In episode 54 of the Graduate Job Podcast I am joined by Jeff Kavanaugh, VP and Managing Partner at global consulting giant, Infosys, as he shares his insights and tips into how to start your career as a management consultant. As head of campus recruitment for Infosys, Jeff is able to share brilliant advice on all aspects of the management consulting recruitment process. We cover the skills needed to excel in consulting, how to make the most of a management consultancy recruitment event, and how to make that all important good first impression. We also delve deep into the dreaded consulting case study, examining what they are, the different types of structured and unstructured case study questions that you might face, through to Jeff’s brilliant advice on how to answer them with ease every time. No matter where you are in your jobsearch, and no matter what companies you are applying to, this is an episode which you are not going to want to miss. As always, all links to everything we discuss and a full transcript are available in the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/consulting. Right, lets head straight over to my chat with Jeff.
MORE SPECIFICALLY IN THIS EPISODE YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- The skills needed to excel in management consulting
- The importance of goal setting in getting a job as a consultant
- How to make the most of a management consultancy recruitment event
- How to make a good first impression at consulting job interview
- The secrets of acing a consulting case study
- The types of case study questions you will face and how to answer them
- What to expect from a partner interview
- Jeff’s website
- Jeff on Twitter – Tweet him to tell him you liked the episode
- Jeff’s website recommendation – http://valuebasedmanagement.net/ Highly recommended!
- Jeff’s book tip 1 – The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – Edward R. Tufte
- Jeff’s book tip 2 – Contact – Carl Sagan
If you liked this episode check these out:
- My interview on assessment centres with Kath Houston
- My interview on assessment centres with Denise Taylor
- My interview on how to impress in interviews with Jon Gregory
- Graduate Job Podcast Survey – Just 3 questions, let me know the shows you would like to see
- Click here to subscribe on Itunes
- Click here to subscribe on Spotify
Episode 54 – How to get a job as a management consultant, with Jeff Kavanaugh
James: Welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast, with your host James Curran. The Graduate Job Podcast is your weekly home for all things related to helping you on your journey to finding that amazing job. Each week I bring together the best minds in the industry, speaking to leading authors, entrepreneurs, coaches and bloggers who bring decades of experience into a byte size weekly 30 minute show. Put simply, this is the show I wish I had a decade ago when I graduated.
James: Hello and a very warm welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast, for this my first show of 2017. One of my new year’s resolutions is to be more regular in getting episodes out, so if I haven’t released an episode in a week or so send me a gentle prod/reminder/abuse on twitter telling me to sort myself out. But like the London new year’s firework display we are starting with a bang, as for episode 54 of the Graduate Job Podcast I am joined by Jeff Kavanaugh, VP and Managing Partner at global consulting giant, Infosys, as he shares his insights and tips into how to start your career as a management consultant. As head of campus recruitment for Infosys, Jeff is able to share brilliant advice on all aspects of the management consulting recruitment process. We cover the skills needed to excel in consulting, how to make the most of a management consultancy recruitment event, and how to make that all important good first impression. We also delve deep into the dreaded consulting case study, examining what they are, the different types of structured and unstructured case study questions that you might face, through to Jeff’s brilliant advice on how to answer them with ease every time. No matter where you are in your jobsearch, and no matter what companies you are applying to, this is an episode which you are not going to want to miss. As always, all links to everything we discuss and a full transcript are available in the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/consulting. Right, lets head straight over to my chat with Jeff.
James: I’m very pleased to welcome, all the way from Dallas, Texas, Jeff Kavanaugh, VP and Managing Partner at global consulting giant, Infosys, and also Adjunct Professor at the University of Texas. Jeff, a very warm welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast.
Jeff Kavanaugh: Great. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me on.
James: It’s a pleasure to have you on, and today, we’re going to discuss getting a job as a management consultant. But, before we do Jeff, to kick us off, would you like to tell us a little bit more about yourself, your journey, and how you came into consulting?
Jeff: Absolutely. Sounds a bit strange, but I’m just a farm boy from Indiana. Grew up and learned things about working on a farm. I think two things. One, you learn how to work, and two, you want to go into college, because you don’t want to be on the farm forever. Got an engineering degree from a good school in Indiana, Rose-Hulman, and went to the workforce, did a lot of high-tech work, Department of Defence, electronics, and then realized that an MBA was something I really wanted to round up the portfolio and the tool kit, and got my degree. I was doing it at night, kind of the hard way, like a lot of folks end up doing because they’re on the workforce already.
It was interesting because, at the time, some of the things we’re going to talk about today, I started to understand, it was too late to maybe go back and hit a reset. I had a wife staying at home, had a child, very much in the workforce. So, it really became a bit of a quest or a journey how to pick up a lot of these consulting skills or professional skills, analytical skills, and over the years, just refining them. Be able to test them, obviously, with clients, and offerings and engagements, training our people, talking to friends of mine who were at the McKinsey, Bain, BCGs, those integration firms, leading professors from different schools who had been focusing on this, analysts, and over the years, just teasing out what were just the critical essences, the distilled essence of what made some of these skills and this body of knowledge, I think, distinct, and that’s where I am.
I’ve gotten to our — I’m with the Infosys Consulting, like you mentioned. I look after high-tech and manufacturing consulting for North America. So, we work with companies ranging from aerospace, and defence, and electronics, automotive and industrial, process manufacturing, semiconductor softwares. So, a broad variety. A lot of the Fortune 50 and all the way down. Typically, they’re large companies, but sometimes, some of the rapidly-growing smaller ones. And so it’s a great opportunity to see a lot of these things and a lot of these skills practiced.
In addition, I’ve been asked and honoured to be on the board for Indiana University’s Institute of Business Analytics. So, applying a lot of these things in a business environment with analytics informatics, and then more recently with the University of Texas, helping them out in the marketing analytics area and actually doing some adjunct work and teaching a class on customer insights or developing insights. But, the reality is it’s about critical and creative thinking, and what happens before you see all those cool visualizations. What’s the story behind it and how do you use your thinking and your analytical skills to develop these things.
That’s kind of what I’m about. On a side note, I love tennis and spend time with my wife going out to some great restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. That’s it, James.
James: Thanks, Jeff. You also mentioned your role as being responsible for all of the recruitment for Infosys in the U.S. so I’ll be able to tease your knowledge of the other side of the fence.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s a classic example where I was pointing out to a person who took over as CEO recently that there were some gaps I thought in our recruiting process and here’s some ideas for him. He turned around and said, “Well, would you mind taking this on to make sure we get it right?” So, on the one hand, it was a bit of extra work, but it’s been a labour of love, and helping take our recruiting — we have some good things going already, but take it the next level and really see, first-hand, that these universities across North America what’s working, what’s not working, where the students are, who they think they are, and also what we need for them in the marketplace. I think we’re seeing the gaps and the specific skills students need to get jobs and also to be successful once they get them on the marketplace.
James: Super. I look forward to hearing your insights into just what you’re looking for in your candidates later on. But, before we start, let’s start with a nice easy one to kick us off. I know it’s a question that being a former management consultant myself, my mum always struggled with, but Jeff, how would you describe a management consultant? What do they actually do?
Jeff: A management consultant, really, that’s what any professional should do — solves problems, and doesn’t just solve the problem, a good one actually helps identify them. It’s a really important point. Our schools and most of our industries focus on the steps in problem-solving, and they’re good ones: scientific method, deductive logic, brainstorming, all those things that get you to a problem solved.
But, what is the right problem? If you’re a doctor, for example, no one comes to you with a problem. They come to you with symptoms, and there’s a diagnostic. So, diagnosis before you get to the prescription. And I think, as a management consultant, one key differentiating factor with, maybe, other industries is you’re on the hook to identify problems, conduct analyses, quickly pull things together. Socialize them so you aren’t just tossing out a recommendation, but it’s vetted, you’ve gotten proper feedback. It’s done with gravitas because you’re dealing with significant problems that affect senior executives. So, there are presentations that matter. More importantly, being able to help someone implement them, adopt them, execute, because the best idea that gets dust on the shelf doesn’t really drive value.
Then, I think the other aspect of a management consultant is you speak four languages. You speak the language of the senior executive, which is a financial language. Revenue, returns on investment, cost, etcetera, money. Second, you speak the language of an operational executive or mid-level management, what I call the operational metric, the derived metric. Maybe it’s order fill rate. It’s what the customer service function is doing and it’s handling some things like that. So, it’s still important and it’s fairly complex, just not quite strategic. It’s more, like I said, operational. Third language is the transactional, or the individual contributor. It’s a run rate. It’s quality, it’s defects. It’s that person in the trenches, what they’re doing. And then the fourth language is the language of IT, language of technology, and it’s enabling all those. The ability to translate any given time from an individual contributor to mid-management to senior exec, and how technology might affect those and be comfortable, I think that’s an important part of being an effective consultant as well.
James: I completely agree, and it’s about also being able to just mash all of those together, as you said, with your interpersonal skills of being able to just easily flip between the different conversations from the shop floor to the CEO at the top, and looking like you fit in each of those conversations.
Jeff: It is, and as you peel it back, then I could say, “Well, the one more thing that you must have as a management consultant,” and we have 10 of those. The one more thing, though, I do want to add is the ability to be comfortable with that giant clock ticking in your head that tells you you don’t have time to do everything you’d like to do for the engagement. You don’t have enough time for all the analysis you’d like to conduct. The client won’t give you the time you need. There isn’t enough time, and yet you have to do it. The ability to handle that dichotomy, that contradiction, and do it with a smile and embrace that ambiguity, that is what separates a lot of people that call themselves consultants from really good ones. That’s something we can go into a bit as well is how to tease that out, because that’s a very important point for any professional.
James: You mentioned ambiguity there. That’s always something that I — you feel that knot in your stomach when you start and your role in the project of just the walking into a company, government department with that ambiguity and just trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible.
Jeff: Absolutely, because quite often, if you are called in from the outside, or even if you’re an internal consultant that you’re part of a team that goes from group to group in a company, keep in mind, nobody calls you in for the easy things. Like the president says, “None of the easy problems land on my desk. Only the ones nobody else could solve.” So, the only thing that a consultant ever gets asked to do, or usually is, is something that someone’s already tried and failed more than once. It is so complex nobody even knows where to start, or it’s so politically sensitive, people internally are afraid to touch it. So, welcome to our company. That’s what you get to go off of. So, yes, that plus the ambiguity makes it for an interesting ride, for sure.
James: So, we’ve piqued listeners’ interests there about the role of a consultant, and I’ve been lucky enough to see an early advanced copy of your upcoming book, which will have been released something early next year. And one of the things I really liked in the book was you focus initially on goal-setting and the importance of goal-setting when you’re setting out on your career as a consultant. Can you dive into this and why you think it’s important?
Jeff: Well, there’s a couple aspects to it. One is being able to do something only has value if it’s the right thing to be doing. And that goes back to being able to finish things when there’s not enough time. It’s not bad to have more things to do, or more ambitions than you have time for. That’s great. That’s the human experience especially if you’re a thinker and you’re really ambitious. Goal-setting helps you filter. It’s a prioritization mechanism. I think that the moment that you can become at peace with the fact that there are too many things to do, there’s not enough time, lots of opportunities, and secondly, you can apply a prioritization method to it, that’s when your goals come out.
“Know thyself,” as Shakespeare said. What is it about you? Now, some people say, “Follow your passion.” That’s dangerous because your passions tend to shift over time, and you can make a pretty big investment in French renaissance literature and paintings, and then two years later, realize, or four years later, maybe that pile of student debt for that fun four years may not carry you the rest of your life.
So, it’s important, maybe, to find a purpose, which are these deep-seated goals in things that are important to you. Maybe, if you truly are obsessed about something, in a good way, then maybe that’s a little deeper version of the passion. I think goals come from that. And also, I believe that it’s an important skill or important aspect of wellbeing and your general happiness that as opportunities come up and you’re drawn towards them that you also can bring your passion to the thing.
Don’t just do the thing where you have passion, because sometimes a really good opportunity is one that you can rally behind and get pretty excited because of some of the aspects of it. Maybe the fact that you can travel a lot, maybe the fact that you don’t travel at all, maybe the fact that you get to use certain skills. Maybe a lot with the computer, like analytics, or maybe a lot of communications and presentation.
So, that’s where the goal-setting process is so important because it forces you to be honest with yourself. We BS ourselves too often, and maybe we latch onto something that looks interesting because somebody else did it. We are exposed to so many things. A podcast like this one, and others where it sounds neat so you just chase after that. But, is it really you? I think if you can take an eclectic approach and pick the things that make the most sense for you, and everyone’s a work in progress. It’s amazing, every 5, 10 years, you look back and say, “Wow, I didn’t know anything then and I feel even less now because I know more of what I don’t know.” But, also, I think it’s something you feel good about.
And the other aspect, I mentioned number two, that first part isn’t just about goal-setting in the book coming out, it’s also about the fundamental skill that is most important for everyone. That’s learnability, the ability to learn. If the only constant today in going forward is change, then the ability to learn new things and having us practice if you can do that in a regular basis, I think that’s important. Because, we’re all learning.
We accept that in the abstract, but how many of us actually think about how do we learn something? How do we take the white space out so we don’t skip any steps and then have that impostor syndrome creep in where we’re basically BS’ing our way in, and at some point, we’re exposed and we have a nasty fall. We build it but we don’t take 10 years to do something that we can do in six months. If we have a deep internalized experienced, maybe we apprenticed with someone, maybe we went deep on some research. We had one really good experience, like an internship, and then perhaps, you can accelerate yourself.
I think that’s one of the lures of consulting for some people is you get the experience. It’s at least two, sometimes three years for every year of industry if it’s done right. Because, you’re in the mix. It’s intense, you get a lot of good experience, it’s very personal. In other words, you’re there, you’re working with the client, you’re solving the problems, and I think that learnability combined or in conjunction with the goal-setting are two good foundations for people.
James: That was great advice. As you mentioned, the breadth of experience just working across different industries and different companies, you get to really immerse yourself in seeing what’s out there and what really resonates with you as an interest.
Jeff: Yes, for sure.
James: We’re recording this in October, so we’re in the middle of the autumn recruiting season. So, as the head of recruiting for the U.S., I’m sure you’re a busy man. You must have visited hundreds of events at hundreds of universities. So, maybe you can just explore that a little bit first. How do you recommend that listeners can make the most of these events?
Jeff: Well, first of all, realize I grew up on a farm. When harvest comes in, you can say you don’t have time for something or you’ll get to it later, but it happens when it happens and you have to prioritize it, and I think that’s the way things are for recruiting. There’s a cycle, and this is the time both for companies wanting to recruit the best talent as well as students who want to be working with the best companies or the companies that tend to be in the desirable industries that they want to work.
You’re right. It’s a very intense time. So, one, I think people need to budget time for it. Maybe a little less television or parties or whatever else it is, because it just takes time to do it right. The other is, going back to the goal-setting, what’s important to you? Are you signing up for 40 interviews? Maybe that’s an excessive number. Or, are you signing up for a few less and really doing your research, taking the time to know, maybe, a cluster of companies in an industry, or maybe across a few industries.
It’s amazing, overall, in life. You even prefer companies or students through a company how they spend so little time actually researching a company where it’s a pretty big decision. In some cases, it might be the first real job, the first real break from a structured environment in school of 18 years or more that you’ll have, 16, 18 years depending on your master’s. And yet, they may have spent more time on Facebook recently or a video game.
James: Choosing a mobile phone as well.
Jeff: The travesty is that there is so much available. Time after time, when someone, I ask them to describe what research they’ve done, and it’s pretty weak. And I think just five more minutes of research just putting in search terms, going deep, industrial reports, if it’s a company, SlideShare, master’s theses, analysts, all kinds of information that doesn’t cost anything, not even that much time, and you get very specific feedback about a company’s strategy. If you’re proactive and ask the name of the people you’re going to go interview, you get a complete dossier on them. You can find, of course, with the magical LinkedIn, takes even more of the work out for you.
So, there’s so much you can have and part of it is you can work the interview much more effectively. The other part of it is just psychological. You’re walking into an unknown situation that’s stressful, and therefore it gets in the way of you being in your best, or showing your best, being in the zone. So, if you remove some of that ambiguity, some of the unknowns, guess what? You relax, you come out. What makes you you comes out in the discussion.
So, that’s the thing I would highlight for people. Do research and know that at any given point, you have so much more potential than you think you do. And the fact that 95% of the rest of the people will not do that gives you a distinct advantage out of the game.
James: I completely agree and as you mentioned, it doesn’t take much to just take yourself above the level of work of everybody else. So, everyone, if you just do that extra couple of hours, you’ll probably really be standing head and shoulders above most people who just don’t put in the work.
Jeff: I’m a cup is half full kind of person. Actually, a couple of drops in that cup and I think it’s overflowing. I think it’s a good way to live life, because otherwise, you get negative. I think every time you see a situation where it could be cause to grumble, like that’s a tough part of an interview, like a case part of an interview. Or, this particular field is hard, or this one company, I can’t get much information. You should actually rejoice because that means everyone else you’re competing with is thinking that. So, all you have to do is break through that little barrier and there’s no competition. You are literally out there head and shoulders above anyone else.
So, every time there is some kind of moat you have to cross, it will hold most people back, and you will be able to break through. So, I think it’s a good way to look at things, and can help you power through any obstacle in your way.
James: I love that analogy. That’s a really good one. So, when you speak to prospective candidates, what impresses you when you speak to them at these autumn recruitment events.
Jeff: If you think about how you process information, there is certainly the very deliberate aspects, but there’s also something called preattentive. In milliseconds, the judgments you form – this is principles of information design, which we can talk about for hours, and one of the reasons why some visualizations have really emerge is an important thing for people. Know that in the first second, people are taking information in, and in a few minutes, based upon what you say or don’t say, how you say it, body language, the different parts of communication, the verbal might be 25 if that percent. You get the nonverbal, and the gestures, and the proxemics, and the pitch and everything that matters a lot, I think the biggest thing to do is think about the first impression.
What’s nice about it is you can stack the deck in your favour. If you just make sure you nail the first five minutes of any discussion, or maybe even the first few, 1, you feel good about things and you loosen up, and the rest of your goodness comes out, naturally. The other thing is you already predisposed whoever the other individual is to think about you on the terms that you’ve set.
You can’t control hard questions coming at you later, you can’t control many things. You can seriously, though, influence, the first few minutes of any discussion and how you respond. And even if you get off on a tangent later, you can have that structure. A few questions. Did you do the research on that company? Did you do the research on that person? Can you ask a question if you intersects two thoughts. “When I was reviewing the information on your company, sir or ma’am, I noticed that X, Y, Z. That reminds me of something that I did. What do you think?” You can pull three thoughts together back on yourself without really patting yourself on the back, and all of a sudden, you’ve just set up a very positive situation, and you’ve put the interviewer at ease as well because that’s always a possibility as well.
Anyway, that’s what I would think. Whenever we meet people, if they’ve done that, instantly, I think of them, or we think of them pretty strongly as candidates. And if they haven’t, then they have to slog their way through, “Look at my experience, and I did this,” and they use those flowery terms. I’m driven, ambitious, you know, the things that get generic and kind of blend to the background.
Whereas, just like you look at a headline, what’s that headline of the first two or three minutes of the discussion or maybe even the first minute especially at these information events. An interview is one thing, but the information event is even more so. How do you stand out? It’s what you say and what you don’t say.
James: So, breaking it down then in terms of that first impression, do you mean specifically the body language or how they carry themselves, what they’re wearing or the confidence in their speech? Which of those is key for you?
Jeff: Well, the first thing is to be authentic. I mean, there’s no use — so, it comes together. Just be friendly. Show interest, show you’ve done a little bit of research if not for that company, because obviously some of these interviews — sorry, these information nights, you’re talking to lots of people. Have something to say, have your story in just a couple of sentences, and it can’t be vivid, because most people have an interesting background, and if you can combine a passion or an interest of yours with the, I call it the more prosaic or bland, but the basic reason people were there to network and to meet, then that brings it to life. Because, remember, people are people, and it’s a combination of emotional, social, and intellectual decision making that’s going on.
Quite often, the higher somebody is on the IQ scale, they tend to overwhelm the EQ part of it, the emotional quotient. Not that they don’t have decent interpersonal skills, but they tend to get a bit more mechanical, and the more that that breath of fresh air can come out, as a person, you don’t have to put on that armour or that shield. You don’t want to have anarchy coming out of your persona off the bat. But, I do think it’s just being authentic, showing genuine interest, and being professional. I think most people listening, especially if it’s in a structured campus environment, they’ll be advised to do all those basic things. I was hesitating to say them.
I think the other thing is just be concise. Because, the ability to say a lot in a few words, not only is it more effective, it also conveys a lot more — it also implies that there’s a lot more behind that person, and in fact, studies have shown that once you get past basic IQ — let’s say the first line manager of a company of a CEO, one of the distinguishing characteristics is the command of the English language, or the command of the language. Because, your ability to be concise and specific about what you’re saying means you can say a lot in a little. If you listen to a CEO, a very senior person, it’s amazing what they could get across without saying a lot. As you go down the organization, you tend to get a lot more of the filler, a lot more of the buzzwords, things that how many times you want to hear the word “leverage”, or “paradigm”, or whatever they are. Just remove half the words and tighten the phrasing, and being a little more specific, and you start sounding like you’ve got an extra five years of good experience.
James: Yeah, you do find that candidates do often hide behind the buzzwords when they’re just making themselves try to look more intelligent.
Jeff: Well, if it’s buzzwords, it’s also — when you’re nervous or insecure, what do you do? You fill up gaps and spaces. It’s a confident person that’s okay with having a pause. By the way, as humans, one of the things that differentiates us from all the knuckle-dragging primates out there and the other animals that are crawling on the planet is that a stimulus doesn’t trigger an immediate response. Most animals, driven by instinct, there’s a stimulus in their response. There’s not much in between. We, as humans, have this notion of a pause. We can think, we can then choose our actions. And the more that we use that pause, the more we distinguish ourselves more from the other people that interview us or whoever else might need. It’s an important characteristic. Simply by taking an extra half second to respond, or to give an extra second or two to someone else to respond, you’re implying that you’re thinking, that there’s something going on upstairs, and it’s also showing, conversely, whenever it’s done, you’re giving your respect to them that they can chew on what you’re saying, they can think about it before you buzz past to the next item on your list of 10 things you must get across.
James: That’s an excellent point. Probably one I need to utilize more in my podcasting is a nice pause. So, moving on, Jeff, to the application process itself. I know one aspect of consulting applications that people tend to really focus a lot of attention on and a lot of worry on is the dreaded case study. Could you expand on what case study questions and what sort of questions that people might face?
Jeff: Well, the case, especially for consulting, I think, for many professionals, it’s being used more. Traditionally, it’s been the management that consults firms, and maybe we invest on banking firms. And there’s a bit of a cult or a bit of this small — I don’t want to say the word elite, but a small group of people that really understood them. I think that’s a crime.
In fact, so much so that I’m going to totally demystify that as much as possible. Possible, going forward, and in fact, I did this post on the pyramid principle, which is an essential part of my site. The case interview, the reason it’s so important is because it’s like a mini-apprenticeship. Too often, how you interview — you know, getting a job is very different than doing a job. How many people that you know could do the job, but they don’t interview very well?
So, the thing about — and conversely, employers often ask them silly questions that don’t necessarily indicate the person would be a good hire. You could spend a ton of money on all kinds of behavioural analysis and some of those things are good. One way, especially in a project-based or consulting environment is to conduct a case, because a case is a mini-project. It runs you through many of the aspects of a consulting assignment, a project assignment.
There are two types. There’s the structured case, which is the classic Harvard Business School. You have a company and you have all this detail around it, and what they do, and should they buy it or sell the division? It’s a financial aspect. It’s structured. Very much a business case.
Then, you have the unstructured ones. It could be, “How many ping pong balls could fit in the back of a semi-truck?” It could be, “Should Apple buy Tesla?” It’s very ambiguous and you say, “Hey, go for it.” And what’s good about it is — now, you could say, “Oh, I hate these. They’re horrible, they’re hard.” Or, you could say, “They are hard, they will trip up 95% of the people taking them, but not me because I’m going to figure out what to do.”
Once you demystify them, I think it’s a huge advantage. And here are three or four other things, maybe it’s a few more than that. Again, this is a several area discussion, but I’ll just give you the high points. One, make sure you take a notebook in. Maybe it’s a letter portfolio which needs to be big enough that your resume can fit in there. Have blank pieces of paper. It’s your secret weapon because you don’t have to do this all in your head. In fact, if you do it, it will probably go against you. Because, they don’t want to just get the answer. They want to see the process. You ask if you can take notes. “May I take notes?” People will appreciate that. Because, one, you didn’t just jump into it. You asked permission, you opened the book.
Beforehand, write down the three or four frameworks that you might need to use. For example, a product family, a financial statement kind of thing. It could be organizational framework, or maybe decision prioritization. Three or four that you may come across. So, you don’t have to have them in your head. You have a couple of little notes to prime the pump.
And the other thing that’s important is ask questions. When someone says, “What should the company do?” don’t tell them. It’s like a doctor. You didn’t do any diagnosis. Ask the questions. Well, first of all, say, “Hmm, based upon what you’re asking, this is the framework or two I’ll apply.” You begin to ask the questions to make sure each part of your framework, you have the answers. Like, for example, if it’s basic financial statements, you might say cost information in several areas. You might ask about revenue, you might ask about the products.
For example, the 3C’s: company, the internal part, the competitors and customers. Very simple, but pretty effective. And then you go through and you get the information. Now, you just don’t ask 100 questions, because questions take time. You don’t have much time. Same as the real world. So, you prioritize your questions and then you get to a point say, “Mm-hmm, that’s enough.” Then you say, “May I take a few minutes.” You literally stop in the middle of the interview and you spend some quiet time organizing your thoughts. That takes balls. Pardon the language, it takes some courage, and you know what? They’ll appreciate that. And then you present some recommendations and you get the feedback.
If you simply do that, you’ve lapped 80% of the population, maybe 90%. Granted, there are some all-stars. But, if you don’t even know that, people just flop. They flounder. So, those are some things I would recommend, and also practice. Just rehearse. Research and rehearse. You do those things, you will welcome. In fact, you will want case interviews and you will try to convert any set of questions you get into a mini-case, because you want to demonstrate that. I think it’s a way to take something that can cause you pain or anxiety and turn it into a competitive weapon. Because not enough people understand it, and the ones that demonstrate that will be head and shoulders above, because you will have organized your thinking and you will have influenced, if not outright controlled, the direction of the interview.
James: Well said. Brilliant advice, Jeff. I wish I’d had it. I had an interview a few years ago for a small boutique strategy consulting firm, and it was just an early initial interview, and the recruiters said, “Oh, don’t worry. There’s no case study.” Then, when I got through to the interview, they chucked in a cheeky little case study of, “How much does the average London Black Taxi make in an average night.” I wasn’t expecting it. I did everything that I shouldn’t have done, and was floundering about. If I had followed your advice, I would have —
Jeff: When I first was exposed to this, I was worse than that. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you just hit a wall. It’s not a pretty sight to see because it’s not like physically where someone gets injured on me in the field of play and you see it. This is just an invisible thing. It’s like this invisible — I remember one of the other aspects that’s important, you just hit on it is — and I mentioned it’s called unstructured, but another word is “estimation”. Be comfortable to estimate even if you’re wrong. You’ve got such power. You can make any kind of assumption. Take a hypothesis.
So, I think that people, with a little bit of practice, they get this confidence because they can turn the tables and say, “Well, that London taxi has every 15 minutes has a new rider. There are four 15-minute blocks in an hour,” blah-blah-blah. Next thing you know, you’ve gotten an answer. Are you right? Well, let’s just say you’re wrong. And if you are, you can dig into it. So, I totally agree with you.
James: So, is one more common than the other in terms of the structured or business focus within structured?
Jeff: For us, it’s 50-50. I make it a point. Before I was doing this, we used to do either one and then we’d have a behavioural interview and I think that’s wrong. I think there’s lots of cases. So, we tend to give one of each to each person we interview and we do a small behavioural at the beginning. Because it’s amazing. Even a few weeks ago, at some major university — I do several of these interviews. I’ve already been through three or four interview days myself, and people that succeed or thrive on the structured sometimes flounder with the unstructured, and the converse is true. Then, you got the people that did well on both.
So, be ready for both, especially if you’re going to a place that is more of a strategy consultancy. You may end up with five or six of these. And again, you aren’t perfect, but sometimes the test is how do you do when you stumble? Do you melt down or do you just redirect? Do you ask for help? We learn a lot about a person when things aren’t going so well. They don’t always develop character but it reveals it, right?
So, I think that’s the other thing. No matter what happens, you’re solving a problem. In the real world, we make mistakes and we just build on it, and I think showing that character, as well, is something that gives potential employers a lot of confidence. Because, that’s the real world, and that’s why case interviews, properly done, are actually good, because they give the interviewer a little more of a glimpse into you, into the candidate than it might otherwise get through some trite questions about behavioural and experiences.
James: I completely agree. From the people you interview and the ones that don’t make it, what percentage failed due to the case study? Is it really a big hurdle compared to the other parts of the process?
Jeff: Think about this as a gating mechanism, or a gate, where there are individuals who don’t make it even to the interview. We have what’s called a resume drop. So, let’s say there are 50 people that would like to interview for a position, you can only interview 8, or maybe we interview 16, whatever the number of teams you send out. So, there are people without — what I’m about to say is only for those people who have really good resumes, and otherwise, on paper, really appear to be good, maybe they’ve had a connection with the information section.
So, assuming the resume is good, grades are good, you’ve had some interaction with them, otherwise they’re pretty good, the people that fall out, I would say it’s more than 50% because of the case. Maybe as high as 60, 70, because it’s a big deal for us. And again, we’re not just doing this because we blindly say the case is important as much as we set it up where we test for certain things, and those things are the same that we found for people to be successful in consulting.
Remember, we’ve already tested or evaluated for many of the other things prior to the interview itself. Obviously, if it’s grades or if somebody has no internship experience, or for whatever reason their resume does not look like a fit, then that is a disqualifying characteristic, but post the interview process. We only invite people to interview, obviously, that have a chance, otherwise that wouldn’t be a good use of their time at all.
James: Are you able to give us a sneak peek of some of your more difficult one-structured questions?
Jeff: I think that the best way to say it is the estimation problems get people, sometimes very intelligent people who are used to having a level of precision. I don’t want to say they hide behind it, but we all live in a world where things are messy and all is not always certain, and yet some people deal with that by trying to exert control, or assuming things are very specific. You laugh when you see the calculation on a report that goes, “That’s a five decimal points,” when you know there’s no way it’s even within — mine is the nearest 10.
But, yet, people do that because they like the fact that Excel can go out that far, and they write down. And so, I think that’s the biggest advice I would give for the unstructured ones is learn to estimate, and whether it’s the number of cars going over a bridge in a certain day, whether it’s the number of ping pong balls, or jelly beans, or whatever it is inside of some object, whatever the problem is, usually there’s a time dimension, there’s a money dimension, there’s a units per dimension, unit of time. So, if you can separate those and do some estimation and just make it reasonable. If you’re somewhere between the bounds incredulity and believableness, then I think you’ll be fine, and that’s the best way to approach it.
James: Say, for example, the example there, cars going over a bridge. Do you actually know the answer to these things, or is it just plucked out of the –?
Jeff: Oh yeah. Well, it’s interesting, too, is it’s all in your assumptions. Like, for example, there was traffic on bridges and it depends on the number of lanes, it depends on how long the vehicle is, it depends on the speed, it depends on percentage of commuters, a lot of these things. And you know what? There are multiple right answers. Because, if you make the assumption, for example, about tourists, if you make the assumption about their constructions, you make the assumption about time of day, sporting events. People can get real specific. It’s amazing the number of different answers that you can get that are well thought out. So, it’s an estimate.
Now, that’s more of a rate problem. How many, let’s say, objects of a certain size would fit in the back of a semi-trailer, or inside a vehicle, or inside a nuclear submarine. I don’t know. You could pick it and you just back your way into it. And yes, those tend to have a little more, but even so, it’s about the logic and the assumptions. Because, quite often, we’re asked to do something very quickly, and then you can test it and throw it away. That’s the essence of being agile, isn’t it? Doing something very inexpensively and you save them for analyses. Don’t spend hours, and days, and weeks. Just do it very quickly. You can test things and then you know if it makes sense, then you go into detail and make it very specific. Like building a slide. You can spend hours on it and throw it away and your life’s been wasted. Or you could sketch something out on a piece of paper with a pen. You can test it and then you could spend some time on it.
James: That’s completely true, and again, I wish I’d listened to this — well, I wish I’d got your advice before I did the — I was floundering around in that unstructured question that I had so much trouble. So, Jeff, I know time is running away with us, so moving on to the partner interview. Is the partner interview something that you have in the interview process?
Jeff: It depends. We try, in our firm, to be very hands-on. So, we actually have partners in our interviews. That’s one of the reasons why I’m out there, and if a partner is part of that process, the two or three people that we interviewed on the campus, that’s it. There’s no more. We’ll move to offer. If we’re not able to, and that’s the case sometimes, then we will very quickly line up a partner to view afterwards.
So, the short answer is yes. We believe that the attraction of people into the company, the bringing them on is a very important part of a consulting firm. Actually, of any company, and we want to make sure decisions are made with the full awareness of a senior person, and we also think it’s a great way to make our firm more attractive to others. We say we’re hands-on, we say that partners combine mentorship.
Well, it’s a good way to demonstrate it. If they’re actually involved in the interview process and the partner actually calls to convey that offer and doesn’t just have it come from somebody in HR. So, for us, it’s yes. I think it varies by firm.
James: What are they looking for, then, in this interview? Is it more of a face fit? Are they culturally the right person? Or, again, is it digging deep into their experiences and competencies?
Jeff: It’s both. I mean, if I’m on the hook to connect the case interview, then I’m digging into that. For sure, it’s the fit, and because a partner is a leader in our consulting firm and responsible for the health of business, it isn’t so much fit in a very subjective way. It’s, “Can I see this person on an engagement? Where would I staff him or her? Would I see them in practice A or practice B? Are they great in analytics? Are they more of a change management? Highly interpersonal area? Is it something where they happen to have some experience in something like e-commerce or something in that part of the business?”
So, it’s making a fit decision, but more so about where could they fit in early and be more effective? Because, it’s something that they’re bringing to the table.
James: And I guess, also, it’s the fundamental recruiter’s question of, “Can I see myself working with this person? Would I like to work with this person?”
Jeff: Absolutely, absolutely. Once you get past it — I model a lot of our things after medical practice. Once you get past the money and whatever financial, it’s about can the junior person work at the side of the senior person and learn from them? The old apprentice model. And conversely, can the senior person project their influence to a greater number of people. That’s how the whole thing works. It’s a pyramid not based on hierarchy, but of meritocracy and of collegiality. And that’s the essence of a professional services firm. When it works, whether it’s law, accounting, investment banking, advertising, consulting, it’s a thing of beauty. When it doesn’t, it’s more of staff augmentation, body shopping, resource management, and it’s our job to make sure it’s more of the former than the latter.
James: Jeff, I’ve got a ton of questions that we’ve not even touched upon, but I’m conscious of time and I don’t want to keep you too long today. So, let’s move on to our weekly staple questions. So, I’m interested to know what are your thoughts on these ones. So, first up, what book would you recommend our listeners should read?
Jeff: I’ll give you two books. One, because this is a business podcast. There’s one that I don’t think many of your folks may have read, and I think they should. It’s called the Graphical Display of Quantitative Information, or the Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. He’s the Da Vinci of our time. He’s a Da Vinci of data and visualization, and I’m honoured to know him. With the seminars, he is truly the maestro of this area, of thinking about visualizing data, it will help people to think about things differently. He’s got a few books out, but it was the first one and it was a classic. If you care about visualization or care about developing how numbers can be converted to pictures, it belongs on your bookshelf.
In addition, I like Contact, Carl Sagan, and some of those kind of books that make you think. Contact was one I really enjoyed, recommending to people.
James: Excellent, and the links to those books and everything we discussed today, as well as a full transcript will be available on the show notes at graduatejobpodcast.com/consulting. The next question, Jeff, what website or internet resource would you recommend to our listeners?
Jeff: Well, there are plenty. I think if you only had to say one, valuebasedmanagement.net. Hundreds. Let me repeat, hundreds of management frameworks and it’s all content. Links and content, everything from the BCG growth-share matrix to the McKenzie 7S, and it’s amazing the sheer number of them. It is absolutely something, if you’re ever stumped on frameworks, you don’t quite know what they mean, just go there. It’s all there.
James: That sounds brilliant. If all you’ve got in your back pocket is a SWOT analysis, then that sounds like the website to go to.
James: And finally, Jeff, what one tip can listeners implement today to help them with their job search?
Jeff: Here are the ten things of that one thing. If it’s just one, it’s a combo of research and rehearse, get the details. We mentioned at the beginning, get the details. Because, if you research, and you practice, rehearse, you will nail it, you will own the material, and you will have the confidence to do whatever it is that’s in front of them.
James: That’s great advice. You can’t go wrong with practice and with research. If you just do those two things, then you’ll be doing a lot right in your interviewing. Jeff, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on the show today. What is the best way for listeners to get in touch with you and the work that you do?
Jeff: My site is jeffkavanaugh.net. J-E-F-F-K-A-V-A-N-A-U-G-H dot net. Twitter’s @JeffKav, J-E-F-F-K-A-V and I’m fairly responsive. I do have the day job and working with all the students. This is an area that’s very important to me, because I think that some of these topics just haven’t been shared as much to the broader community. And I think, especially with automation, with artificial intelligence, all the different digital transformation of capabilities that are becoming immersed in our lives, the thing that will help us the most, how we think and how we execute on some of these skills —
So, some of this, I’ll put in the book and all that. But, for the most part, I just want to get this information out there, because I think if you didn’t have it when you wanted it, or needed it. I didn’t have earlier in my career. I’d like to get it out so people can make the most of it and use it when it can make a difference for them.
James: Excellent. I completely agree. Getting the information out is why I do the podcast. So, I’m singing with you on that one as well. Jeff, thank you so much for being on the Graduate Job Podcast.
Jeff: Absolutely. Enjoyed it. Take care.
James: Well, not a lot more for me to say really other than many thanks again to Jeff for his time and his brilliant insights. I know how much his advice on case studies would have helped me if I’d had it many years ago, and I hope you found it useful. Have a listen again and don’t forget that there is a full word for word transcript of the whole interview up on the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/consulting so get yourself over there and have a look. If you’ve enjoyed the show or any of the previous 53 episodes, the way you can show your thanks is to go to graduatejobpodcast.com/survey and answer 3 questions letting me know what you like about the show and episodes you would like to see. Speaking of future episodes I have a fan favourite returning next week. The effervescent Steve Rook who will be sharing his thoughts on work experience and work placements. Stay tuned for that. All that is left is to say thank you for listening, I hope you enjoyed the show today, but more importantly, I hope you use it, and apply it. See you next week.