Cracking the Personal Interview

August 24, 2016

This is the final blog in a series of posts for Vault by Nick Waugh and Kenton Kivestu on preparing for the upcoming consulting recruitment cycle. For more help in preparing for you big consulting interview, be sure to check back for the launch of the 2013 edition of the Vault Consulting 50 on August 27th, which will feature insider information—including tips and sample interview question—from thousands of practicing consultants at the most prestigious consulting firms in the world.

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.  

by Nick Waugh and Kenton Kivestu

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  • Gary was fantastic to work with. Not only did he connect me up with my ideal opportunity, he worked with me through the recruitment process to make sure that I was completely prepared to put forth my best in interviews, to facilitate communication, and to advocate for me as a candidate. His energy, enthusiasm and professionalism make working with him both productive and enjoyable. I could not have been more apprised of what was going on at all times, and it was great to have someone cheering for me when I got my offer. Thanks for all of your help, Gary!

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