindly respond as an article that would be great.

Scott”

***

Scott,

It was a pleasure meeting you as well. It was a pity we did not have more time to speak. I am going to elaborate based my own experiences from three perspectives: when I was a consultant, manager and then principal.

While you need to support your manager, you also need to know what your peers and engagement partner are thinking. I was also a corporate strategy specialist and developed more than my fair share of business cases, as well as oversaw many teams as a manager and principal.

In thinking through your positioning, don’t ever lose sight of these three groups of consultants you will need to engage.

All of our Succeeding as a Management Consultant books cover business case development in extensive detail. I notice you are not a subscriber to them so I will capture just the salient points here.

Here are some general tips, followed by my experience of working with each level.

1 – Be accountable and assume nothing. When you join, you will be surprised how intense things can be and how quickly you need to deliver very high quality slides. You will get guidance from peers and your manager, and partner. Yet, do not rely on this. You need to own the problem and it is your responsibility to raise obstacles before the engagement manager or partner identifies them.

So, make sure you completely understand all the analyses to be done, make sure you can complete it on time, and make sure you are not making assumptions that something will be done on time if you are not the person doing it – if you are not doing it simply assume no one is doing it.

As a principal, I was not at all pleased when consultants raised delays which were driven by things they could have easily checked. The most annoying such incident was a young associate who did not check if the printers would be open at 7am to color copy our presentation. In another case, a young manager did not check the vacation times of a very important financial analyst at an insurance client. Two days before a vital board meeting, we were unable to verify crucial assumptions in our analyses.

2 – Do not over promise, no matter how easy something may look. In one striking example, I was leading an extremely complex analyses for a client. We were trying to simplify a complicated actuarial calculation given the data constraints we had.

It was a crown jewel client and on a sensitive issue which was generating lots of negative media attention. Our analyses would directly inform the capital allocation decisions of the CFO, and form the bulk of the press release to be issued by the CEO.

My manager on the project was very hard-working and capable. However, the type of analyses we were using on the project was a little too much for him – he was a smart engineer with an MBA, but this was some scary math! So, he relied on me to guide the business case team, and relied heavily on the business case consultants to make sure they would inform him of problems.

The consultant leading the business case team was very arrogant, and once told me that the analytical work was beneath his skills – he wanted more difficult work and I explained he would get them if he could prove himself on this engagement.

That same consultant failed to build the analytical model, and completely failed to understand the business case we were trying to develop. Moreover, he only told us about the problem, 16 hours before he was about to leave on a 2 week vacation. I let the consultant go on vacation, but managed him out 2 months later. You never ever, ever let your team down.

My team worked over 6 intense days to complete the model and that was the only time I stepped in as a principal to lead the model building directly. I had no choice. It was not fun, and was a problem created due to hubris on the side of the consultant.

It should never have happened, and even if there were problems, we should not be finding out about it 16 hours before he was leaving for an island with no internet access. He lost my respect.

3 – Build the overall work plan early in the engagement. You need to do this and it requires you to understand the overall problem, outline how you will design the solution, list your data requirements and understand all the questions which need to be answered. Where there is an overlap of activity with your peers, you will need to agree on roles and responsibilities.

This will be a steep learning curve for you since this is your first business case engagement. To overcome the problem of building a plan which cannot be adjusted, make sure you set weekly milestones to make sure you can track progress and see if you are falling behind.

At the end of the first two weeks, in your head, you should be able to see how all the analyses will come together and the data you will use. If you cannot logically explain this to the partner, you can just assume you do not have a handle on things.

So, those first 2 weeks are very important. I would go as far as to say they are the most important weeks on the project.

4 – Make sure you are not assuming perfect information from the clients. Clients usually do not have the data you want, almost certainly not in the format you need it, and rarely accessible in the time you need it. Check that the data available will work for the analyses you will want to run. If it does not meet your needs, you likely have to change your hypotheses or take time consuming steps to change things.

5 – Have a flexible process so you can incorporate likely changes in findings. While you need to design the overall work plan soon, you also need to have a process which is flexible enough to incorporate likely changes in findings from the rest of the team.

For example, what if the partner decides a new area must be analyzed? You need to make sure your analyses can cater for such changes, or at least be able to explain why such an analysis could not be incorporated.

It did not please me when my managers would agree to do something they had not thought through. They are closer to the work and are best placed to understand what level of analyses is and is not possible. Blindly following a suggestion from the partner is dangerous. You must be accountable and vet each step and action. It is expected of you.

I, for example, would routinely throw out hypotheses of what I thought was happening. It was, however, very important for the team to screen these and see what and what would not work, and keep me informed on the way forward.

6 – Give direction and request inputs. You must give direction to the rest of the team but also require in-puts from everyone else to complete your work. You must design your approach to cater for this: providing direction while also collecting information.

7 – You cannot work in isolation. You need to present meaningful updates of sufficient depth and at regular intervals. These updates are critical input for the rest of the team and must be carefully planned.

Remember, you must conduct the financial assessment of options to solve the problem. That is the role of the business case team. The result of your analysis provides enormous insight to the engagement team. It directs the teams to possible areas of improvement or point out areas likely to generate little opportunity for improvement.

So, you cannot hole yourself away for the duration of the study and present your findings at the end. That would be a disaster. The team needs to see your thinking at various stages and the same numbers in various stages of granularity. They need this information to guide them.

8 – Find allies in the client’s finance department. You must find allies in the client’s finance department who can share data, work with you to test hypotheses/answer questions and validate your approach. This can only be done if you can clearly explain your approach and rationale, and instil confidence amongst the finance department employees.

You need to build these relationships at several levels of the finance department. Do not be shy doing this at the mid-level, where you will work with the finance team on a day-to-day basis and at the CFO level where you need to build rapport and trust to ensure she/he accepts the recommendations and owns the findings once you leave.

Building these relationships is difficult to do if you are unable to explain your objectives and approach articulately. In other words, communication matters enormously.

Some advice for working with peers:

1 – Do not work in isolation. You need to share your work since it impacts everyone else’s work. I insisted my teams meet regularly and use large charts in the engagement room to ensure visual understanding of what was required. This was far from common across the firm, but I insisted on it.

2 – Share your work and help your colleagues. I sometimes get emails from clients we placed asking if they should share their work. You should liberally share your slides, thinking and analyses. Also never ever leave early unless you have first checked with colleagues to see if they need additional help.

3 – Don’t be arrogant. I see this often where new hires try to show off their skills by being arrogant. You are only measured on demonstrated competency, not your ego. Eventually, you will be placed in a position where you need to prove yourself by relying on others, and arrogance does not build friendships.

Some advice for working with managers:

1 – Managers are under intense pressure. I recall really pushing my engagement managers to deliver the very best in each engagement. We just had to beat our previous best. Knowing that, help them help you by being specific about the advice/guidance you need. Managers are busy, so go to them when you need help. Do not expect them to “do the rounds” daily with each and every team member. That is an inefficient use of time.

2 – The manager is not the expert of your work. You should always know more about your analyses and it is your job to bring insights/challenges to the attention of your manager.

3 – Make your manager look good. Make your manager look good by at least trying to understand what the principal/partner/director is looking for from him/her, and provide this information. Only you can know this, and only if you take time to get to know the partner.

Some advice for working with partners:

1 – Partners are usually very friendly and willing to help. I spent a lot of time simply coaching and teaching consultants how to engage clients, think through issues or even complete analyses. That said, I expected them to be ready, communicate clearly and build on my work. Someone merely recycling my ideas is not showing where they added any value to the process.

If I found a consultant was not working with my guidance, or ignoring it without reason, that consultant would not get much of my time in the future.

I recall one consultant for whom I gave 30 minutes of detailed feedback on just 2 slides. She did not take notes, despite my suggestions to do so, and came back the next day with about 80% of the suggestions missing. That did not please me and such repeated behaviour led to her being managed out within 3 months of this incident.

2 – Every partner is unique, wants feedback in different ways and has lots of advice. Take the time to understand the partner on the project and help them succeed. When I was asked to pick up a partner from the airport, I would take 5 note cards containing all the information the partner would need to know so he could sound as if he had never been away. Partners loved this. When I was promoted to principal, I had trained my teams to manage me in this same way.

3 – Don’t be perfect, no partner expects that, but don’t make the same mistake twice. That is not forgivable. I once had a consultant make a major mistake on a slide I asked her to prepare. She included the benefits without discounting them. I was not happy, but the consultant learned her mistake quickly. I took her under my guidance and mentored her heavily. She eventually rose to associate principal before leaving for a corporate role.

The flip side of this – find a partner to mentor you. No matter how smart you are, it is not enough. The consultants who rise to the top the fastest are always mentored by very capable partners. My progression was no different.

Scot, I hope this guidance helps you. If you are still struggling, feel free to call me at any time for further guidance.

Michael

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Max is an aspiring consultant who is looking to secure an analyst role with one of the top firms for the upcoming recruitment cycle in September 2011. His interest in management consulting was sparked by a failed McKinsey interview last year. In this series of blogs, he will be sharing his background, case preparation process, useful resources, and any breakthroughs or setbacks that he experiences.

***

Practice makes perfect – at least that’s what I keep telling myself during this period where I’m trying to rip through as many quality cases as I can. Today, I would like to take you through a case that I did last week over Skype – I was in the role of the candidate. In order for you to get the most out of this, I suggest that you actually go through the setup of the case to see if your structure would have revealed the insights.

Interviewer:

The year is 2009, and your client is a major U.S. TV station. They are trying to put together a bid for the broadcasting rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics. What amount should they bid?

****STOP. Before you read the case solution, please take some time and think about what you would do next****

My Response:

That’s an interesting problem, and I just want to make sure that I understand the situation correctly before I dive in and structure my analysis. Our client is a major U.S. TV station, and they are trying to determine the optimal bid amount for the broadcasting rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics?

Interviewer:

That’s correct.

My Response:

Great. What is their goal in obtaining these broadcasting rights? Is it profits, national exposure, or something else?

Interviewer:

Their goal is to make money.

My response:

Do they have a particular numerical goal?

Interviewer:

Let’s say that they would like a 20% return on their investment.

My response:

One final question before I structure my analysis. What does possession of the broadcasting rights mean?

Interviewer:

The station with the broadcasting rights will be able to broadcast every event of the 2010 Winter Olympics. At their discretion, they can also sell certain events to other TV stations.

My Response:

Great, may I please have a moment to structure my thoughts?

Interviewer:

Of course.

****If you would like, take a few moments and sketch out the branches of analysis that you would like to use for this case, and then compare them with what I did.****

My response:

Ok I think I’m ready to begin. Since the goal of the client is to make a 20% return on the bid amount, I think it makes sense to analyze this problem from a profitability perspective. Since profitability is composed of revenues and costs, I would like to analyze both of these areas in order to understand how much profit can be generated. If you don’t mind, I would like to start off by looking at the revenues.

Interviewer:

Sure. What would you like to know?

My response:

The first thing that I would like to understand is how revenue will be generated from these broadcasting rights. Intuitively, I imagine that the revenues will come from both advertisements as well as licensing certain events to other TV stations. Is this correct?

Interviewer:

You are correct. However, for the purposes of this case, let’s assume that most of the revenue will be generated from the advertisements, and the licensing of events is a negligible amount.

My response:

Great. In order to determined the potential revenue that will be generated from advertisements, we’re going to need several pieces of data such as average price per advertisement, length of advertisement, and advertisement time available. Do we have any information on that?

Interviewer:

Yes we do.

-Primetime Rates: $400,000/30seconds

-Non-primetime Rate: $200,000/30seconds

-Usually 10 min out of every hour is available for advertisements.

My response:

When does primetime occur?

Interviewer:

7-10pm on weekdays, and all day on weekends.

My response:

I see. I think the next step here is to determine how many hours of primetime and non-primetime the 2010 Winter Olympics cover. Do we have any information on that?

Interviewer:

Yes we do. The opening ceremony is 7-10pm on a Friday. The events run for two weeks, and the closing ceremony is three hours long on a Saturday.

My response:

Ok, and do these events go on 24 hours a day, or is there a specific timeframe.

Interviewer:

The event go from noon to 10pm everyday.

****At this point, feel free to crunch the numbers in your head and see if you can get the same answer****

My response:

So every weekday consists of three hours of primetime and seven hours of non-primetime. This means that during Olympics, there will be:

Primetime: 3 hours/weekday X 5 weekdays/week X 2 weeks + 2 weekends x 2 days/weekend x 10 hour/day = 30 hours + 40 hours = 70 hours during the event

Since both the opening and closing ceremony are primetime as well, the total is 76 hours

Non-Primetime: 7 hours/weekday X 5 weekdays/week x 2 weeks = 70 hours

So if the for each hour we have:

Primetime: $400,000/30seconds X 60seconds/min X 10min/hour X 76 hours = 608 Million

Non-Primetime: $200,000/30seconds X 60seconds/min X 10min/hour X 70 = 280 Million

The total revenue generated if we sold all advertisement time is 888 Million

Before I go any further, is it safe to assume that all advertisement time will indeed be sold?

Interviewer:

Yes.

My response:

Based on the analysis we just did, we will likely generate 888 million dollars from advertisements if we have the broadcasting rights to the Winter Olympics. While there are other revenue streams that are associated with having the rights (such as licensing out events), we have captured the bulk of the revenue. Since we are looking to get a 20% return on our bid amount, I would like to take a look at the cost side so that I can make a good recommendation.

Interviewer:

Sure, what would you like to know?

My response:

I would like to take a look at the costs, and break them down into their components. Do we have any information on that?

Interviewer:

In terms of the Olympics themselves, it will cost 488 million dollars to set up the necessary equipment, broadcasting stations, hire staff etc. You can assume that all costs associated with the actual running of the broadcasts are captured in the 488 million.

My response:

Great, are there any other costs?

Interviewer:

What do you think?

My response:

The only thing I can think of is that during the broadcasting of the Olympics, the station will not be able to play its regular programming so there may be some cost there.

Interviewer:

Do you know what this type of cost is called?

My response:

I do not.

Interviewer:

It is called the opportunity cost, and let’s say that this is roughly 50 million.

My response:

At this point, we know that we can generate revenues of 888 million, while incurring costs of 538 million. This means that we will have a profit of 350 million. Since we want a return of 20%, the bid amount, as it stands now, is at roughly 290 million.

Interviewer:

Do you see any other costs?

My response:

No, not really.

Interviewer:

What about the time value of money? We are placing the bid now, but will not generate any revenue until the Olympics start in about a year.

My response:

Yes that makes sense, and I failed to consider that during my initial analysis. Do we have information on how much depreciation we will have?

Interviewer:

Let’s say 10%. This includes inflation as well as interest for the amount that we will have to borrow to make the bid.

My response:

Excellent. With this new information, we know that 350 million dollars in a year is worth roughly 320 million in today’s dollars. Therefore, if we want to make 20% return, we will have to place a bid of roughly 270 million. Before I go on, does the company have the ability to either raise or borrow this kind of money?

Interviewer:

Yes, the company has good relations with a few banks, and money will not be a problem. As we mentioned before, the interest rate is already taken into account. We are running out of time, and there is one question I would like to ask you before I get you to conclude. Do you see any other potential benefits to owning the broadcasting rights?

My response:

Yes, there are several benefits that I can see:

1) Increased prestige and brand recognition for the station

2) Taking potential revenues away from competitors

3) Merchandizing opportunities

Interviewer:

What about increased viewership of the station’s original programming?

My response:

That would likely be the case for the programs directly before and after the Olympics come on the air.

Interviewer:

Why don’t you give me your recommendation.

My response:

After preliminary analysis, the station should put forth a bid 270 million dollars for the following reasons:

1) From our profitability analysis, this bid will yield the desired return on investment of 20%

2) The company can afford it

3) There will be intangible benefits such as increased brand recognition, as well as tangible benefits such as increased viewership of its original programming before and after the Olympics come on the air

Going forward we should look into several other factors such as the state of the competition to see if they are even capable of putting up a bid close to 270 million. If they are not, then we should lower our bid since that will result in even more profits generated. In addition, we should verify that we will indeed be able to sell all of the advertisement time. With your permission, I would like to get the team to go forward with analyzing these issues.

Interviewer:

Thank you for your analysis.

My response:

My pleasure.

We received the following query via email from an experienced hire candidate looking to make a transition to McKinsey. We will answer this in an open forum on the site since we think it is relevant to many of our readers. You can apply our process to determine your chances own changes of moving across. [To the candidate: We would need to see your résumé to accurately assess your chances.]

***

“You’ve got a very stimulating website which I’ve been directed to by one of the online “tutorials” on the YouTube site, which I also found exciting and well presented.

However, one small issue seems not to be addressed, as far as I’m aware, and that is the issue of experienced hires without a business/MBA background. I recently attended a McKinsey and Company recruitment event and had the opportunity to speak with a director and a few associates who have strongly encouraged me to submit an application. In fact, I was told that at the present time, they are particularly anxious to recruit “experienced hires” and they were very keen to point out that prior business experience is definitely not required and I got the impression that they would prefer a blank canvass from that point of view. My background is in medicine, dentistry, higher surgical training and [deleted]. As mentioned, I’ve enjoyed the online tutorials available on YouTube but they seem to assume an existing knowledge of the business and financial world.

My first question therefore is do these tutorials represent the type of case interviews administered to all potential applicants to the large management consultancy firms?

I’m also very interested in the online book and would like to know if this, or indeed any other information source you supply, can help someone like me in my potential application to one of these firms or do you think that perhaps the pathway for the experienced hire has yet to be addressed by Firmsconsulting?

Many thanks for your consideration and keep up the good work!”

***

Given the above, do experienced candidates without an MBA/business background have a reasonable chance of moving up to McKinsey, Bain or the BCG? If so, what does it take?”

Advice for experienced candidates is covered throughout the blog. To save you time I have pulled it all together in this one post. We offer selective career coaching for experience hires, MBA’s and current consultants. In this post we will show you how we would assess this candidates chances and whether he has a shot at making it.

Step One: Resume check. It is always better to prepare your résumé and then determine your chances. Prepare a one-page resume using the Harvard format. Things look very different when they are committed to paper.

• What degree does he have? Is it a graduate degree? Did she do well; as in getting an 80% average or more or finishing with a distinction? Having a masters or doctorate will definitely be a bonus. Being a medical doctor could also count in your favor, but again it depends on the actual experience you have and your age.

Great grades are important and can overcome the problems of graduating from a weaker school.

• Where did he study? Is it a good to great school? Most consulting firms have target schools. These are schools from which they regularly recruit. If you are not from a target school it is also not a problem. Great grades are important and can overcome the problems of graduating from a weaker school.

• Was the degree full-time or part-time? Part-time degrees will not count for much. We have heard of students being recruited with part-time MBA’s and doctorates; however this is the exception and not the norm.

• Do any of the consulting firms recruit from this school? This is not a decider, but it does influence the decision.

• What is his experience? Did he enter as a technical specialist and then start managing people or did he always stay in a technical role? No one answer is better than the other. It really depends on the other answers and the picture we get when they are viewed together.

Therefore age is critical for technical specialists seeking entry to management consulting. Older technical specialists find it harder to adapt to new careers.

• How old is he? A 30-35 year old candidate without an MBA, but specializing in a technical field is fine. There is still time to teach you business and help you grow into the firm. The older you are, the harder it will be to change. Assuming you are 40 years old, you should be able to show proven excellence in your field, and the ability and willingness to adapt to management consulting. Therefore age is critical for technical specialists seeking entry to management consulting. Older technical specialists find it harder to adapt to new careers.

• What is his experience? Having no business experience is not at all an issue. Consulting firms are hiring you for your problem solving ability and not your business knowledge. They would always pick talented and smart people who can solve problems over someone with some experience in business.

• Any blue-chip experience? Just because you were in a technical field does not mean you could not have worked for GE, P&G, and Mercedes and so on in R&D. Blue-chip experience is counted and is generally more valued than working at a smaller or lesser-known firm.

• What kind of leadership activities has he been involved in? The more time you spend out of school, the more this becomes important.

• Does she have a medical degree or similar advanced qualification? Medical degrees do stand out. They take longer to obtain, they usually require much higher qualifying grades and they show an ability to work with people. All other things being equal, a medical degree would be an asset.

• What was your rate of progression? Smart and capable people will always show a consistently rapid progression in their careers. Consulting firms look for this.

So let’s look at some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Let’s assume the candidate is 32; same background as in the question above and has a medical degree from Harvard Medical School and graduated with a 3.4 GPA. He was successful as a doctor and tried to specialize in surgical training but only spent a year in this field. He has a healthy social life and maintains a full list of hobbies. He would have excellent chances on paper, though his low GPA will raise some concerns which will need to be tested via the interviews..

Scenario 2: If the scenario was the same but he was 40 years, the chances would diminish unless the candidate demonstrated great success his field, could explain why he never considered business before and why he is willing to make the jump now, and can demonstrate the ability to learn business problem solving (this is shown via the ability to solve cases).

Scenario 3: Same as scenario 1 but he was 45 years old. His chances would be very slim.

Scenario 4: Same as scenario 1, however he is 40 years old but has a doctorate in physics from Stanford and only worked in physics labs. This is still tough. Age is a big factor here. It will come down to the candidate’s determination, school and his success in his career. Yet, it is still slim.

So as you can see; lack of a business background becomes more important the older a candidate becomes. That’s because the older he is, the more important it is for him to demonstrate excellence in his technical field, yet the very same excellence raises questions about his reasons for changing careers and his ability to make this jump.

How does the candidate dress? Is this someone we could imagine in front of a client?

Step 2: Does the résumé and reality match?

Let’s assume, we looked at the résumé, and the candidate fell into scenario 1 or 2. We would then arrange for a discussion via video-conference to look for the following:

• How does the candidate dress? Is this someone we could imagine in front of a client?

• How does the candidate speak? Are they engaging, articulate and presentable?

• What are the candidate’s values? Is integrity important?

• Is the candidate worldly? Does he know what is happening in the world? Does he have a considered view-point and can debate topics?

• Is he confident? Can he stand his ground and intelligently debate?

• Does he command attention?

• What is his etiquette?

• Is he curious about the world?

Many of these things can be taught. So do not worry if you feel you may be weak in some areas. We use video-recording to see your improvement areas.

This is how we rank candidates:

• He has all the attributes.

• He does not have all the attributes but she can be coached and taught.

• He does not have key attributes which cannot be taught.

If you are ranked in the first 2 groups, then its fine and we allow you to join our coaching program. If we think you lack key attributes which cannot be taught, then we would decline, since you would be unlikely to get in even with the best coaching.

Explicitly answering your questions

Yes – McKinsey, Bain and BCG like to hire experienced candidates with graduate degrees in other fields, even if they have no business background. So if you are a particle physicist, medical doctor or ethnobiologist, it will be fine, provided you fulfill the criteria above. BCG, in particular, likes specialists from other fields. That is not to say McKinsey or Bain is less friendly to them, we just know BCG tends to more actively seek candidates with other backgrounds.

Typically if you met these criteria and where young, you would slot in at the Associate level which is the same level as all new MBA graduates. Your career path may be a little different but not in any particularly worrying way. You would just need greater exposure to internal business training and you would easily receive this.

For interest, Michael Wolf who led McKinsey’s Global Media Practice only possessed a BA in international politics from Columbia. No master’s degree and no business background. That is one prominent example but there are many others.

Assuming you were an extremely talented scientist from Johnson & Johnson and had risen to the senior ranks of the R&D unit, you would not necessarily come in at an Associate levels. Firms do make exceptions and sometimes bring in candidates on accelerated development paths. Sometimes you join as an associate with the intention to be developed rapidly or in other cases you join as an associate manager. However, this applies to exceptional individuals. You can also join as a specialist, which is more common if you have some deep skill the sector teams would want.

The tutorials DO NOT assume knowledge of business. All those concepts we discuss in the tutorials are typically difficult the first time someone with no business background sees them.

Either way, you would need to demonstrate the core problem solving skills so that you could work in any sector. You are not allowed to specialize until later, unless you actually join as a specialist.

The tutorials DO NOT assume knowledge of business. All those concepts we discuss in the tutorials are typically difficult the first time someone with no business background sees them. However, I can assure you that with training and reading the correct material you will be well prepared you for the case interviews. All candidates, business and non-business, are expected to go through the same cases as the ones in our tutorials. They are easy, and fun, once you learn the techniques. So to answer your first question – Yes, all candidates go through these questions.

To get into the leading firms, you will need the following:

• Excellent cover letter.

• Resume in, preferably, the Harvard format.

• Coaching on the overall experience.

• Ability to answer all five types of case questions.

• Ability to handle the FIT/PEI cases.

The first three mean nothing if you fail the cases. McKinsey will, and regularly, turns down many Harvard MBA’s who fail the case interviews, and plenty do not even get an interview. It is all about demonstrated competency. Some lesser firms will be impressed with a great resume, but the top firms want you to prove your problem solving ability.

The first three are relatively easier to do. The fourth and fifth area are more important. You need to learn this.

About the book: I would urge you to get it. Simply because it introduces you to a day-in-the-life of a McKinsey consultant through a real project and was written to teach you about all the concepts they use. It is also written in an entertaining format so you can really understand the issues and problems at a client. It has been a very popular book and we are building more around this. We wrote the book because we know we would have appreciated someone giving us a book like this when we worked at BCG and the like. It has proven to be popular and will give you a real-project overview.

To Summarize:

Summary: Yes, you still have a shot; provided your grades are good and you are starting out in your field. However, age is working against you. The more elapsed time since graduate studies equals fewer excuses for not succeeding at your chosen career or notching up more accomplishments. Ironically, the greater your success here raises questions about why you want to leave and your ability to learn the consulting techniques.

Next Steps: Polish your résumé and you need to apply as early as possible. However, if your grades are not good, you may want to consider getting an MBA to improve your chances, though a very weak undergraduate GPA is not easy to overcome for anyone, unless you graduate extraordinarily well. This is why I ask undergraduates to really take their time during their studies and finish well. You need to really prepare for the case interviews, speak to consultants in these firms and learn the soft skills to impress the interviewer.

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