Tell me about yourself. Tell me about a time when you led a team. Tell me about a time when you were not in a position of formal authority, but led a team of more than two people to develop a creative solution – and, while you’re at it, perform two backflips in rapid succession. Preparing for behavioural interview components, or “FIT” assessment, of a consulting interview can be daunting, especially if you’ve only ever successfully executed a single backflip in previous practice sessions. Hyperbole aside, it is natural to feel like you are being asked to consider (and present, immediately and coherently) personality traits or skills that you have not even known candidates should have!
While it’s true that a career in management consulting demands many professional faculties (ethical integrity, an ability to work under pressure and time constraints, a penchant for deep analytical insights, and a great deal of patience for client interactions are just the tip of the iceberg), it’s too easy to overestimate the number of personal development facets you need to highlight in your interview “stories.”
Say that an interviewer has asked you to talk about an accomplishment you’re proud of. You shouldn’t be scrambling to wonder whether the accomplishment will be worthy of pride in her eyes, or if she’s testing an ability to avoid repeating what’s already on your written resume. Instead, you should already have a rough idea about what all behavioural interview / FIT (or PEI, “Personal Experience Interview,” if you’re applying tp McKinsey) questions are there to probe, right? So, you should be hedging your bets against – and diligently practicing – ways to render, as demonstrable as possible, that subset of select, canonical qualities which FIT questions are meant to bring out.
In true consultant fashion, I will spend the remainder of this article arranging all these qualities into three “broad buckets,” to counter the gross inefficiency and misguided initiative behind many novice candidates’ attempts to inquire, of each behavioral interview question, “but what is this one really asking?” Indeed, keen readers will realize that this threefold division is one not merely into analysis buckets, but something akin to a list of direct drivers for the interviewer’s decision process to pass a candidate in the FIT portion of a consulting interview. Specifically, their names taken together might (in everyday usage) imply a degree of overlap, but you will see that these three categories are actually quite MECE.
Perhaps the most salient factor in distinguishing the “consultant” role from others in the business world is the extreme emphasis of the former on analytical problem solving. At the end of the day, what are management consultants but “brains for hire” to solve mankind’s toughest problems? It’s likely that you’ll never be asked to “discuss your analytical skills” in a behavioural interview, since your performance on the case (against the backdrop of your track record, encapsulated in turn by your resume) will be the primary reflector of your analyticity primarily. How, then – and why – are analytical skills to be assessed during your behavioural interview evaluations?
Often, it is all but assumed that candidates with quantitative backgrounds are analytical by default. Yet, as noted in Podcast #65 of the Case Interviews & Management Consulting series and elsewhere on FIRMSconsulting, you can be “quantitative” while not quite being “analytical.” For example, building an Excel model that can measure the average disbursal rate on bond yield curves conveys know-how with tools of the trade, and maybe some adeptness with numbers… but not necessarily an analytical propensity.
To understand why you should still make a special effort to showcase this quality, let’s go back to basic definitions. What makes a candidate appear adequately analytical, from the eyes of a top consulting firm?
Partner Michael Boricki states in the afore-referenced podcast, “being analytical means that you carefully think through your arguments, you carefully think through what you’re trying to do, and ensure that you are both answering the question that is presented to you and answering the right question – and that is a skill that is not exclusive to people with quantitative backgrounds.” In an example, he mentions interviewing highly analytical candidates who were trained in law, literature, history, and even the arts. So, if the first thing that comes to mind is that proverbial Excel model, how can you exhibit the same kind of analytic thinking that these interviewees brought to the table?
Michael walks us through how you can use the Excel example to relate how you applied your analytical thinking skills. To do this, you can talk about how you used the model, or even its outputs, to challenge key assumptions of the project in whose context the model was built — or, maybe, to disprove a particularly costly assumption for your client! Did you come to the insight that your team’s model wasn’t quantifying (or testing) the right thing? Did that prompt you to revise the modeling procedure in a way that led directly to some quantifiable impact, or to investigate something else entirely?
The notion of assessing analytical skills — in short, your capacities for arriving at deep insights by taking problems apart — outside of the “case” portion of a consulting interview can be thought of as complementary to the observation that communication skills, typically associated with behavioural interview / FIT, are also assessed throughout each case problem you solve. Practice making a clear and explicit distinction between your mathematical abilities and analytical skills from the outset.
McKinsey & Co. is not a strategy firm. The modern image that McKinsey projects might be more accurately characterized as one of a “leadership firm,” and you can bet your dollar that the MBB (“McKinsey, BCG, and Bain”) firms have a very specific meaning for leadership in mind.
During your behavioural interview / FIT presentations, the top consulting firms will want to hear repeatedly that you looked detractors and imminent failure in the eye — and, crucially, when the smoke cleared — you bore out a consistent track record of /driving results and creating personal impact. To the big consulting names, leadership is something less akin to, say, starting and running a club than persistently engaging a given executive to influence her in a positive way about some important, project-related decision. How can one summarize the precise kind of leadership needed for behavioural interview / FIT?
First of all, note that not just any dogged persistence of a stakeholder, and certainly not any kind of coercion, would qualify as leadership in the context of work where the relationship and reputation with clients are paramount. This means that consulting “leadership” must include a sort of charisma: beyond simply sounding knowledgeable or persuasive, you need to be able to relay a signal that you can be trusted to deliver results without inciting any social backlash.
With this in mind, let’s again defer to definition a la Boricki, who says that leadership has multiple components. First, your leadership stories must begin with you working on something important, for which you must have identified the most crucial steps for attaining the goal. That much is natural — but then, you must also relate how you encountered some resistance, from a team member, say, whose actions were antagonistic to these solid plans. Finally, you must have tried to convince the antagonist to “change their mind … without alienating them.” This last part is of prime significance. As established in Podcast #124 of the aforementioned Case Interview & Management Consulting series, the canonical notion of leadership at McKinsey and like-minded institutions is “at its core … about influencing a group of people to undertake and complete an initiative of importance.” You might have to do such things on a daily basis as the leader of actual consulting projects, so it’s a trait you’ll need to exhibit from before Day 1 at “the Firm” — that is to say, during the FIT / behavioural interview.
I think it’s fair to say that (top-notch) interviewers are assessing initiative and leadership qualities in every single FIT-based interaction, possibly even more so than analytical skills, which should reflect on the resume via your achievement bullets, and in some sense are pre-qualifying factors that help advance you to an interview in the first place. While you can be asked about an analytical achievement or two in the context of an interview, it is a lot harder to fake leadership — and, therefore, will need to be more firmly established during a FIT assessment / behavioural interview. Interestingly, vetting a candidate based on great leadership potential (insofar as such qualities are treated as express role requirements during screening) remains one thing that sets consulting interviews apart from the FIT-style interviews for other popular careers — say, in banking or data science — where leadership chops are still desirable, but not always emphasized in such an up-front way).
According to the above definition, leadership attributes are exercised in the context of team endeavors. Yet, when an interviewer asks you a question for which you must imply having a history of teamwork capabilities, it is actually best not to give a canned “leadership” example; separations must be made between those situations in which you occupied a formal position of authority and those in which you “stepped up” to rise to a demanding occasion. In no uncertain terms, it serves the interviewee to learn this distinction well, even if any particular interviewer downplays, or identifies as being agnostic to, the issue.
Let’s hammer this in. Again, leadership stories are about influencing a group of people to undertake and complete some initiative of importance. This typically requires you to have a role where you held a position of authority over, or responsibility for, others. Consequently, this also means that you are the primary beneficiary of the result, as the front-facing representative of a team. On the other hand, accounts of “teamwork” skills — equally important to articulate during a FIT examination / behavioural interview — encompass essentially none of the final, direct “credit” that the leader of an engagement would get (since the whole idea of being a good “team player” is about doing what is necessary for the overall health or productivity of one’s cohort, emphatically without regard for, or solicitation of, such accolades).
It’s time for some examples. In Podcast #124, the line of demarcation is drawn between “control versus lack of control,” so let’s examine what happens when that variable changes. Say you volunteered to lead something. If, as a result, you were designated or appointed to lead the initiative, you’ve got yourself a leadership story. If someone else is leading, and you are working on one part of the initiative, but request permission to spend time helping with other parts, you are displaying teamwork qualities. In particular, the team’s output has increased without formal control of team resources changing hands — instead, you’ve had to influence those in control for a chance to support your group, maybe even teach a new skill to certain members, in a context where you were unambiguously not “in charge.”
One might say that, if Ph.D.- holding MBB candidates tend to lack any of the above three principal FIT / behavioural interview qualities “on paper,” it would be teamwork. Not only can a doctoral candidate look outside the university for ways to take on more team-oriented responsibilities — they can even, preemptively, bias their resume bullets to reflect solid teamwork capabilities before doing FIT / behavioural interview. FIRMSconsulting Insiders, or anyone subscribing to the TCO programs, should watch Felix’s first few sessions (on resume editing) to attain a firm grasp and internalize some good examples.
The three traits discussed above exhaust the principal capacities that a good consultant should draw upon on the job: one needs to effectively influence people in the face of adversity (show outstanding leadership abilities), support one’s cohort, advocating for the group’s overall health, efficiency, and productivity (show evidence of extensive, positive teamwork experience), and — without a doubt — be able to “see,” or generate, deep insights that others might not have been able to grasp in a timely manner (possess excellent analytical power). This is why, to a large degree, all FIT / behavioural interview questions are geared toward eliciting stories that exemplify qualities from one or more of the three buckets provided for illustration here.
In the end, candidates still need to understand what each individual question is asking — but rather than get lost in a maze of meanings or subtle implications about what makes people adept at navigating the world of business, the entire, seemingly endless list of requirements can be boiled down to some version of the simple triad presented here. We encourage interviewees to listen in detail to the podcasts here (and subscribers, to the training episodes), to better arm themselves not with the knowledge of “what is going to be asked,” but with an understanding of what will be demanded of them as future consultants.
Kevin Coyne said equal playing field, we envision … proud to share.
This article was contributed by Joe, a valued member of the FIRMSconsulting community.