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This article highlights some of the recent struggles McKinsey has encountered while managing runaway growth.

McKinsey consultants tend to deliberately work longer hours than needed. Extreme pressure to perform and manage their images ultimately means many consultants work longer hours than needed. There is an almost inherent belief that they should be proud in having worked so late at the office. This ultimately fosters a strong case of burn-out, disconnect from families and an inability to actually complete work within a reasonable amount of time.

In a recent study for a mining company McKinsey undertook a painful study of heat curves and heat charts to estimate the correct amount of energy required. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Yet, the McKinsey analyses could not be understood.

McKinsey, by its own admission, has struggled when it comes to advising clients where knowledge of technical issues is required. That’s okay; most of their competitors have this problem. However, their response to plug this gap is a little worrisome. We have seen several instances where McKinsey had partnered with technical specialists or taken an excessively technical approach to analyse issues. In a recent study for a mining company McKinsey undertook a painful study of heat curves and heat charts to estimate the correct amount of energy required. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach. Yet, the McKinsey analyses could not be understood. It was difficult to link the logic of the analyses to the business case. We have seen them do this in a recent automotive, smelting, shipping and medical systems study. McKinsey really needs to reconsider its approach to blending technical analyses into business studies.

Not all McKinsey engagements are equal. The premium clients like P&G, Vale and so on command the attention of the firm’s top partners and their coterie of best associates. This is the inner circle. In the next group are the top consultants who can sometimes be placed on these crown jewel clients but can sometimes be dispatched to less important clients. In the outer circle are the business analysts and associates who almost never get the crown jewel assignments and clients. Getting into the inner circle is heavily dependent on the school you attended and the office in which you are based. An MBA graduate from the Universidad Catholica in Santiago is unlikely to be staffed on a crown jewel client like Goldman Sachs.

Location, Location, Location. Where you are located AND where you studied will impact your career path. A MBA graduate from New Zealand based in the New York or London office is very unlikely to be placed on the best projects for the firm. A Harvard MBA moving to some place like Johannesburg, South Africa is likely to get into that offices crown – jewel clients. Linked to this concept, an MBA from a top business school in South Africa is more likely to serve the crown jewel clients in South Africa then the global crown jewel clients.

 Its research teams were unable to support engagement teams in the field and quality suffered. We have seen proposals and final reports with errors, poor analyses and in some cases, fairly obvious grammar and spelling mistakes.

McKinsey’s quality has dropped in the last 4 years. This is by their own admission. It’s also clear if you look at the firm’s proposals and client work. First, a massive expansionary drive forced the firm to strain its support systems. Its research teams were unable to support engagement teams in the field and quality suffered. We have seen proposals and final reports with errors, poor analyses and in some cases, fairly obvious grammar and spelling mistakes. Those can be forgiven. Maybe. What cannot be forgiven is incorrect analyses and incorrect use of analytic techniques. Recent studies at Vale, BHP Billiton and GM all had fundamental mistakes in the analyses.

Although McKinsey likes to create the impression that sharing of information is easily done within the firm, we have it on good authority and among several sources that while this happens, there is also a fair amount of hoarding of information. The firm has several regions and partners who specialise in sectors. Getting their attention and comments can be difficult.

McKinsey prides itself on its benchmark databases and comparative data on sector players. While this has worked well in the resources, banking and other traditional sectors, it has come undone in the newly evolving media and technology sectors. How do you benchmark a social network when the data and information is changing so rapidly? Therefore the McKinsey ideas can work well in most sectors but they fail in some.

In this post we will show you how we would assess this candidate’s chances of transitioning from the boutique firm to McKinsey, BCG or Bain. 

Candidate’s boutique firm experience

“My first consulting job was with a small boutique firm of performance specialists. Their engagements were geared toward performance improvements. They did not perform any strategy work and guaranteed their performance results.

Analyses were a two week ’blitz’. It was a combination of day in the life studies as well as manager and supervisory behavioral observations. The projects were geared toward coaching managers and supervisors to increase hourly output and then reducing headcount (savings) due to lack of work. Due to the guarantee there was great pressure to achieve results.

The boutique firm was very heavy-handed with staff and turnover was very high (up or out was very much a part of the culture). If you stuck around past 3 years you were pretty good. The boutique firm did not have any formal training and most of what was learned was obtained on field projects (on-the-job-training).

This approach made it difficult for many employees to survive past 10 months. It was very much a sink-or-swim environment. New staff learned how to identify issues (using gap analyses) and then coached supervisors to resolve these issues. However, learning how to ‘human-engineer’ clients to resolve these issues required a skill many individuals didn’t have and struggled to execute. Yet, for understanding management at the “floor level” it was a great way to get started.

I currently work at another boutique firm, a small turnaround specialist consulting firm. They deal with small firms with approximately >$1M<$5M in sales. The challenge is most of the clients need a turnaround specialist, so it’s difficult to sustain an engagement for more than a few weeks as many of these firms have major cash flow problems. Sustained solutions tend to take longer to ‘mature’ and the “quick hits” don’t always generate enough cash to even pay the fees.

It can be fun to work with these types of businesses but you have to “show value” quickly if you expect to come back the next week. In this environment we look at a company’s financial data (sales, operations and finance) and then try to sort out the cash flow issues early so we ‘stop the bleeding’. It is very hard not to feel the weight of the world on your shoulders when you work with these types of clients – sometimes the help they require comes in just too late. In total, I spent 5.5 years at both boutique firms.

Given the above, do consultants from boutique firms have a reasonable chance of moving up to McKinsey, Bain or the BCG? If so, what does it take?”

***

Boutique firm to McKinsey- is it feasible?

Step One: Resume check. Let’s look at the cold hard facts that are important to consulting firms

• Does she have a degree? Did she do well, as in getting an 80% average or more?

• Where did she study? Is it a good or great school? Do not read into the hype too much. Tier-1 firms do not just hire from Harvard and Wharton. Great grades from a good school will get you in.

• Was the degree full-time or part-time? Part-time degrees will not count for much.

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

• Does she have a post-graduate degree or MBA?

• How old is she? A 25-30 year old candidate without an MBA or post-graduate degree is okay. There is still time to get an MBA or post-graduate degree. Moreover, the older you are, the more bad habits are ingrained and the less willing and capable you are to work the long hours and learn the management consulting approach.

If you are 35 and above, and do not have an MBA or advanced degree, then the question would be what did you do during all this time? Realistically, the earliest you could get into an MBA program would be at the age of 36, graduating at the age of 37. That’s too late.

• What is her experience? The tier-1 firms do not think much of the training of the other firms, especially if it is a boutique firm. So we do not think this candidate’s experience will count for much unless it was at a top boutique firm. The wrong kind of experience in consulting will count against you while the right kind of experience in industry will count in your favor.

The worst mistake candidates make is assuming they are doing McKinsey, BCG or Bain a favor by bringing this experience to the table and refusing to be re-taught. She must understand that she needs to go out of her way to explain why she stayed at the boutique firm if it was not ideal, why she understands she needs to learn the correct problem solving skills and, most importantly, that she actually can learn the right skills.

• Any blue-chip experience? It would be great if this candidate served some time at a blue-chip like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle or GE.

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

So let’s look at some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Let’s assume the candidate is 28. Same background as described above. Has a degree from a good school and graduated with a high GPA (greater than 85% average). She has a track record of being successful, shown leadership and is willing to unlearn all the bad habits picked up, and relearn the case method to get in. In this case, she has an okay chance.

Scenario 2: If the scenario was the same but she had a master’s degree, her chances become good.

Scenario 3: Same as scenario 1 but she is 36 years old. Her chances would be very slim.

Scenario 4: Same as scenario 1, she is 36 years old but has a doctorate. This is still tough. Age is a big factor here. It will come down to the candidate’s determination, school and her success in her career. Yet, it is still slim.

So as you can see, age, experience, success in career, willingness to learn, degree, grades and school count for a lot.

Step 2: Does resume and reality match?

Let’s assume, we looked at the resume and the candidate fell into scenario 1 or 2. We would then arrange for a discussion 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? Is she engaging, articulate and presentable?

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

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

• Is she confident? Can she stand her ground and intelligently debate?

• Does she command attention?

• What is her etiquette?

• Is she curious about the world?

If she does not have the right school, then she needs to minimize every other conceivable reason why she should be rejected. That means looking, acting and speaking like a polished consultant. This can be taught.

This is how we rank candidates:

• She has all the attributes.

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

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

If you are ranked in the first 2 groups, then its fine and we will likely 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.

We also want candidates who can be brutally honest with themselves. For example, if we tell you that you need to improve your dressing, speaking style and etiquette, some candidates become upset. However, if you are willing to change these things, you have a shot.

To Summarize: Yes, you still have a shot, provided your grades are good and you are in your twenties. However, age is working against you. The more elapsed time since undergraduate studies equals fewer excuses for not getting an MBA, succeeding at your chosen career or notching up more accomplishments.

You also learn bad habits which are hard to unlearn. If we knew more about this candidate, we may even advise her to consider Booz or AT Kearney. These are not tier-1 in terms of strategy, but AT Kearney is tier-1 in terms of operations consulting and Booz is as good as the top firms in some geographies and markets.

Next Steps: Polish your resume 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. You need to really prepare for the case interviews, speak to consultants in these firms and also learn the soft skills to impress the interviewer.

The reader also sent in the question:

“When consultants leave the tier 1 firms, how are they able to move into top positions with Fortune-500 companies?”

Every significant headhunter is scouring Bain, BCG and McKinsey for the right candidates. Therefore, it is partly due to having worked or still working at the firm. Remember, these are training grounds for executives.

Second, you will spend 80% of your time in front of clients who are potential employers. If you are good, they will come to you.

Third, these consulting firms exist to groom future business leaders. It is natural most will end up in a corporate role.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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.

Choosing the Right McKinsey Office

This is a critical question that is certainly worth answering in this longer post. This applies to candidates considering four office choices:

• Staying in the home town.

• Applying to another country with an established office.

• Applying to another country where an office will need to be established.

• Applying to another country with a younger and smaller office.

We have lots of experience in this area and will provide some practical advice. It’s worth discussing the broad considerations when making this decision. Personally, we at Firmsconsulting have extensive experience in the emerging markets have served as principals in such offices and extensively advised clients in these markets. They are vibrant and exciting places to be, but they are not for everyone. So read this and then decide how you want to pick your right McKinsey office.

Will you be a better consultant, because of the foreign office posting, then you would have been if you stayed? Be critical and apply the firm’s criteria for success when asking this question.

Be careful of asking your friends whether it was a good idea of serving in a foreign country immediately upon joining McKinsey or BCG. They will talk to you about the value of learning new culture, styles of working and so on. While important, these are not valid reasons. This is what you should ask:

• Will you be a better consultant, because of the foreign office posting, then you would have been if you stayed? Be critical and apply the firm’s criteria for success when asking this question.

• What did the firm gain from this?

• What would you have done differently if you could do it over again, and are you consistent in your choices?

• Why did you choose (city/country)?

If after reading this you would still like to start in a new country, or even return to your country of origin after many years, then do it. Only you know what is best and we can only offer guidance. At least by thinking through the potential obstacles/limitations you may develop a plan to mitigate them.

What is your reason for wanting to work in a foreign office? You need to be true to yourself. If you are salivating at the thought of spending winter in a beautiful city like Prague or watching a future superpower grow out of Mumbai; then cool down a little. Those are the incorrect reasons. Management consulting is tough. It will certainly be tougher than any other job you ever had. If you choose to go to a city then it must be because being there confers on you a unique competitive advantage that will make you a better consultant than in your home office. This is important. Moving to a newly developing office or new city is not a holiday. You will find it tough anyway and need to be looking for a competitive advantage. If the new city does not give you this, then it is wise not to make this move.

Each country has specific requirements for you to be accepted socially and become successful with senior executives. Ask around and make sure you do not set yourself up for failure.

Skill sets. Now that we know you have the correct reasons, let’s look at the skills needed at the right McKinsey office, or BCG office. I am sure working in Paris is every consultants dream. It can however be a nightmare. Do you speak French? Do you understand the culture? Did you graduate from the Grand Ecole’s? Each country has specific requirements for you to be accepted socially and become successful with senior executives. Ask around and make sure you do not set yourself up for failure. Do not think only the emerging markets have quirks. Italy, Spain, France and Germany all their unique wrinkles. Very few outsiders integrate into these cultures to the point of being completely accepted. When it happens, such acceptance can take years to occur.

How do you know what you will need to be successful as a management consultant before you join? Until you spend about 12 months in a management consulting environment, you actually do not know how you will cope. And if you do not know how you will cope, then it is wise to wait a bit before moving to a new city. Maybe you really need your family, friends and your home town/city where you studied, for support. These coping mechanisms can be critical. They help you adjust as you settle into a new career. It is important not to be presumptuous about how you will handle the work load. Remember about 60% of consultants at the top firms are managed out. I can assure you that many are working in their home towns and are still struggling to make the cut. It is wiser to wait and understand what you need to be successful. After a 12 month period, you may change your first choice and want to go to another city.

Maybe you really need your family, friends and your home town/city where you studied, for support. These coping mechanisms can be critical. They help you adjust as you settle into a new career. It is important not to be presumptuous about how you will handle the work-load.

What is the rush? Really, will Prague disintegrate into a soulless metropolis in 2 years? Will Mumbai solve all its transport problems in 5 years? Will Jakarta’s millions of poverty-stricken citizens’ vault into the middle class before you can move across? No, it is very, very unlikely this will happen. Whatever the rush, it can wait. Unless you have some pressing personal reasons for going away, take the time to make the correct decision. In fact, try to get yourself on an assignment in this city/country before moving there. Visiting as a tourist and working as a professional is a totally different ball game. If you think I am kidding, walk around Bangkok in shorts, sandals and a T-shirt. Now try wearing a full suit in Bangkok with black socks and taking the subway, or, heaven forbid, a taxi. The experience is very, very different. Do you like walking around? Try visiting South Africa for a different experience. No one ever walks due to violent crime. Their streets are deserted. It is surreal. Make sure you can cope with these differences before you arrive.

Emerging markets are wickedly competitive. Let’s apply simple economics. The market for McKinsey, Bain and the BCG is smaller, as a percentage of the total business sector, versus developed industrial markets. So you have a smaller market and are still competing against your fiercest rivals for these positions. Since you target the top firms, and there are fewer of them, on average the best educated locals migrate to these few institutions. Moreover, you are also likely facing Wharton and Harvard educated professionals as your clients, who are not so easily impressed with western credentials. In Eastern Europe, especially Russia, the problem is the same whereby Russians highly regard their local mathematics, science and economics institutes. So you have tough clients, fewer of them and more competition against which to land them. This does change the dynamics substantially.

Do you like walking around? Try visiting South Africa for a different experience. No one ever walks due to violent crime. Their streets are deserted. It is surreal. Make sure you can cope with these differences before you arrive.

For example, in the US, if things were tough, you could switch focus by changing cities. Did that work? No? Try targeting the public sector versus the private sector. That also didn’t work? Okay, try targeting another company in the same sector in another part of the country. The US economy’s size gives you options. In business and economics, options have value. In emerging markets most firms have offices in just one at most 2 or 3 cities. You will not have many options if things do not work out.

In some emerging markets all the major companies are state-owned. You have to work through one client – the government. Private companies are sometimes run by interconnected family concerns. Although you have options, there are less of them. One common problem is the concentration of business in just one city unlike the US, Germany, France and so on. This has its advantages and disadvantages.

The US economy’s size gives you options. In business and economics, options have value.

The learning curve is different. Assuming you had the choice to go to a major established office like Cleveland or San Francisco versus Bucharest, the learning curve is different. In New York you will be exposed to more choices, more consultants and more of the firm’s culture. In the newer offices, you are likely to experience less of this. The top partners, the figureheads in the media, are usually resident in the established offices, although this is not always the case. You could get lucky and pair up with a Dominic Barton as he is opening a new office. Imagine how valuable that relationship and mentorship would be.

The flip side of this is that some offices, like the German offices, tend to be very strong and offer excellent training. So while the point above is about staying in your home office since the learning curve may be better at home, also remember that it could be better elsewhere. Just choose wisely.

Watch out for the “cool partner” syndrome. Consultants place a large part of their decision-making on whether they like the partner leading the new office or setting up a brand new office. Be wary of this. Most people are cool when you have never worked with them for an extended period, when you see them every now and again, or when your opinion is shaped via corridor chatter. These guys are cool because they also have another channel to vent their frustration. If you move to a new region, or open a new office with them, they will become your life – and probably not in a good way. You will spend every waking moment with them and see a whole new side. If you can live with this, then go buy that air ticket.

Niche assignments. A young office will rarely have the resources to chase all types of assignments. It is prudent to go after a sector or a particular type of client and thereby build a critical mass and reputation. This means you end up doing similar kind of work more often than not. It is worse when an office is just setting up. The partner running the show will go for the path of least resistance and likely favor work or sectors he knows well. Although not always the case, younger or newer offices tend to have loosely defined niches and this may inadvertently force you to miss out on opportunities to gain a broader perspective.

These guys are cool because they also have another channel to vent their frustration. If you move to a new region, or open a new office with them, they will become your life – and probably not in a good way.

Entrepreneurialism is nice…if you make it. Did you join Bain to be an entrepreneur or learn about business? When a new office is being opened or a really small office is growing, you will need to do mundane things that you take for granted. Now, why would anyone do this? If you want to be an entrepreneur go join a start-up. If you like answering phones, join a call-center and get it out of your system.

Language, ethnicity and culture clash. We have come a long way in the last 100 years but the world is still divided by language, religion, skin-colour and ethnicity. While you may have always dreamed of back-packing through the steppes of Russia on your weekends, if you are dark-skinned the dynamics are different. Much of the world is still hostile to certain types of people. Accept that you may need to compromise some freedoms if you want to move.

Personally – If I could do it all over again. I would choose London, Prague, Vienna or Munich. There is so much happening in Europe, Turkey, Eastern Europe and North Africa. Any of these cities would be an ideal start to look for a right McKinsey office. Of course you would need to speak Czech, Russian, German, Turkish or French to make this work.

Choose wisely.

“Dear Michael,

I have a question about case interview preparation which I was hoping you could answer for me. I provided some context and I am sorry if the email is far too long. I listened to the Firmsconsulting podcasts and articles I like the honest views provided.

I am currently a PhD candidate at Princeton, with an undergraduate degree from South Korea. I started casing about 6 months ago and completed about 120 cases with casing partners in my consulting club and over the internet. I bought several books and other programs. I paid to have my resume edited with an online service.

The problem is that I cased with a friend of a friend recently and it did not go well. He is a McKinsey manager. It was very, very bad and he really did not like my resume. I was embarrassed to explain to him that I did so much work. I am now a little confused and frustrated. I do not know what I did badly or correctly, and not sure what to do. I feel all my efforts have been wasted and concerned that if I continue, I will keep wasting my time.

Should I quit pursuing management consulting or am I using the wrong services?

SK”

***

Dear SK,

Thank you for your email and the context. I would have preferred slightly more information but this is good enough to post a detailed response. I plan to be brutally honest in this response, as always, so do not take the feedback personally. The feedback is important to help you understand where you stand on your career plans. It is after all, your life and lifestyle on the line.

It is important to understand that your situation is not uncommon. So you should not feel as if you are doing worse than others. We often speak to candidates who have done 50 to 120 cases and still struggling. Therefore, this is not a “weakness” about you, but possibly the techniques you are using which can be easily fixed.

My response is split into 4 parts: general immediate advice, your resume update, case interview preparation and next steps.

My first piece of advice is not to spend more money on case training, advice etc. This is the general advice I will provide for you. I am not saying you should never spend money, but for now, you should not. Go cut your credit cards. The two weeks it will take to get the replacements will help you reflect. There are several reasons for this.

Candidates like to look for that “magical” idea, approach or service that will push them over the top in case interviews. Do not fall for that trap.

First, it is clear the money you have already spent is not working. I am not sure if it is because of the services you used or your own application of the material, but that is irrelevant at this point because the outcome is what you should measure. Irrespective of when you bought the service, you should do well after 120 cases. So, I am guessing it is both things.

Candidates like to look for that “magical” idea, approach or service that will push them over the top in case interviews. Do not fall for that trap. If it looks too easy it usually is not going to help you. On the other hand case interview training should never feel painful. If it is, it could either be your learning style or even that the career is not ideal for you. That said, for anyone to prepare well, real effort is involved. If everyone could buy online services and get into McKinsey et al, things would be too easy.

Until you know why you have not improved, and it may have nothing to do with the services you use or everything to do with them, you should not make any more purchases. It helps to step back and take a fresh view on things. That can usually only happen once you have “forgotten” some of the reasons and tactics you applied in your previous case interview experience. This may sound counter-intuitive, but poor past reasoning will affect your current judgment unless you find a way to jettison this reasoning. Time usually does this.

When our own clients either fail to get an interview or fail to get an offer from the first firm with whom they interview, I ask them to take their foot off the accelerator, decouple from the training and come back after 2 to 3 weeks. No cases in this time, no planning, no reading – a complete vacation from cases. We regroup and re-plan upon their return. This is the opposite of what most candidates do.

You have unfortunately been hard-wired by millions of dollars of Nike and Adidas adverts to think that just a little more hard work will push you over the top. Therefore, most candidates work even harder when they are unsuccessful, merely doing more of the same and repeating the same mistakes. You have to be smart, not just work harder.

***

Let’s discuss resume services.

With all due respect to companies offering resume writing services I have nothing good to say about the idea of believing a resume can be edited electronically and be acceptable. We do not offer them and there is a reason for that. We do edit the resumes of our clients but that is not a simple process. To properly edit a resume takes a minimum of 4 sessions lasting about 30-60 minutes each, and in some cases we have taken 8-12 sessions to edit a resume. It is a critical, complete and detailed transformation. There are several reasons why it takes that long. I am writing out the steps so you can do them yourself.

Here is something to ponder. If resume writing experts where so good, the analogy would be that a publishing company’s greatest assets would be the editors who transform moribund author transcripts. Yet, that is not how things work.

First, imagine I sent my resume to have it edited by an expert. That expert assumes that I mean exactly what I say in my resume and there is perfect clarity in my statements. So he/she edits the resume based on what he/she reads in that resume. The obvious problem here is that people rarely mean what they say, and most people cannot write well. So you have an expert trying to produce perfect prose, capturing all the details of the role, benefits, data, numerical dollars values etc., off poorly written input. It can never be correct. Bad input, from the resume owner, will only equal bad output.

Here is something to ponder. If resume writing experts where so good, the analogy would be that a publishing company’s greatest assets would be the editors who transform moribund author transcripts. Yet, that is not how things work. Editors cannot create best-sellers from weak material and need excellent work from authors. That is why the rejection rate on manuscripts is so high. The editors will only work one-on-one with the writer who has a solid manuscript.

Second, the expert can only edit what you have provided to him/her. What if something really important and valuable from your past, has been deliberately left of your resume? How will the expert know this? How will the expert include this? The resume writer cannot know this, and what you end up having is the resume writer’s interpretation of your interpretation of events. When we write resumes, we go line by line, in every call through the resume. I ask all kinds of questions to completely understand what the owner of the resume means when they say certain things. Rarely is the intent and original phrasing correct.

In fact, if you look at the amount of edits we ask for in every single line, it can be overwhelming. We need to be speaking to clients and working with them to accomplish this. It is the only way.

Third, your resume needs to reflect your spike. Your spike is that one thing you are good at and which will get you remembered by the interviewer. When I read an early resume, I sometimes see the apparent spike. Usually that early interpretation of a candidates spike changes. It takes several sessions of speaking to someone to really dig into every line on their resume and flesh out unwritten extra-curricular activities and/or other roles.

Understanding and using your spike is such a vital part of the resume writing process, but how in the world can someone deduce that from your resume without having spoken to you? Moreover, why obtain this service unless you explicitly answer this question – what is your spike?

In other words, you are impressed with the improvement on your resume, which the interviewer never sees. So do not do this. You should rather compare your best attempt to that of a top candidate from Wharton, Harvard etc.

Fourth, every client of a resume writing service merely looks at the resume they sent in and the version they receive back. If their new resume looks better, they are pleased. I say looks better, because for the reasons above, it really cannot be much better in terms of content. Form is only important if the resume content is great. Excellent formatting with poor content is still a disaster. Comparing your new resume to your old resume is a flawed approach to measure quality.

The interviewer does not see your before and after version. What the interviewer sees is your best attempt and compares this to the other candidate’s best attempts. In other words, you are impressed with the improvement on your resume, which the interviewer never sees. So do not do this. You should rather compare your best attempt to that of a top candidate from Wharton, Harvard etc. It may make you cry when you see the competition but at least you have time to fix things.

Fifth, editing resumes is a process of formatting, accumulation and then attrition. In terms of formatting, some resume formats just look better, and therefore make you look better. Format counts because it creates an impression that you are prepared well, or at least had people from the elite schools helping you prepare. Both can only help your image. In the accumulation phase, I ask every client to add as much information about themselves that they can. I don’t care if they won a prize for the three-legged race in their freshmen year, add it in.

I never rely on clients to filter their own life details, since they cannot always know what is important. Attrition is an important choice of words. We next cut out the obvious clutter. The three-legged race will be edited out unless you ran it with Bono to raise money to save orphaned children in Somalia; unlikely, but not impossible considering Bono’s schedule and proclivities. The next step is critical. Rather than making massive cuts in just 1 or 2 edits, we make small changes to see how it looks. If you make large cuts to the content, it is very tough to add it back, because you forget what was cut out, and you end up perfecting what is left versus what should be left. This editing-by-attrition-process is important since it prevent mistakes, encourages discussions which uncovers your spike and leads to a better resume. As expected, the editing by attrition process cannot happen in 2 sessions, no matter who is editing the resume.

***

Now let’s discuss case training.

As mentioned above, it is tough to know if the problems reside with the services you used or your own use of them. There are surely good firms, good people and well-meaning people. Note that well-meaning does not correlate to competence. That said, case interview training is the Wild West in many ways. It is unregulated. Services shamelessly promote themselves, and people do buy into the hype. How do you know if someone is a good coach or know what they are talking about? You cannot know. Testimonials mean less than nothing. Let’s be honest, who is going to put up bad testimonials? What about unsolicited testimonials in forums etc.

When I read unsolicited testimonials about anything, let alone an unregulated sector, I fondly think of Enron. Just 12 years ago EVERYONE was singing the praises of Enron. It was a multiple company-of-the-year winner in Fortune Magazine no less, and everyone believed the hype. It was true then and will always be true today – people will believe whatever you tell them, despite glaring evidence in the annual reports. Doctored reports, yes, but there was more than enough evidence to see through the charade. From just the Enron debacle we can deduce that the majority of people are not analytical enough to deduce what works and what does not. We can also deduce 99% of people, even those with finance MBA’s, cannot read a balance sheet. Yet, that is for a different discussion.

The point is that people will believe what they want to believe and when they want to believe it. People will believe there is a 1% hope of achieving something even if all the data indicates otherwise. And everyone wants to believe that it is easy to get in Bain, BCG and McKinsey. That could not be further from the truth. It takes discipline and effort.

It always amuses that when I ask candidates immediately after their interviews how they think they did, they are never completely confident, but after getting an offer, they are adamant that it was due to x, y and z. And those reasons always paint the candidate in the best light.

Moreover, since most people cannot deduce quality, they rely on the collective wisdom of others. They read forums, usually populated by people who never got in, and have less than a 5% of chance of getting in. We receive so many emails about “a friend who got in from my school with only a 3.7 GPA and he told me that I must focus on my leadership to differentiate myself.” That is from an actual email. The problem here is that the friend is an outlier. Moreover, the friend, with all due respect, cannot know why he got it.

It always amuses that when I ask candidates immediately after their interviews how they think they did, they are never completely confident, but after getting an offer, they are adamant that it was due to x, y and z. And those reasons always paint the candidate in the best light. A candidate will never admit, or know, that McKinsey’s preferred choice turned them down and the candidate was the 3rd person on the list for the oil and gas practice. People bend the truth to make themselves look good. You need to unbend the distortion.

If you extrapolate this willingness to follow the mass consensus to case preparation information on the internet, do not buy into the hype, and do not follow the crowd. Unless you can clearly understand the value of doing/buying something, do not do it – ever. If you are relying on others feedback, then you are delegating critical reasoning to others. And if others were sufficiently analytical, they would not be using case interview preparation services in the first place. Ergo, they are not analytical and you should not be listening to them.

I am potentially talking about our own client base here, but we also insist that our own clients take accountability for their careers and not delegate decisions to the wisdom of the masses in forums. Just to be clear, if you do not see the benefit yourself, run. I insist our own clients ask tough questions as well.

If you insist on listening to others, get a large enough sample size and ignore people who went to Booz, ATK, and Deloitte S&O etc. With all due respect to these firms, they are not the same as the big three and we only focus on McKinsey and BCG, and to some extent Bain.

From where should you obtain information?

You need to win-with-winners. Translated to case interview preparation, it means listen to and work with people who are successful in consulting firms. Getting into McKinsey et al does not make you successful. About 70% to 80% of people who get an offer will be managed out, which is a euphemism for being fired. Staying and getting promoted makes you successful.

When I see someone with about 5 months to 2 years at Bain-BCG-McKinsey on their resume and no promotion, I immediately think they were managed out – usually because they were managed out, though not in all cases, but definitely the majority. Very, very few ambitious people will leave the ultimate CEO-finishing schools, consulting firms, without trying to progress up the ranks.

Why would you listen to someone who could not succeed at your target firm?

***

Before getting into your case interview performance, I have two assumptions to state.

The first assumption is that you actually did very badly in the mock case interview with the McKinsey manager. Some candidates tend to exaggerate their actual performance deficit; either by design, upbringing or for attention. For example, my physics lab partner used to have panic attacks every time we scored less that 95% on an exam. It was a crisis for her, and we once actually did not have the highest grade in the class. Oh, the horror! She had to go home that weekend to be consoled by her mom. I am assuming that is not your case, even though no details are provided.

The second assumption I am making is that your manager was interested in your performance and gave honest feedback. Poor interviewers default to giving “improvement” areas if they have not been paying attention in the case. At least this way, by providing improvement areas, they at least appear to have added value to your life. If an interviewer tells you any of the following or some derivation thereof, without explaining it to you, then he/she was probably not listening to you and you need to think carefully about what your performance actually was:

• “You must be more structured.”

• “You need better hypotheses.”

• “You need to be faster at math.”

• “You should be more MECE.”

This is rather obvious and if you could do it, you would do it. So getting this feedback is really a waste of time to you and rather disrespectful. It is a little like berating a homeless person for not having enough money to change his/her life.

Now let’s discuss your preparation. I can quickly see a few major mistakes you are making.

If you have poor technique to solve a case and you repeat that poor technique 120 times, you are simply ingraining a poor technique.

I noticed that the most important data piece in your feedback was doing “120 cases.” You are discussing quantity of cases over the quality of the sessions. Firmsconsulting has worked with just over 350 clients in the last 3 years. We keep detailed records in each person. I can tell you how many cases they did with us, how many questions they asked us, how many people practiced with case partners, how many times they practiced, how many math mistakes per session, communication gaps etc.

I can also tell you that the number of sessions you do is inversely correlated to your success.

That is very counter-intuitive so let me explain it. If you have poor technique to solve a case and you repeat that poor technique 120 times, you are simply ingraining a poor technique. If you had a good technique, you would have done well, but since you did not, we can assume the technique is at least part of the problem. Technique refers to the way you solve cases, and I am guessing you are framework obsessed since that is the way most people work. We hate frameworks since they prepare you for nothing useful. You need to focus on understanding cases from first principles and building frameworks from nothing but the original case interview question/information.

The other point is that 120 cases over 6 months are tiring to do. I cannot image you are giving them all sufficient attention to extract the appropriate lessons. We have an online library of cases and when a client rushes ahead to do many unnecessary cases well before our sessions, the system automatically converts their file to a bright crimson red. Rushing ahead is indeed such a major indicator of failure.

I want to tear my hair out when I see case books immediately starting candidates off from tough questions case interview questions. You need to layer the difficulty. You have to start with simpler cases and slowly work into more and more complex cases.

You should therefore make sure you have a good technique and then understand the concepts rather than trying to do as many cases in the hope of finding a familiar case in the interview. That is ultimately the flawed strategy of anyone who pursues quantity over quantity. Those pursuing quantity believe it is more important to see as many different types of cases as possible, versus understanding the underlying principles.

It is like doing math. A great math student will do a few cases and learn the core principles. They will then learn to apply it. A bad student does not really understand the underlying principles but hopes that if they do more, eventually, they would either understand everything or at least see a similar question in an exam. That is a bad strategy.

Keeping on the math theme, no one learns calculus without a fairly solid foundation in math. You need to build up to the point of taking on calculus. I want to tear my hair out when I see case books immediately starting candidates off from tough questions case interview questions. You need to layer the difficulty. You have to start with simpler cases and slowly work into more and more complex cases. It is like waking up and immediately going to run a marathon. It will not be pleasant experience since your body is not conditioned to handle the harsher pressures it will face.

Fatigue is another problem I see and for several reasons as well. 120 cases is a lot of cases. That alone will tire you. Imagine if you did the cases in the wrong order. Let’s assume you started with the tougher ones first since you did not know better. Can you imagine how difficult and frustrating that will be? You just keep going up against a tough problem and not sure why you are failing. Lack of success will lead to fatigue. Moreover, when you practice with peers, they tend to have little experience. They will blindly follow the case book and refuse to let you move on unless you tell them exactly what the case books lists. Doing this 120 times is painful.

There is another type of fatigue as well. If you constantly do easy cases, you start to simply go through the motions since you assume you will easily solve the case, and really, the case is not teaching you much to begin with. This is a very common problem. You then simply end up counting cases, since you assume the more you do the better you become. You should ensure that you always raise the difficulty level of cases each week. This keeps you challenged, encourages learning, keeps you on your toes and forces you not to take things for granted.

I kept this for the end since it is most important. You need good technique in 6 areas: communication, estimations/calculations, brainstorming, fit questions, BCG approach and answer-first approach. You have to be good in these areas.

The myth of demand side estimation cases is the greatest mistake taught in case books worldwide and is probably the worst technique a candidate should be using.

Communication is a huge problem across almost all candidates we have seen, including our own. Candidates are so technically focused on cases that they never think about how they will communicate their brilliant insights. I cannot stress how important communication can be and how central it is to cases. Cases are easy to teach. Delivering your solution in a manner which does not make you look like you are in pain is a very different issue altogether. We cover communication extensively in several podcasts, so please go through them all.

Watching candidates conduct estimation cases is a little painful. The myth of demand side estimation cases is the greatest mistake taught in case books worldwide and is probably the worst technique a candidate should be using. Fortunately, it is easy to fix. Again, I will not repeat things here. Simply listen to the podcasts. When trying to speed up your calculations, do not merely try to be faster. Look at the way you do calculations and see if it is an efficient way. Most candidates have a weak structuring of math problems which hurts them. Speed is an outcome of good structuring. I am sure if you could be faster you would. So if you are not, you are bumping against the limits of your technique, and not the limits of your memory to remind yourself to be faster. Becoming faster at arithmetic means redesigning your math approach, and that is tougher than it looks.

Brainstorming is well explained in several previous podcasts and many videos. I am going to include some commentary we previously discussed on brainstorming. Candidates who can brainstorm well will never need to memorize a case framework for the rest of their lives, or get stuck in a case when they cannot recall a framework. No matter how many frameworks they memorize there is bound to be a case which requires a type of analyses they have never seen before, and if they cannot brainstorm, they cannot develop the required analyses approach. Moreover, comfort with this technique plays a major role with confidence building since the candidate never needs to worry about facing a case without a bag full of frameworks. They will not need them.

Firmsconsulting does not teach frameworks. There are no high-five’s for using the correct framework. We encourage candidates to learn to solve cases from first principles and if a framework is ever used, we spend an inordinate amount of time testing their understanding of the approach. This understanding and the candidate’s ability to explain their reasons for using the approach, are far more important than the approach itself. In a simple test, we get candidates to introduce the 4P’s framework to us. Rarely does that go well.

Go ahead and watch Kevin Coyne, the ex-McKinsey worldwide strategy leader do cases in this format in Season 2 of The Consulting Offer – throwing frameworks at him just does not work.

Too many students are obsessed with memorizing frameworks to get offers. Too many online resources present frameworks as the only way to go ahead. Candidates must realize that about 50% of all McKinsey cases cannot be solved using a framework. Go ahead and watch Kevin Coyne, the ex-McKinsey strategy leader do cases in this format in Season 2 of The Consulting Offer – throwing frameworks at him just does not work.

We encourage our clients not to be someone who just does enough to get an offer. You really want to learn the correct approaches so that you can succeed after you join, and never get managed out. So do not just do enough to get the offer, use the effort expended preparing for consulting interviews to learn the correct techniques. That means brainstorming, decision trees and hypotheses development must be studied carefully. We find that candidates generally brainstorm in a very haphazard way. Most simply throw out ideas/solutions which they think best solve the problem they are brainstorming.

I am not going to discuss fit here since it is covered in numerous podcasts and does not appear to be an issue for you. All I can say is that every single student I have ever met tells us their fit is under control and they are weakest at cases. The reality is that they are much, much worse at fit. You need to really focus on understanding the detail around your stories.

The interviewer led and interviewee led approaches are different from the decision tree and answer-first approach. Do not confuse them. It is possible to do a both an interviewee-led and interviewer-led approach for both McKinsey and BCG. Read that line again since it is almost certainly the opposite of what you believe. So really take the time to understand the basics and do them well.

My concluding remarks are to remind you that your position is not unique. Most candidates find themselves in your position. Take a vacation, forget about cases and read this email again. When you start case interview practice again, start from the beginning and assume everything you did before was incorrect. If you do not make that assumption, you will likely retain some techniques which will hurt you – again.

Following is our email conversation with a young consultant, who had questions on the specializations in McKinsey, namely McKinsey Resources or McKinsey Financial Institutions.

“Dear Michael,

We have been in contact a few times in the past and you have always provided useful advice. I used the mining version of SAAMC and it helped me on my first few business development roles in a small mining company in Australia. I have an interest in mining and resources and want to consider joining McKinsey resources specialization.

I have both a masters’ degree in business administration and undergraduate degree in finance from highly regarded Australian schools – I have attached my résumé. Could you please offer some guidance for me on this?

I want to know if this is a sector in which I should specialize, in which country I should focus, and what would be my exit options in about 5 to 10 years. I want to know if this is a sector I could do impactful work. The other option is to follow the advice of all my friends who insist I should make the jump now and move to banking where I have some experience interning at a bulge-bracket bank.

JK”

***

Dear JK,

Thank you for your email. I thought your email was unusual due to the last few questions you asked. To me, it seems you are not sure if the resources sector will offer the momentum your career needs, and if not, you then want to consider the financial services sector as a potential focus area.

I am also not sure if you are picking McKinsey resources because you genuinely like the sector or feel it will guide you to a better career in the long-term. I will address that here as well.

You have not defined banking which is a behemoth of a sector so I will have to make some assumptions here. As well, you listed mining and resources separately. I will assume you just mean mining companies and will leave out energy companies. I will also ignore metals companies like Arcelor-Mittal which have backward integrated to buy mines in Liberia, and energy companies which may own mines.

I notice you ask about McKinsey, but will comment on BCG and Bain as well.

As always, I will offer very detailed responses. I do not believe generalist responses are of any use, and you probably have had access to those anyway.

In answering your question I will focus on 4 areas.

First, in general, is McKinsey (or BCG or Bain) resources a better sector than financial services for you – given that I have seen your résumé.

Second, the type of work you are likely to do.

Third, which regions should you target?

Finally, fourth, your explicit exit options.

If you have followed our website, you would know we have spent the last 6 months or so travelling through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and South-East Asia, en-route to Australia, South Africa and then Latin America – all meeting case interview and executive clients. These are not all trips related to resources and energy clients. We are meeting a lot of banking clients. For my first few years at BBM, 4 to be exact, I spent all my time working on corporate strategy banking engagements. Not marketing strategy, not operational improvement but board level corporate strategy.

So, I can make a very good comparison between this work and the resources sector. It is only later that I ended up moving to utilities and resources.

First question

To answer the first question, there is no way to know if the resources sector is one you would like more than banking. Having expertise in a field does not mean you will like it, nor does having a strong track record show interest. You have spent limited time in both fields, but have been rather successful.

Interest is completely driven by personal choices. I can tell you this though; you want to join a sector that is fast growing. Growing companies need people, have many opportunities, and usually afford more opportunities for employees to find interesting careers. In static or declining industries, that is less likely to happen.

That said, as a management consultant, you are not an employee. When resources companies grow they need consulting help on acquisitions, integration, portfolio strategies etc. When markets bottom-out, as they invariably do in every cycle, consultants are also needed to cut costs, improve efficiencies and, again, rebalance the cycle.

There has been a lot of ridiculous talk about a commodities super-cycle. In English that means a bubble without an end and that is plain impossible. Demand ebbs and flows and we are now in a decline. That still means plenty of consulting work.

My point is that both resources and financial services are massive sectors which always need consulting help. Just because a sector is shrinking, does not mean it does not need management consulting expertise. So be wary of drawing that conclusion and using it to influence your choice.

The same applies to banking work. Financial services may be a huge sector in a relative slow-down, but that does not mean consulting work has slowed. Our travels have involved about 70% of banking discussions with executives. In any market, and for the same reasons as in resources, management consultants are needed irrespective of the state of the sector.

My point is that both resources and financial services are massive sectors which always need consulting help. Just because a sector is shrinking, does not mean it does not need management consulting expertise. So be wary of drawing that conclusion and using it to influence your choice.

Let me give you a typical example. I was in Vietnam about 2 weeks ago and met the chairman of a substantial commercial bank. They had grown dramatically as the Vietnamese economy boomed but also incurred huge costs to upgrade their branch networks. Unfortunately, growth brings inflation and currency swings. The first was bad for the client since higher inflation drove up interest rates and borrowing costs for consumers, while also encouraged carry-forward trades, in other words speculative capital. Currency swings also hurt the banks investments.

For the bank, they assumed a projected increase in transaction revenues to pay off the upgrade costs. That is unlikely to happen as planned and now they need to consider what set of steps are needed to prevent a drop in earnings, which will invariably happen due to the higher upgrade costs. The last time I looked both McKinsey and BCG were vying for the work. Clearly lots of fees for a crown-jewel client and in a, relatively, declining banking sector. Though, Vietnam has plenty of room to grow and will easily shake of this economic speed-bump. This is an example of significant impact and work in a, for now, declining sector.

Second question

The type of work you are likely to do for BBM in resources is more uniform than in most sectors. That is a vital difference between the resources sector and say banking or retail.

There is a simple reason for this. BBM will, most of the time; do work for the larger companies. These companies tend to have operations around the world and surprisingly similar issues, except at the corporate strategy level.

The point is that many of their facilities overlap, and issues tend to be site specific versus company specific.

There are many ways to break down resources companies: ferrous, non-ferrous etc. I will use ownership and structure since that has a larger impact on consulting work done than the ore dug out of the ground.

The diversified multi-nationals like Xstrata, Anglo American PLC, Rio Tinto, and BHP Billiton etc have operations in over 30 countries each and largely in the same resources groups. So, if you are helping Xstrata with their coal-fields in their Cerrejon, Colombia coal fields you will likely do similar work for a rival as well. The point is that many of their facilities overlap, and issues tend to be site specific versus company specific.

There are of course outliers here, and that brings us to the other group of resources companies like Vale, Codelco, Debswana and a list as long as my arm for state-owned resources companies around the world, but heavily represented in Central Asia. They tend to be very inefficient. Readers may disagree with this comment but all you have to do is look at the Escondida copper fields in Chile, run by companies like BHP, and compare this operation’s efficiency to a neighboring field run by Codelco. The results, and shareholder returns, are stark.

Then we have, generally speaking, single-ore companies like Barrick, Gold Fields, De Beers etc. There issues are heavily regionally focused. Gold is found in just a few major deposits worldwide and the economic and regulatory issues will drive consulting issues. The same with platinum, diamonds etc.

I always like to point out that my colleagues in the transportation and bulk logistics sectors in Australia did more work in mining than outside mining.

The next, granted not a perfect, mix of resources companies would be those who are not a major diversified multi-national, not a state-owned company or not a largely single-ore miner. This is a huge group and maybe not the best way to group them all.

It is important to remember that mines are not just large holes in the ground. They are usually built in regions with distressing systemic failure, and mining companies typically build entire towns, power stations, living facilities, and transportation lines like rail and finally harbors to ship material. There is plenty to keep people busy for a long time. I always like to point out that my colleagues in the transportation and bulk logistics sectors in Australia did more work in mining than outside mining.

The work done at these groups, and companies, does vary substantially.

Xstrata’s head of strategy is Thras Moraitis. He is an ex-Monitor man but Monitor has not done a single piece of corporate or business unit strategy work at Xstrata. Although to be fair, neither has BCG nor McKinsey, and neither Ivan Glasenberg nor Mick Davis are the types to bring in outside help. That said, just about every consulting firm, including those listed above, have done lower level operational improvement projects for the various Xstrata divisions, which are organized by ore groups.

BHP Billiton is a traditional McKinsey client even before a McKinsey alum took the reins. Both McKinsey and BCG have done numerous studies on corporate strategy, organizational alignment, funding models, significant operational studies at all level and in all regions, marketing strategies, pricing studies etc. In other words, BHP is a sophisticated consulting client.

Bain, however, is not outdone in this space. They have a long-standing relationship with De Beers whereby they advised the company to end its cartel system. Alan Bird out of London leads that effort. The interesting thing about Bain is that they have not used that relationship to broker a substantial presence into Anglo American. Cynthia Carol has clipped the wings of most consulting engagements, for now anyway, and mostly hired in ex-consultants to do the work. That said, Bain London does do a lot of work in resources.

Codelco was advised by BCG on revamping their operating model to improve efficiencies. A significant study, it seems to have yielded little results as Codelco’s efficiency continues to drop as demonstrated by the soft-landing of its all-important ROIC measure. Codelco tends to have a lukewarm view towards the quality of the study. BCG still continues to do work at Codelco, but nothing yet in corporate strategy, and the poor results of the engagement have more to do with Codelco’s paternal culture than BCG’s capabilities. There will be much more about Codelco in a future posts.

JK, I could go through all the mining, energy companies etc and give you a run-down of the work done by consulting firms. I will not though, since I think you get the picture that the work is very diverse. It could be about mining, marketing, finance, organizational structures, transportation, regulatory economics etc. So do not only think about a hard-hat and shovel when you think about resources.

Banking is equally diverse in what you can do, and I am going to draw heavily on my own experiences here so I will not name clients. I can also provide a run-down of major consulting engagements actively being done at some key banks, but I think the examples below more than suffice.

I vividly recall when a major British bank decided that its subsidiaries where too loose with their procurement budgets. That particular engagement was a lengthy exercise to count the number of coffee cups in offices, printer cartridges, flower deliveries etc. It was not the most glamorous project but we could clearly see how the project was impacting earnings. I could not say that is an engagement I would want to manage again.

In another engagement we helped a Central Asian bank find a way to invest burgeoning profits from a booming economy. That was a very interesting project since we had to create an investment arm, develop a portfolio strategy, work with the 3 executives appointed to set up the fund and help vet the initial investments: an unusual project but also very exciting. Very few engagements in my 11 year career as a management consultant had that level of pace, impact and access to purely the most senior management. Cultural issues aside, when you need to pull the trigger on an investment, it is quite different from merely advising on it, and in this case, the executives made some of the decisions and negotiated the deals while the engagement was ongoing. So we could see the impact of our advice in real time.

Unfortunately fraud and risk control is a major problem at banks and in one project we reviewed the risk assessment approach a major Latin American bank used to manage portfolio volatility. The project was technically complex given the type of calculations we were doing, but also because we needed to understand everything the risk department had already done. A strong math or finance background would have been useful to everyone in the team, but we did have analysts without this background. The skills picked up on this engagement have stayed with me forever. Most people think about risk in very vague terms. In this project we were pricing risk and understanding the impact on the balance sheet and the hit the balance sheet could take if interest rates rose, inflation changed etc. When you decide that the bank must sell $20B of loans to SMME companies to reduce the exposure, it helps to sift through the loan documents and see some of the things people write in their applications. Many have mortgaged their lives, and irrespective of what happens, someone is going to get hurt. Our calculations had better be correct to ensure the shareholder pain must minimized without creating pain for the customers.

Clearly, both resources and banking can provide equally exciting or boring engagements, depending on what you find exciting.

Question three

This is an easy one. I really do not think you pick the region. I think it picks you. Banking can be found in every country so you can build this career anywhere. Though, I am guessing you are English speaking which immediately reduces your list to about 12 countries.

Banking can be found in every country so you can build this career anywhere.

Resources is also spread across a broad mix of countries but some countries have more significant mining sectors than others: Chile, Peru, Brazil, Canada, Russia, most of Central Asia, South Africa, Ukraine, India, China, Indonesia, Australia. There are obviously more, but these are where the majors operate, and that is where the major consulting firms operate.

Given language issues, you could reasonably target Canada, UK, South Africa, some areas in the Middle East and Australia. My advice is to stick to Canada and Australia.

The reason is simple. South Africa has a declining mining industry which is deep-level and very different from the rest of the world; moreover, while it has a sophisticated banking sector, not more so than Canada, the UK or Australia. As an associate you cannot pick your sectors when you start working and I think you will want exposure to resources and banking before you make a decision. Exposure to South Africa’s banking sector will not give you a proper experience.

London is fine as well, though all the work in mining will be outside London and, while it happens, the firm is not going to make you fly back all the time thereby affording you a chance to work on a UK engagement in financial services. The firm will likely keep you in the region for several projects. Now if London is doing international work, they are doing it mostly in Africa and Eastern Europe. Not places you will get the best banking exposure, though you could get that in London.

Though, being the leader of the internal strategy teams is a euphemism for being the baby-sitter to external consultants who will always be called in for the vital strategy work. At best, you will lead internal efficiency projects.

Mining is not big in the Middle East region. Oil and gas are but these are completely different sectors. The skills, knowledge, issues and economics will not be useful to most mining companies.

Question four

This is easy to answer. If you do well, you will join senior management in a resources firm or even go into banking management. That assumes you leave at the manager or associate principal level. Leaving at a lower level you will likely join the internal strategy teams, and higher you will likely lead the internal strategy teams.

Though, being the leader of the internal strategy teams is a euphemism for being the baby-sitter to external consultants who will always be called in for the vital strategy work. At best, you will lead internal efficiency projects.

The one thing you have not been clear about is what you mean when you say banking. It is a huge sector. Australian banking is dominated by integrated banks with a cross-section of asset management, investment banking, corporate banking, commercial banking trading, insurance, wealth management etc. I assume you mean one of these integrated banks as opposed to a specialist asset management or investment banking firm.

Where you end up is completely dependent on your specialization and/or ability to prove your skills are transferable. Consultants do move all the time from banking to consulting, but in generalist roles. You are not, ever, going to switch from management consulting to running a derivatives trading desk unless you have that skill and some experience, or willing to start at the bottom.

However, if you expect to take a senior banking role in a generalist or strategy position, it is completely possibly you could do that from a consulting firm.

My advice would be to target London, Toronto or Sydney. As an associate/consultant/senior consultant etc. you will not be able to specialize, and given the structure of economies around these offices, you will end up doing mining, banking and other work as well. That is needed exposure. You can then pick for yourself where you want to go. In this way, you have complete upside in choices and no downside.

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