Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Many Case Interviews Does One Need?

If your goal is to join one of the big consultancies, be it Bain, McKinsey, BCG, Roland Berger or any other, a case interview (well… many of them) is an inevitability. Blah, I know.

You only start liking them after you have had way too many. Case interviews are truly a pain: they require a lot of preparation, and yet - no matter how much you prepare, you will always be unprepared for the situation that the interviewers have prepared for you. Let's see: in my short but eventful job searching life I have
·         Relocated an office from Germany to Dubai;
·         Saved a sinking back-office banking company from bankruptcy;
·         Figured out how much tons of goods a city-locked shopping center should receive on a daily basis;
·         Counted all the football stadiums in Russia;
·         Moved a pharma production plant from the Czech Republic to Moscow;
·         Etc, etc, etc.

Maybe I have been lucky so far, but I have been successful with all the case interviews I have had so far. Even those where I had absolutely no idea what to do (normally in cases that deal with advanced Finance or Economics - "Dear Recruiter, please don't ask me to calculate weighted average cost of capital ever again, or I promise I'll slit my wrists right there in your flashy super modern office"). I can't really put my finger on what I am doing right every time I go through those business situations: is it being logical and structured, or is it coming up with truly creative solutions, or is it establishing rapport with the interviewer? If I had to give someone a three bullet point advice on what is essential in a case interview, it would be the following three:
·         Be natural. Do not pretend that you know business better than the interviewers. If you are being interviewed by a respectable consultancy, most likely your interviewers have real-life working experience on the projects that they offer you for analysis, so if you try to prove in the room that you are the prettiest baby in the sandbox, you will lose points automatically. For arrogance at least and for losing the supporting connection from the interviewer, which is critical.
·         Laugh at your mistakes. You will make mistakes. Everyone does. Since the situations you will be dealing with are ambiguous, you will make assumptions that do not always hold water or that do not bring you to the optimal solutions. Accepting your own fallacies and errors with humor and "can-do" attitude will only position you in a better light: it means that you are not afraid of making mistakes, but can learn from them and quickly redirect your efforts. Besides, a joke always brings the tension of the interview down.
·         Be as creative as possible. Throw out the frameworks you learnt at school and make up your own. I don't believe that you cannot come up with your own two-by-two matrix - you can juxtapose everyone and everything. Companies need implementers (B-players, if we follow Jack Welch's classification). But it is the A-players that get the company that competitive edge that bring the disproportionate amount of value to the shareholders. Demonstrate that you have this creative A-player potential and they will be willing to turn a blind eye to your other small mistakes and errors.

I have to confess that I have changed my attitude towards the consulting industry this year. Before doing my MBA I was extremely skeptical about the value of consultants, "selling" their product without really trying to understand your issues, as long as they can be crammed into one of the fancy frameworks. Yet, as everything in this world - IT DEPENDS. It depends on the situation, it depends on the firm, it depends on the consultant, it depends on the corporate culture, it depends on the managerial capacity to manage those consultants, it depends on whether the company itself knows what it wants, and … it depends!

Consulting is an exciting job to do, at least for a while. You travel a lot, you work on interesting projects, you have a lot of exposure to senior people, you acquire massive knowledge about industries, businesses, processes, people, and in order to be in that cohort of highly intelligent, a tad arrogant and truly international people, I am willing to go through another couple of case interviews!

I am attaching links to Case Books from the best business schools, which will definitely help you in preparation for this excruciating experience:
·         Harvard Business School
·         Kellogg
·         Wharton
·         IESE
·         London Business School

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