How to tell the story of your summer internship

This post was written by Nick Waugh, an advisor to RocketBlocks. Nick is currently an Implementation Leader at McKinsey & Co. Formerly, he’s held roles as an Associate and Engagement Manager at McKinsey as well where he worked across a variety of industries, including finance, industrial goods and the airlines. He led McKinsey & Co recruitment efforts at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Nick is also an ex-pro soccer player and has held helped private equity firms in turn-around deals. 

“You didn’t summer in consulting?”

Having recruited many second-year MBA students, there always seem to be a number of folks who are apprehensive sharing their ‘non-consulting’ summer internships. Perhaps they wanted to use their summer to try something different. Perhaps they weren’t made an offer by a consulting firm during first year recruiting. Whatever the reason, telling the story of your summer the right way can truly improve your candidacy in the eyes of the large consulting firms.

Tip #1 – How is it relevant?

Frustrated with the time it took him to get his weekly burrito, one candidate we interviewed spent the summer working with a local restaurant chain to improve their operations. He observed daily process flows, did time studies to calculate average throughput, and worked with the franchise’s management to understand what they wanted to optimize (e.g., quality vs. time, dish variety vs. efficiency).

When we initially met him, he embarrassingly relayed this experience, failing to realize that it sounded like a scaled down version of what a consultant does every day. He learned to tweak his presentation to focus on points that his interviewers would find relevant (e.g., trying to convince the store manager to change something in which he didn’t see the value, presenting insights gleaned from customer surveys).

He was successful with one of the big 3 firms because he made his story relevant to a consultant and focused on the impact he was able to deliver.

Tip #2 – Understand your audience

The big consulting firms love brand names. They love top business schools. They love Ivy League undergraduate degrees. They also love large companies that have recognizable strengths.

Fortune 100 companies that hire MBA interns often go through hundreds of applicants. They have robust interview processes with detailed background screens. Most importantly, their MBA summer interns get exposure to industry leading thinking.

Take Proctor and Gamble. MBA interns get great hands on expertise. They are exposed to a world class marketing and branding organization. They see complex, international supply chains at work.

Consulting firms love to be able to tell clients that one of their consultants earned their marketing stripes with an industry leader and recognizable name. Candidates that understand how to tell the story around internships with these companies and tailor them to a consulting audience immediately can float to the top of the heap. If you didn’t get a full time offer from one of these companies, be sure to address it before the interview—it will be the first question anyone asks you.

Tip #3 – What’s the point?

As you discuss your experience, summer internship or otherwise, be structured. The interview is short and your interviewer has been sitting through six straight hours hearing the same stories. Get to the point of your internship.

Every consultant we know discusses the interviewee who rambled through their summer internship experience. Main points are missed and it is unclear at the end what the interviewee actually did for 3 months. A simple recipe for structure can add tremendous value:

a)     Deliver the headline

b)     Define the problem you had to solve

c)     Give 3 specific examples of what impact YOU had

d)     Discuss the end result (successful or not)

e)     Share what you learned

As you succinctly talk about your experience, ensure that each of the above is covered (not in any particular order). Your interviewer will thank you.

One final note: there is a very fine balance between being prepared/structured and sounding robotic or too rehearsed. For many, this comes naturally. For others (usually those that get nervous in interviews), it is less comfortable to strike that balance.

It helps as you prepare to know the main points of what you want to share with the interviewer rather than memorize a script. The headline from all of this, though, is that no matter what you did for the summer, telling the story is essential to making you the most attractive candidate possible.

How to avoid the “Square peg, round hole” problem when doing case interviews

This post was written by Nick Waugh, an advisor to RocketBlocks. Nick is currently an Implementation Leader at McKinsey & Co. Formerly, he’s held roles as an Associate and Engagement Manager at McKinsey as well where he worked across a variety of industries, including finance, industrial goods and the airlines. He led McKinsey & Co recruitment efforts at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Nick is also an ex-pro soccer player and has held helped private equity firms in turn-around deals.

Most candidates prepare extensively for their case interviews. They read books that lay out standard frameworks and they commit those frameworks to memory. Like a doctor they look for symptoms when they hear a case, form a diagnosis (fit it into their framework) and then make a recommendation on treatment. The practice they do with case books full of examples reinforces this idea that every business case will fit nicely into one of the frameworks they memorized. The framework will then dictate the answer or “treatment”.

Truth is, the cases that consultants solve daily rarely fit into a nice framework. If they did, the need for consultants would cease to exist. Most interviewers find that those that have memorized frameworks are easy to spot within minutes. They sound rehearsed and often quickly dive into a structure only at the highest level. They are listening for certain symptoms (e.g., profitability has fallen, client is thinking of entering a new market) and they immediately try to apply the framework they memorized for that type of issue.

Structuring the problem is one of the most important parts of any case interview and yet there exists little to help a candidate prepare for this component. Students at business schools “case” one another but as their fellow student is usually untrained, the practice is more quantity than quality. “Experts” offering advice and writing books, often were not consultants themselves and did not have the benefit of the interview training consulting firms require their interviewers to take. Thus, there is a shortage of practice tools and a shortage of qualified and trained coaches to help candidates navigate this step in the process.

“Square Peg, Round Hole”

One candidate we coached practiced hundreds of cases with his fellow classmates. He read the obligatory books and went to the sessions his business school’s consulting club conducted. We sat with him initially when he had “well into the hundreds” of practice cases under his belt. As we often do, we decided to tailor a story from the front page of that day’s Wall Street Journal as a case (logic being if a business is on the front page of the WSJ, clearly the business problem is challenging them). As we read this candidate the case, he took notes and asked questions to clarify what he was hearing and ensure he had the facts straight. He asked for a few moments to organize his thoughts but when he started to draw out a structure he stopped 3 times to start a different framework he had memorized. He failed to realize that the problem we were discussing was in fact pieces of all the frameworks…not just one.

Frameworks are valuable but candidates use them as a crutch. They rely on them too much. Much like a doctor that can only treat something they read about in a book or had seen before, students who only use frameworks will be constrained in their solution set. Instead, we encourage students to think of frameworks as checklists to ensure that they have considered all aspects of a problem and are being mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

The best method of practice is to sit with other smart classmates or friends, and discuss real-life challenges that business face and have those discussions in a structured manner. If Delta and Northwest are struggling in their merger on how to handle their frequent traveler programs, think about the main components or high-level categories and the steps necessary to consider in those categories. Use the frameworks to ensure you have left no stone unturned, but don’t limit your structure.

Success

By its nature, the case interview is not without flaw and there are many schools of thought disputing its effectiveness. Consulting firms are constantly analyzing their interviewing practices in the hopes of making them more efficient and better at finding talent that meets their unique needs. As the firms get hundreds of thousands of applicants each year, it is a necessary evil to attaining a position with them.

While there is no failsafe way of preparing for the consulting interview game, applying some logical interviewing methods can increase the chances of success. Candidates should step out of the typical interview practice norms and understand the nature of what is being tested. Take every chance to practice with consultants at the firms that do the interviewing. Understand the difference between the firms and what they are particularly seeking. Understand the difference between interviewing with a partner and an associate.

Many of these answers are not found in a book or on a blog but with a bit of research and discussion with people at the firms, candidates will find they are more informed and the case interview will be less intimidating overall.

4 key roles management consultants play in private equity due diligence cases

Guest post: Steve Kenning is currently Director of Strategy & Operations at KIXEYE, a growing video game developer in San Francisco. Prior he worked for 5 years at Bain & Company in its Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto offices, delivering tech, media and telecom due diligence projects for a variety of top international private equity funds.

A large and growing practice area for many top consulting firms, and something that drew me to consulting personally, continues to be private equity and M&A transaction due diligence. In fact, I’d say the one question I received most often at both undergrad and MBA information sessions was, “What does your private equity group do?”

When a private equity firm runs a diligence process on a potential acquisition target, it sits at the epicenter of many different advisory groups. For example, on any particular deal, the lead fund may be coordinating an army of accountants, lawyers, technology advisors, environmental contractors, and experts from their own portfolio companies, to say nothing of managing their own deal team (running their valuation model) and their investment committee (who’s ultimately responsible for approving a bid). So, with all that going on, there’s often not the bandwidth to dig deeply into a company’s strategic and operational health; that task often falls to management consultants.

So what do we actually do? Well first, it’s maybe helpful to outline what we don’t do. The goal of PE consulting, at least at Bain, was rarely to advise on the value of a particular company, or on what price a buyer should be willing to bid. Those are areas in which PE funds have demonstrated expertise. Where consultants do plug in, is in answering four questions about a target’s business fundamentals:

1. Is the target the market leader in its industry? Or at least a close #2? Not all industries come with extensive data vendors, analyst coverage, and market research, so answering this question can actually be pretty difficult. Who is the market leader in mid-gauge wire rope for down-hole oil & gas applications? How many class-4 hazardous disposal landfills are there in the US, and who maintains each one? What’s the relative market share of the leader in med-device membranes? Simply figuring out who the competitors in a market are, and their relative size, can be a large (and important) task.

2. Are the target’s customers either so satisfied or so sticky that they’re highly unlikely to switch? Given that expected stability of cash flows is often paramount in a particular deal (no one wants to buy the world leader in slap bracelets in 1994), you’d like to know that the target’s customers are unlikely to defect.

3. Does the target have a difficult-to-replicate advantage over its competitors, such that its unlikely to lose any material market share? A good example here is a retailer or children’s party supplies (maybe the greatest business ever…), where hyper-local relative market share is the single largest driver of profitability. If your target has 1,500 stores in a particular region and the next nearest competitor has 500, sweet.

4. Is anything expected to change in the industry (regulatory, legal, technological, etc.) in the next ~5 years that will materially disrupt the target’s market position? If you’re considering entering a highly regulated industry (health care, defense, etc.) you’d like to have some idea of the risk that regulations might change during the period you’re holding your investment. I.e. Is the government likely to implement price controls on a particular pharmaceutical? Is the US Department of Defense likely to cancel a key contract? This can be difficult to predict, but the risk should be accounted for.

Ideally, after 3-4 weeks of interviewing industry experts, fielding consumer surveys, and compiling secondary research, you have solid answers to the four questions above, and can be confident on how (and why) you expect the target to grow (or not) over the expected life of your client’s investment.

The challenges of jumping into a management consulting, manager position

This is a guest post by Sanjeeth Cherian. Sanjeeth is a former Consultant from LEK consulting. He currently is a Senior Manager, leading strategy projects for Guitar Center. He’s done consulting work for Google Ventures in the past and holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and BA from IIT.

Recruiting for consulting during business school is tough with the mock cases, the networking and trying to wangle an interview invite. Added to that is trying to figure out what each firm is like and their approach.

Many of the consulting firms follow a ‘traditional’ approach where the consultant, post MBA, manages a particular analytic work stream and after a few years is promoted to an engagement manager where he / she manages a team of consultants. L.E.K, Parthenon and a few other consulting firms follow a case model in which the consultant plays a slightly different role compared to the norm.  At these firms, the consultant starts off as a ‘project manager’ managing a team of associates, assigning them work streams in addition to being responsible for his / her own work stream

The more ‘traditional’ model allows you to focus on your work stream as you try and understand the consulting approach.  You have to wait for a few years to get management responsibilities during which time you have learnt how consulting works as well as deal with the stress and ambiguity that is concomitant with the business

Having had significant management responsibilities prior to my MBA, I was personally attracted to the management opportunities the consultant role at L.E.K had to offer me. L.E.K does a good job in training you for your role as a consultant including a 2 week intensive program followed by a few weeks of shadowing a senior consultant.  But no matter what training you undergo working your first few cases can be stressful.

On a personal level while trying to adjust to the demands of consulting I had to deal with a few other challenges, some of which I was aware from my networking:

  1. Managing the deadlines and requirements of your own consulting work stream is tough enough. Added to this is the task of being responsible for the quality and time lines of the work output of the 2 – 4 associates on your team. As a new consultant, there is a tendency to spend as much time as possible with each work stream so you know it well and can be confident about the progress and the findings. But soon you realize you cannot devote excessive time to any particular aspect without affecting your work stream as well as progress of the others. It takes a few cases to be able to understand where and when to engage the most.
  1. Prior to my MBA when I managed a direct team I was one of the more experienced members on my team which meant that I knew what needed to be done and how to guide and mentor the team. However, as a new consultant, I was inexperienced in the consulting process and tasked with managing a high performing team of associates, some of whom had many cases under their belt. As a leader, I felt it’s my role to provide guidance to the team but it’s hard to tell someone what to do or what the best course of action is when you are figuring things out.
  1. As a consultant, you are not only responsible for the work output of your team but also for managing upwards. Being a services business, timelines are sacrosanct which means you have to flag issues early on and seek guidance wherever appropriate. Over time you can spot the issues early on but as a new consultant it can be a bit overawing when you look at the different work streams and try to figure out what the road blocks could be.
  1. Most consultants will tell you that confidence is key to becoming a good consultant. Your associates will never respect a consultant who is not confident and the manager / partner on the team are definitely not going to trust a consultant who seems unsure of the project findings and progress. It’s hard to be confident when you haven’t directly done the work on many of the work streams but it’s one of the things you have to learn quickly.

While the challenges are many, you learn to surmount them over time with the right attitude. Your manager, your colleagues and the resources of the firm are there to help you be a good consultant. Being successful requires patience and the ability to not let your ego get in the way of your learning process. It requires you to be diligent and learn how to manage your time well.

In time, you learn to deal with ambiguity, you learn how to get the best out of your team and how to ‘crack the case’. The management responsibilities, wider exposure and the shorter case cycles also mean that in a relatively short time you have a wealth of experience much more than the “traditional” consulting model firms which is beneficial if you decide to stay on in consulting or look for another opportunity

3 Lessons from mgmt. consulting for the edu sector

Guest post: Jesse Lau is a Principal at Parthenon’s San Francisco office and has worked extensively on edu sector cases for the firm. Prior to Parthenon, Jesse worked at Navigant consulting, primarily on litigation and economic consulting. He holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business.

I am a Principal (post-MBA strategy consultant) in Parthenon’s San Francisco Office.  When I’m out recruiting for new Principals and Associates, I find that a lot of people assume that because we are in the Bay Area, our work is predominately in the technology sector.  While we certainly do our share of strategy consulting for technology-based companies, I’ve had the opportunity to work in all of Parthenon’s core practice areas.  In addition to the six more traditional practice areas here at Parthenon (Consumer, Healthcare, Information & Media, Industrial, Private Equity and Technology), we also have a more unique practice area in the Education sector, which is what I’d like to talk  about today.

Parthenon works with all sorts of organizations and businesses in the education sector: from K-12 school districts, to universities, to providers of educational content and technology.   While many of the activities in educational strategy consulting are similar to those of traditional business consulting, there are some characteristics that are unique to the education sector.  Today, I’d like to talk about three ways that consulting for universities is different from traditional business consulting.

  1. Universities are Mission Driven: What shouldn’t be surprising to most folks reading this blog is that universities have a greater purpose than just maximizing revenue and minimizing costs.  Universities are cultural institutions that provide significant non-economic benefits to the students, alumni, and communities with which they are affiliated.  While many businesses have missions that aim to do more than just maximize shareholder value, universities’ missions go a step further.  For instance, my own undergraduate alma mater, UC Davis, says in its philosophy of purpose that it is “committed to advancing the human condition” through “service to people and society.” Not surprisingly, the organizational culture in universities reflects this mission orientation.  Academic professionals are keenly focused on the quality of the student experience and institutional reputation – which can cause friction with traditional business objectives.  For instance, how many other businesses can you think of that take pride in refusing sales to eager, paying customers?  In higher education, that’s often referred to as ‘selective admission criteria’. Having a strong mission orientation and focus on the student experience is critical for a high-quality university.  Thus, when consulting for universities, it is absolutely critical to ensure that the project goals and recommendations are tightly aligned with the overall institutional mission.
  1. But Universities are still businesses: They have annual operating budgets that must be funded every year.  Their product is educational delivery and their customer is the student.  At the University of California, 48% of the organization’s core operating budget is funded through student fees.  Increases or decreases to the number of students in an incoming class may not seem important to the student, but they can have significant impacts on the operating budget of a university.  Think about the difference between lower division and upper division courses at your school.  In lower division, you might be in a lecture hall with hundreds of other students; in upper division, it might be dozens or fewer.  If you’re like me, you probably never walked into one of those small upper division classes and said “Hey, I bet this class with one professor and 10 students isn’t as profitable as the class with 400 students”, but it is true.  Understanding those dynamics is critical for effective university operations. University leaders are certainly aware of the business dynamics that their organizations face, but business decisions are often made collaboratively with input from administration, finance, and professors – all of whom might have different goals for the organization.  This typically means negotiated approaches to making critical organizational decisions.  The consultant tool kit (structured thought, market driven approaches, and an objective perspective) can be an extremely valuable resource to universities trying to make complicated decisions with multiple stake-holders. One area where strategy consultants can be helpful for universities is through prioritization of new opportunities and ideas.  In the creative and collaborative university environment, there is never a lack of ideas for the ‘next big thing’.  We’ve helped universities go through rigorous ideation and opportunity prioritization processes that help the organizations turn a seemingly countless list of ‘good ideas’ into a short list of top priorities where the entire organization can direct its energy and investment.
  1. Universities are rapidly entering the digital age: The one ‘good idea’ that will filter to the top of almost all universities’ prioritized lists is online learning.  What was once considered a fringe method for educational delivery is rapidly becoming mainstream.  While the traditional campus-based model of university education won’t disappear, many institutions are contemplating how to incorporate online functionality into their everyday teaching approaches. Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOCs”, see more from Parthenon HERE) and flipped classrooms (http://www.knewton.com/flipped-classroom/) are showing that even top tier schools are finding ways to deliver education in the online world. Higher education institutions – steeped in traditional methods of teaching but eager to move into the 21st century – are increasingly looking for help in bringing next generation technology into the classroom.  Strategy consulting firms like Parthenon are able to bring objective perspectives and industry knowledge to help universities think through the best ways to fit online delivery into the unique circumstances of their institutions.

When I joined Parthenon, I did not have visions of becoming a strategy consultant in the education space.  But as I’ve gained experience working with universities, I’ve relished the unique opportunities and challenges that it offers.   Not only have I had a chance to work with world class organizations to solve complex problems, but I’ve been able to do my part in helping bring change to the higher education landscape in the U.S.

How to crack the consulting firm “fit” interview

This post was written by Nick Waugh, an advisor to RocketBlocks. Nick is currently an Implementation Leader at McKinsey & Co. Formerly, he’s held roles as an Associate and Engagement Manager at McKinsey as well where he worked across a variety of industries, including finance, industrial goods and the airlines. He led McKinsey & Co recruitment efforts at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Nick is also an ex-pro soccer player and has held helped private equity firms in turn-around deals. 

While candidates practice extensively for the case portion of an interview, many neglect the preparation needed to perform in the non-case portions. While every firm asks different types of questions and is assessing different traits, a few general points can lead to success.

Translate your experience into the world of a consultant

We interviewed a former captain of his college’s Division I lacrosse team at a Top Five business school.  He clearly had had a storied career on and off the field.  He was a great candidate by every definition.

When asked to discuss a time he led a team through adversity, he immediately discussed a challenge his team faced his senior year when the head coach left midway through the season.  He discussed his role as the Captain and how he stepped into the leadership void.  He helped guide the team through the playoffs and an ultimate conference title and trip to the National Tournament.

Had we been hiring a lacrosse team captain, he would have gotten the job on the spot.  The challenge for us as the interviewer (remember we flew in that morning, had other deliverables on our mind, had asked the same question half a dozen times that day already) was to translate his amazing team leading into the world of management consulting.  How would convincing young players to commit to after-hours practices relate to coaching a client through a challenging interaction with their boss?  How would the success he had on the field translate to success leading a team of three analysts?  These “translation” challenges we typically see with candidates who use examples from their sporting careers and former military officers who use examples from their military lives.

Mind you, we are not discouraging varsity athletes and former Lieutenants from using examples from their careers.  In fact, these are usually the most interesting and relevant.  Give thought, though, to how your example can be translated into what is asked of management consultants every day.  When one is the Captain of the team or the commanding officer, typically they motivate people as those people have to follow their orders.  They have leadership authority simply by the position they are in.  As a consultant the inverse is often true as you are asked to “lead from behind.”

Structure your personal experience

This is often some of the hardest advice we have to give.  We tell candidates they have to approach these interviews naturally and “as if they were having a business conversation over a drink.”  By its very nature, structuring conversation tends to not sound natural.  If misinterpreted it can sound forced or, worse still, rehearsed.

With any interview, however, you need to get the most impactful information across to your interviewer as clearly as possible in as little time as possible.  Long-winded stories about developing people that worked on your teams can often fail to deliver the impactful points you are attempting to make about your leadership style.  While we recommend structuring your personal experience, we do suggest you do so with caution in the hope it does not come across negatively.

With any example from your personal or professional life, you should think about that story’s headline.  In two sentences or less, describe what will the story be about and show about you (“I’d like to share a story about a time that I led a group of classmates through our first year project by finding a client, recruiting my classmates to be on the team, developing workstreams collaboratively with them, and managing the workplan to deliver a recommendation to that client”).

Your headline should be crisp but not too flowery.  Like a newspaper headline, the interviewer should be left wanting to learn more about the story and your role in it.

Support your headline with three to four key points.  These points should be about the impact that you had on the project or what wouldn’t have happened had you not been there.  Too often, candidates speak in the collective “we” in an attempt to be modest.  Unfortunately, consultants are not asked to interview a team but rather you.  Be firm about your role and what you did.

Typically candidates mention the result of the story or its ultimate ending.  Be sure to include what you took away as well.  Did the experience teach you something you did not already know?  Has it helped to shape you as a leader today?  If it was not successful, this is even more important to include.

Lastly, remember that this simple structure can be very helpful in helping candidates think about how to tell their story but, in the wrong hands, can lead an interviewee to sound like a robot reciting a memorized script.