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Partners Viewpoint Is this the decline of BCG?

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Murat* is a young, ambitious and disciplined Rotman MBA candidate. We met at Oliver & Bonacini’s on the corner of Yonge Street on an unusually warm recent Friday in mid-March. The son of an Egyptian store owner and the first in his family to graduate from college, he exhibits the qualities of someone who needs to protect his progress, for the sake of his family. He orders the smallest and cheapest item on the menu, and seemed a little surprised by the prices, even though it was our treat.

Murat had always had a plan to fix his family finances. He had loaded up on finance and quantitative courses at Rotman and had put aside all else in his career pursuits. “I knew it would either have to be investment banking or management consulting if I was to recoup the costs of my studies,” explained Murat. “So I focused on analytical courses and grades,” he continued.

His efforts did not work out as planned. Only Booz offered him any interviews for North America. Bain, BCG and McKinsey all turned him down.

“I was more than a little surprised when it happened,” explained Murat. “I did not even tell my parents. Even though everyone knew I was pursuing management consulting, no one really understood what that meant. They thought it was like an auditor,” continued Murat.

Even so, Murat could not bear to tell them his plans were failing.

“This was meant to be a global firm with global standards. If you are not good enough for one office you should not acceptable to all offices.”

Murat’s dreams would have been over were it not for a direct breach of BCG’s “global hiring policy”. A colleague from the Richard Ivey School in London, Ontario forwarded him the details of a BCG Dubai recruiting event to be held in Toronto, scheduled for after the BCG Toronto interviews were concluded. Surprised about the timing and not sure if he was eligible, Murat contacted the BCG Senior Partner leading the event, Sri Aparajithan, who confirmed he would be eligible to apply even if he had been rejected by the Toronto BCG office.

“I was still confused,” explained Murat. “How could I be rejected by Toronto and then apply to Dubai and be invited for an interview,” asked Murat. “This was meant to be a global firm with global standards. If you are not good enough for one office you should not acceptable to all offices.”

Murat contacted his career management team at Rotman for clarification and reached out to friends who were attending the event. The email response he received (on which we were blind-copied) indicated that “Applicants to the Toronto office that might have been declined, are free to apply again for the Middle East offices as they run separate interviews.” (italics are our own)

Murat attended the event, built great rapport with several partners and eventually applied to BCG Dubai despite his rejection from BCG Toronto – without an interview. Murat eventually interviewed at BCG Dubai but accepted an offer from a rival’s Qatar office.

Both the BCG Toronto and Dubai offices declined to comment on the story.

How does the Dubai consultant act if he/she was rejected by the very team she is now helping? How can this practice be good for teamwork, collegiality and BCG’s image?

In essence, this implies consultants unacceptable to one office may be acceptable to another. In an organization which prides itself on its global standards, this practice tells us that standards are not global. The implications are profound at an operating, values and culture level.

Imagine a situation where the Toronto and Dubai offices need to be jointly staffed on an engagement. It is human nature for consultants to attempt to out-do each other and it is not inconceivable for the Toronto consultants to assume they are better than some of their Dubai peers who may have likely been rejected in Toronto. How does the Dubai consultant act if he/she was rejected by the very team she is now helping? How can this practice be good for teamwork, collegiality and BCG’s image?

The more pressing questions are left for Toronto. How is it that a candidate can be accepted into the Dubai office, which is easily one of the most competitive of BCG’s global locations, but not be appropriate for Toronto, which is a smaller and less competitive location? Even if the argument is made that Dubai requires different skills in its consultants, a weak argument which would be very difficult to make, why is Toronto not accepting these candidates for an interview at least and passing them along to Dubai?

***

May*, does not know why either. Another Rotman MBA candidate, her application was declined for Toronto, her first choice, and not forwarded to Istanbul, her second choice. May’s resume is outstanding, with excellent GMAT scores, GPA, work experience and envious leadership roles in the arts. When she contacted the Istanbul recruiting manager, she was informed her application had never been received – Toronto did not even bother forwarding her resume.

“I was more than a little upset,” explained May. “BCG sells itself as being this great and global firm with global connections and they cannot even circulate my resume. I can understand if this was a new office, but this is Toronto and I would expect better systems and screening standards. They should at least do what the system says, and that is forward my resume to the next office if I met the screening criteria.”

May eventually secured an interview at BCG, but only after reaching out to her second and third choice offices directly, thereby bypassing the online system. We saw her application pack: resume, cover letter, 6 reference letters, sample writing and academic transcripts all making up a hefty 2MB for downloading.

One could argue these are minor problems, but consulting firms are asset heavy in people only. Every day those assets leave through the front door. On the flip-side, if BCG is not effective in bringing in the correct people, how long can the firm hope to challenge McKinsey?

***

Stella’s experience is different but paints a no less worrying a portrait of lax recruiting standards at the firm. Stella is a 29 year old design director at an arts foundation. This vibrant blond has the personality of Katherine Heigl with the looks of Blake Lively. That sometimes disguises the fact she is one intense lady.

Her friends cite the incident when she stayed awake for 28 hours to complete her graduate team’s written report after her colleagues gave up and went to sleep due to sheer exhaustion. She redid her team’s work where it was incorrect, thereafter completed her own work and then submitted the assignment. She then went home, read her cases and went straight to class. The team received an A+ – the only such grade in the class for that paper.

Given her limited business experience, despite holding 4 degrees with distinctions from a top-5 US program, Stella was interviewed for the associate level at BCG. Although disappointed at not being considered for the consultant level, she enjoyed her interviews and loved the firm.

“If they knew I was at the consultant level, they should have made me that offer at the beginning. BCG partners should be good enough to assess my skills rather than relying on the assessment of McKinsey partners. In the future, how can I be certain the firm is not withholding other rewards I deserve? [I] cannot.”

“Once I got the offer I was ready to sign – I just wanted to be over with the exhaustive process,” explained Stella. “Some of my very close friends still encouraged me to write the McKinsey PST and at least go for the interviews to compare the two firms. So I did,” continued Stella. “BCG had not yet sent my offer letter so I had no reason to not attend the McKinsey interview.”

McKinsey interviewed Stella for the associate level – one level above the BCG offered level. She received a written offer from McKinsey within 2 days of the verbal agreement. BCG tried to turn on the charm after Stella mentioned she was in the final round at McKinsey. They brought her in for coffee, took her out for lunch, dinners and numerous sessions with partners. They did not want to lose her and promised Stella an accelerated 6-month program as an associate, which would lead to a promotion thereafter to consultant. The managing partner of the office, and region, called several times to convey how much they valued her profile and looked forward to helping her build her career.

During this time, BCG never knew Stella was being interviewed for the McKinsey associate level, specifically, or that an offer had been extended. Once Stella disclosed this information, BCG started comparing the firms.

“I was very uncomfortable with the way BCG handled this,” explained Stella. “The BCG partners started making vacuous comparisons to McKinsey. They said McKinsey was not growing fast enough and I had a better chance of making partner at BCG – due to this growth. They trotted out a few managers and consultants who had been retrenched by McKinsey, due to the lack of growth-driven promotions, and hired by BCG,” elaborated Stella.

“I thought this was strange since it sounded like BCG was hiring people who could not survive at McKinsey. They even compared salaries, which I thought was tasteless. I was not doing this for the money.”

Stella declined BCG and accepted McKinsey’s offer, when BCG relented and tore up her associate offer and countered with a consultant (equivalent to associate at McKinsey) offer.

In Stella’s words, “If they knew I was at the consultant level, they should have made me that offer at the beginning. BCG partners should be good enough to assess my skills rather than relying on the assessment of McKinsey partners. In the future, how can I be certain the firm is not withholding other rewards I deserve? [I] cannot.”

At which point of its existence did BCG partners stop relying on their own interview assessments and begin making changes just because McKinsey thought otherwise.

Stella accepted the McKinsey offer even though it was 31.4% less than BCG’s. In emerging markets, salaries do not typically exist within a tight range like in the US.

In most emerging markets, McKinsey has the strongest brand, and can offer the lowest salary. BCG tends to offer a slightly higher salary on average, followed by Bain with an even higher salary. This pattern can, however, change depending on immediate hiring needs and opportunities.

Stella raises a good point here. At which point of its existence did BCG partners stop relying on their own interview assessments and begin making changes just because McKinsey thought otherwise. Some would say this was BCG’s response given the huge skills deficit and demand for talent, but that is hardly an argument. Is there any excuse for speaking ill of one’s competitors? Every minute spent tearing down a competitor is a minute not spent building oneself.

***

Jabs*, as he likes to be called, is not your average analyst. Not many people wear a bright red velvet blazer for coffee in the blazing summer weather. The first thing he does when he sits down is to turn around, flip up his collars and show off the bright pink design underneath. “Cool and distinctive,” says Jabs.

Jabs is not average for several other reasons. How many 22 years olds arrive for coffee in a customized Aston Martin? How many have fathers owning a professional sports team? How many have their father rated amongst the country’s wealthiest men? Not many.

Jabs journey into BCG matches his life. It was not average. We spent about 26 hours preparing him for cases since we felt he was weak on several core skills. On the day before the interview, we spent 5 hours in a marathon session to ensure Jabs understood brainstorming and decision trees. We spent an inordinate amount of time improving his communication skills so that he appeared older than he really was. We had to reinvent his image. On the day of the interview, we kept him on the line until he reached BCG’s offices and we even spoke between his interviews. He needed the moral support. Turns out he did not need the case coaching.

Jabs must be the only analyst interviewed exclusively by senior partners and with no case interviews at all, and he must certainly be an expert on economic commentary if 4 senior partners wanted to hear his views.

Jabs was not given any cases. His first interview consisted of a series of questions about his background and career aspirations. He messaged us on his Blackberry before his second interview, “This is too easy.” His second interview consisted of a series of discussions about the economy and “his” thoughts on the unfolding economic problems. Easy, indeed.

We though this must be a pre-interview, until Jabs gave us feedback on his second round. It was the same thing again but with different partners. Jabs must be the only analyst interviewed exclusively by senior partners and with no case interviews at all, and he must certainly be an expert on economic commentary if 4 senior partners wanted to hear his views.

Jabs was sanguine about his experience, “I thought my interviews were easy – definitely not as bad as the forums made them out to be. I thought the partners were very friendly and polite. We discussed my hobbies, a few business issues and it was just a really a pleasant experience. I was brought in as a trainee analyst and worked on some cool projects in telecoms and mining.”

Jabs is a good candidate. He probably could, there are of course no guarantees, received an offer if he had been put through the complete and conventional interview approach. We cannot judge a candidate by the pinkness of his collars, but we can ask why BCG did not afford him the privilege of earning his appointment through extensive case interviews.

We cannot speculate what was going through the minds of the BCG partners hiring Jabs. A more cynical person could infer that since BCG was just entering this new market, and Jab’s father, and family was among the most powerful and influential business people in the country, BCG was trying to curry favor.

***

Four stories: across four continents, four offices and four countries. One common theme.

Why are global standards not being applied to BCG applicants? Is there a turf war between offices or are partners not willing to make the extra effort to help another office? Is that not the basis of a global partnership? Younger, and less experienced professionals, may write off these incidents as just that: mere anomalies and outliers which prove the rule of BCG’s consistency. They are not. These stories are examples of similar issues we have seen over the past12 months.

Why are global standards not being applied to BCG applicants? Is there a turf war between offices or are partners not willing to make the extra effort to help another office?

Truly great firms, as opposed to fads, do not get wiped out by economic meteors. BCG partners know this and counsel their clients as such. Obsolescence happens by a process of attrition. Mediocrity is a lead indicator. It happens even as revenue and profits surge. As Mayor Giuliani indicated through applying the broken windows theory, these small problems, which many would ignore, snowball into systemic issues when people see a broken window, assume it is a bad neighborhood and are willing to engage in worse behavior.

The firm has been obsessed with catching up to McKinsey by building gleaming new offices in new countries. BCG’s windows are broken. It needs to go back to basics and repair its windows.

* The names of all interviewees have been altered to protect their identities. All candidates interviewed for this story corroborated the information presented by sharing emailed correspondence with BCG. We continue to think BCG is a great firm and have traditionally provided them the benefit of any doubt. We hope this article encourages the appropriate action from their side.

Comments

2 responses to Is this the decline of BCG?

  1. Hi Nam,

    Sorry to hear about this. I really am.

    My advice is to not to give up. If your grades are really high and you have a solid resume then I would recommend you apply. You can send me a copy of your resume to michael@firmsconsulting.com if you want feedback.

    I think it is no secret there is some animosity between Asian nations and some citizens are looked down upon by citizens of other countries. Have you listened to this podcast: http://www.firmsconsulting.com/podcasts/sanda-on-joining-mckinsey-bcg-et-al/

    It is a story of a lady from a poor SE Asian nation whom we placed into MBB despite several early rejections. She had a similar experienced to you so I would listen to this for some motivation and come up with a plan to approach the partner.

    If your resume and profile is good, then you have nothing to loose.

    Michael

  2. Hi Michael,

    I just receive letter from BCG refusing to interview. I applied for Vietnam office which is my home country. A recruiting in Thailand was in charge of recruitment for 4 offices including Thailand, indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. BCG opened the vietnam office in december 2013 and are looking for the first employees. I was bit surprised receiving the refusal letter. Although my MBA school in Japan is not target school, my profile was good with top GPA and a lot of winning competition and activities. Should i try to connect the partner in Vietnam to save the situation? the email informed me to waste 2 years more before i can reapply without any explaination.

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