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An interview with Steve Kenning, former Bain consultant and interviewer.
Last updated: Sept 26, 2016
It's no secret that landing a job at an elite management consulting firm can alter the trajectory of your career. Given that, it's no surprise that candidates prepare meticulously for case interviews. While good preparation never hurts, students also run the risk of preparing away their uniquenesses - inadvertently hiding their own unique qualities in an attempt to mold themselves into a persona of what they believe the firms want to see.
Steve Kenning, a former Bain & Co consultant who began his career as an Associate Consultant and worked his way up the ladder for seven years, says it's critical for candidates to remember one key thing: be authentic.
"Sometimes candidates come into these interviews and treat it like a video game - as if there is some sort of secret code and if they just hit the buttons in the right order, they'll get the offer." - Steve Kenning, former Bain & Co consultant
So, as you approach your interviews, remember Kenning's advice. Don't get fixated on hitting the right sequence of "buttons" or traits to exhibit. Instead, focus on solving the case in a way that is authentic to your point of view and your experience. In a process where many candidates might successfully solve a case interview, the ones that truly stand out will have done so in a way that is specific to him/herself. How can you ensure that you're retaining your authenticity? Here are two guiding principles to keep in mind:
Don't overfit the model
In statistics and machine learning, engineers worry about "over-fitting" the model, which means that they produce a model which inadvertently describes random error and noise, as opposed to describing the underlying relationships.
What does over-fitting have to do with case interviews? Well, candidates are often so eager to demonstrate how well they would fit in with the firm that they "overfit" how their descriptions of themselves based off of a smattering of data points - maybe from reading a blurb on the firm's website or from knowledge of superficial stereotypes (e.g., Bain is the most "fratty" or McKinsey is very "buttoned-up").
Don't get pulled into this trap. First, if you spend your interviews framing yourself as something you believe firms want to see, even if you're successful, you'll probably realize that it's unpleasant to "remodel" yourself every day once you're on the job. Secondly, while every successful candidate must demonstrate critical skills (e.g., strategic thinking, mental math), the elite firms highly value unique perspectives, experiences and abilities. After all, if these firms truly want to solve the Fortune 500's most intractable problems, they'll need cross-disciplinary experiences that draw on the knowledge of everyone at the firm, from former engineers to PR experts.
Don't be a case robot
As a corollary to the above, not only do you not want to overfit, you want to seek opportunities to showcase your unique perspective and creativity. Remember, the firms are looking for multi-talented problem solvers, not case robots.
"Your interview is thirty to forty-five minutes, but your interviewer is going to spend ten to twelve hours interviewing today. They're going to ask the same case and the same questions over, and over, and over again. And for the most part, they'll hear almost the same thing from candidates over, and over, and over again. So, if you find some way to interact authentically, that can be a big plus. Basically, just be a human being." - Steve Kenning, former Bain & Co consultant
Think of it this way: when you call a customer service line and get trapped in a phone tree, what is your first thought? It's usually, "I just want to talk to a human!" You experience that sentiment because the voice on the other end isn't truly listening to your problem - it's just anticipating your problem and fitting it into a pre-existing framework. Many times, case interviewers feel the same way - because interviews are naturally stressful for candidates and case interviews can be particularly challenging, many candidates inadvertently cope by robotically cranking through the content.
The good news is that there are near infinite ways to avoid this problem. Focus on successfully solving the case while taking opportunities to showcase your unique perspective. For example, maybe you've got a knack for re-applying creative solutions across different industries. You might not want to lead with it because it would interrupt the flow of your logical problem solving. However, you could find a way to frame that idea at the end as an extra bonus. That would be a productive way to demonstrate creative thinking, while also illustrating that you know the right way to bring that up in a case situation.
For example, if you're working through a Chinese market expansion case for a CPG firm and you could highlight a slightly more unorthodox approach: the company should sell it's own fledgling operations to a competitor and take an investment stake in that same local competitor. Sure, it's a little "off the wall" but you could cite Uber's recent, similar move to "win" in China by selling its operations and redirecting the capital they would have spent on driver subsidies to a 25% stake in local competitor, Didi.
Finally, here is all of the above advice summed up. Barring a compelling reason not to, be yourself. If nothing else, on interview day, you'll have one last thing to worry about: putting on an act.