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Why did this candidate ignore the McKinsey partner?

This is the feedback a reader sent in just 5 hours ago after his first of three interviews with a McKinsey partner. The problems experienced by the candidate in his McKinsey partner interview are surprisingly common.

We have noticed this pattern before, especially if you watch Alice and Michael in Season 2 of The Consulting Offer. When I was a principal, I also noticed this. I think the problem has become much worse with the large amount of poor advice on the Internet.

Interview with a McKinsey partner

“Hi Michael,

I just came back from one of my 3 final round interviews.

The remaining two are on Sunday.

The McKinsey partner was aggressive, which I had anticipated, but there was something that felt strange, it felt like he was trying to stop my progress. I got feedback right after the interview and I was very confused by it.

Two parts of the interview and feedback really confused me:

1. During the interview he asked me “How do you influence people?”.

He kept insisting that I should be theoretical, and not go into specific examples. When I tried to give him examples he said: “I don’t want to know details. I just want to know how you influence people”.

He actively stopped me from giving examples.

2. He gave me the case, which was a profitability problem for a bank. I proceeded to make an issue tree, which was broken down into customer types, product lines, and finally revenue streams and cost structure for each one of these branches.

I started walking him through the different parts of my tree when he interrupted me and moved me onto the next part of the case.

So I assumed that this was all part of a stress interview and that I had at least handled him properly.

Immediately after I left the office, the HR lady called me and gave me the feedback:

1. I did not give examples for how I influence people.

2. I did not cover enough issues in my issue tree.

HE STOPPED ME FROM COMPLETING BOTH! How on earth is this proper feedback?

He actively stopped me from completing my discussion of the issue tree and then he said that I didn’t complete it. I told the HR lady that if you look at my notes that I left behind they would see a COMPLETE AND 100% MECE issue tree.

I have two more interviews on Sunday and I am concerned that there is not much that I can do, even though my first round feedback was excellent.

What do I do?”

Feedback in three parts: PEI, case and feedback call

I am going to split my feedback into three parts: 1) The PEI, 2) the case and 3) the feedback call.

McKinsey PEI

With regards to the HR lady stating you did not provide examples, I think she meant examples of the influence framework you apply in your mind. She was not referring to examples where you applied that framework. That is what you are misunderstanding.

The way the McKinsey partner used the word example is different from the way the HR person is using it. You can have examples of frameworks and examples where you applied the framework. They are mutually exclusive.

The McKinsey partner wanted examples of the leadership framework you use, and it sounds like you did not provide these. He was not asking for examples of how you applied the framework.

This misunderstanding aside, the main mistake the candidate is making here is very obvious.

He is ignoring the McKinsey partner, and quite blatantly at that. The McKinsey partner is being very specific in that he does not want to hear examples of applying the framework, but the candidate is ignoring that request and insisting on providing examples of the application.

An example of the application and an explanation of the framework are very different.

Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are examples of planets.

The theoretical definition of a planet is a body of matter, which orbits a star without orbiting another body of matter. Our moon, for example, can orbit both Earth, a planet, and ultimately go around the Sun with the Earth.

Other scientists could have a different theoretical construct to define a planet and that is all fine and well.

Do you notice how different these answers are?

Typically, candidates give examples of the application when they cannot explain their underlying reasoning. This McKinsey partner is being specific in testing whether or not the candidate understands why he approaches these leadership moments as he does.

It is much more difficult to explain the reasoning behind something without application examples, and I would argue that most candidates struggle to do that.

Was this McKinsey partner being tough or placing the candidate under stress? I do not think so. The reason I think not is because this candidate obviously misjudged a fairly direct question from the interviewer. So I do wonder if the candidate’s judgment on the interviewers manner was equally misplaced.

I have seen this often where a candidate will ignore the question asked by an interviewer and follow advice offered in a blog. Blogs are usually written by associates and recruiters. Associates do not make decisions on interview offers. Partners make them. Period.

Why would you ignore the McKinsey partner, who makes the decision, to listen to an associate, who does not make the hiring decision?

Full McKinsey Case

I do not have sufficient information here, but I can still see where you are likely making a mistake. The McKinsey partner did not say your framework is incorrect. Frankly, as a partner, we do not care about frameworks as much as you would think.

Associate and engagement managers do, because in the rounds when they interview, they need to check if you hit on the issues that the recommended solution asks for.

When you get to interviews with partners, they are more interested in your reasoning, logic and ability to make sound inferences from the data.

So, you are confusing the feedback to assume he is saying your framework was insufficient. You point out he moved your analyses to another area of the case. That is completely normal. I do that all the time. He is not stopping you or hindering you, he is helping you focus on the main area of analyses.

I believe that when he pointed you to the main area of analyses you did not identify all the issues that needed to be analyzed there.

So do not confuse framework with issues.

The feedback call

While your feedback demonstrated significant improvement areas, you compounded your mistakes enormously in the feedback call.

Never ever imply the partner is wrong.

What did you think was going to happen? A recruiter from human resources was going to go back to McKinsey partner and ask him to change his feedback because your structure was complete and MECE?

You do realize a recruiter is a junior person? They have zero influence on the hiring decision. If you go on the Internet, blogs, forums etc., you will find plenty of ex-McKinsey and ex-BCG calling themselves recruiters. That position means nothing since it has no power to grant you the offer.

A recruiter is a consultant who sifts through resumes using a formula to sort out likely candidates. In other words they are glorified assistants. It is a term ex-consultants use to sound important when it is not.

Your reaction in this call indicated to the HR manager that you are not open to feedback. While she may not have influence on the hiring decision, she could let the McKinsey partner interviewing next know about your response.

I am going to respond to each of your points below for clarity:


He did not stop you. In the first PEI you were not answering his question. That is your mistake and he was trying to help you by restating the question. In the situation with him changing the analyses area of the case, he also did not stop you, but moved you to one area for discussion.

You assumed being MECE and having a pretty structure was enough. It is not. You need to focus on the areas the partner wants to analyze.

“How on earth is this proper feedback?”

It is clear and direct feedback. You need to listen to partners and not assume having a framework is enough in a case. You seem to have failed to outline the issues in the area he was looking for.

I also suspect you were not prioritizing your analyses. You appear to have wanted to explain each part, and maybe, eventually you would have raised the issue he wanted to discuss.

Always prioritize and analyze the area he wants you to analyze. It takes far too long for you to work your way through a tree, and it is better to use hypotheses if your tree is too big.

The big lesson here for you is a lack of prioritization.

“He actively stopped me from completing my discussion of the issue tree and then he said that I didn’t complete it.”

He did not say that.

He said that you did not raise the issues he wanted to discuss in the area he wanted analyzed. You assume you would have raised the issues if you completed your tree. That is a big assumption and even if it is true, then why were you not able to raise the issues when he pointed you to the prioritized area?

If you knew the issues, you should have been able to discuss them.

Therefore, the McKinsey partner is correct. He pointed out an area for discussion and you did not raise the issues in that discussion.

“I told the HR lady that if you look at my notes that I left behind they would see a COMPLETE AND 100% MECE issue tree.”

This, could come back to hurt you. It also shows me that you need to understand cases have little to do with structures. There are lots of partner cases where we do not even use structures. 50% of McKinsey final round cases cannot be solved with a structure. That is a scary but true statistic.

You can do a whole lot more based on my comments above. Your first round was not with partners. You are now in a whole new ball game. Raise your standards and look at how Kevin and I do cases. You will need to bring more than a structure/framework that is MECE, and you will especially need to tackle cases where frameworks cannot be used.

I would honestly watch Season 1 and 2 more carefully to watch how partners conduct cases. It is not like what you read on the Internet.

The singular piece of advice: listen to the partner and answer his question – not the question you think he should be asking.


Image from Jon Herbert under cc.

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