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The foundational skills

James Dunbar, General Manager at RocketBlocks
Published: January 9, 2024

Structured thinking | Analysis | Math | Creativity | Business intuition | Communication | Collaboration | Leadership

Ambitious people are drawn to jobs like management consulting, product management, and strategy roles in exciting companies. These jobs are prestigious, have high pay, and open doors to careers leading enterprises, making money, and shaping the world.

The reason for the rewards and trajectory is that these jobs require you to be good at a valuable task: consistently solving “hard” problems that don’t have off-the-shelf solutions. Companies are willing to pay for people who can solve problems, and if you can solve problems in consulting or tech, you can do it anywhere for the rest of your career.

Companies face “hard” questions like How do we launch a carpool mode on Uber? How do we update our supply chain to avoid country X? Should we invest $100M to expand in South America? What is the right business model and go to market approach for our $4B line of software?

These are questions you can’t just dump into Google. To solve them, you need someone who can break problems down in a structured way, run analyses, come up with a plan, and work with dozens of people to turn that plan into reality. Each of those steps is hard, and it’s rare to find people who can do them all.

That’s the key for jobs like consulting or product. The thing you’re getting paid to do is take messy situations and create order, then plans, actions, and results. Companies pay for business-minded people who solve problems and drive action.

As a management consultant, you structure a problem, run analyses to investigate a hypothesis, come up with a plan, then get key people on board with the solution.

For in-house strategy, you follow a similar pattern to consulting, though you may be expected to move quicker and work on a bunch of problems at the same time.

In product roles, you structure problems and opportunities, work with data and customers to design possible answers, then make a plan and build your vision. You work cross functionally with engineers, marketing, and leadership to ship new products.

RocketBlocks helps you get hired into these roles and be successful once you are in.

We do this by helping you improve on a family of skills that companies look for when hiring for these roles. These are the skills needed to solve complex problems and drive action.

Here are the skills:

Key building block skills for tech and consulting jobs

We call these the “building block” skills. Improving them will help you launch your career. This is why it’s called RocketBlocks.

If you have these 8 skills, you will be successful in consulting, product, or strategy. Actually, you can be successful in a lot of roles, but consulting, product and strategy are the jobs that most purely pay for problem solving.

If you want a job in consulting, product or strategy, you need these 8 skills, and you need to be able to demonstrate them during interviews. Companies test for these skills because they are required to solve problems and get stuff done.

RocketBlocks is a gym where you practice skills to get ready for “game day” - your interview.

People like our approach because we don’t help you “hack” the interview. Rather, we teach the skills companies look for and help you get better at them, for real. There are no gimmicks, just deliberate practice applied over time.

And that’s the beautiful thing. It’s not just about getting your next job. It’s about building skills that are helpful for the rest of your career. If you practice these skills, you become a business-minded person who solves problems and drives results. If you become that kind of a person, you will be successful in your career, and you will have a better shot at getting an offer.

Our Experts tell stories of using these skills every day, even though they have become Vice Presidents, partners in consulting firms, well-established product leaders, and CEOs.

A tour of the eight skills

For each skill, we can give a definition, expand on why each skill is important, share a bit about what it looks like in a job description when a company is looking for this skill, as well as how companies tend to screen for this skill during interview cycles.

Structured thinking (Top)

What does this mean Structured thinking is the ability to organize the all the information available to you (and the information you don’t have) into useful categories in order to make decisions in service of a goal.
Why companies want people with this skill This is the foundational problem solving skill - breaking down a problem into its component parts, looking for root causes, and evaluating the entire problem space are all required to be able to solve complex problems at scale.

This skill also underpins your ability to communicate and collaborate effectively.
What does it look like in a job description Companies will say they are looking for an “experienced problem solver” or describe the nature of the work to do.

Companies also describe the ambiguity and fast-paced nature of the business. This is code for: “you will need to process a lot of information quickly,” which requires you to be structured in your thinking.

Examples from recent job descriptions:
  • “Comfort with ambiguity, you enjoy figuring out what needs to be done—and then doing it.” (PM role at Lattice)
  • “You don’t need a guide. You dive into difficult problems and come up with a plan.” (Strategy role at DoorDash)
  • “Structure ambiguous problems and take action to solve them” (McKinsey)
How do companies test for this skill? “Live” problem solving is the traditional way companies test for this skill. Consulting firms use elaborate case interviews, hiring managers in product may work through a specific product case, and for strategy roles you may be faced with a homework project to complete as part of your interview cycle.

Analysis (Top)

What does this mean Analysis is a broad skill that requires you to investigate data and qualitative information to drive your own (and your team’s) understanding forward.

Analysis can include pulling insights from charts and tables, working with data to create new comparisons, market sizing, model building, and qualitative research synthesis.
Why companies want people with this skill Analysis is the daily work of consulting and strategy. It is the legwork involved in actually solving complicated problems. Once you have a problem structure and hypothesis, you can proceed with analysis to identify and learn about the root causes and drivers of your problem.
What does it look like in a job description Companies will ask for this skill directly.

Examples from recent job descriptions:

“Experience analyzing complex, large-scale data sets and making decisions based on data” (from a Meta PM role)

“Execute analysis; translate data into meaningful insights” (from a Bain JD)
How do companies test for this skill? Case interviews remain the gold standard for analysis. You’ll be given some amount of information via a chart, table, or simple, verbal prompt and be expected to work with that information to develop a shared understanding of the problem.

Companies will also test for this in your behavioral interviews - they may ask you to talk about a time you solved problems using data.

Lastly, companies may also include some heavier analysis as part of a homework assignment. You may get a few hundred rows of data and be asked to come up with some insights or conclusions based on what has been shared.

Math (Top)

What does this mean Math is code for your familiarity and comfort working with numbers. If your company generates $500M in revenue this year, there is a world of difference between doing $510M and $590M next year.

To solve problems, you will need you to be as comfortable working with numbers as you are with words.
Why companies want people with this skill For consulting, product, and strategy roles, you will swim daily in a sea of numbers and metrics. What was our revenue last quarter? Was it up or down a few %? Are our DAUs down? Is this number good or bad?

Math is a fundamental language of business, and your ability to immediately understand “what the numbers mean” is necessary for any of these roles.
What does it look like in a job description It’s rare that companies will specifically say “must be good with math,” as the skill is so foundational it’s just as likely you will see them ask for someone who “can get dressed in the morning.”

That said, you may see phrases highlighting data, metrics, and KPIs as “you are data-fluent” or “comfortable talking about funnel metrics.”
How do companies test for this skill? Math fluency is baked into live cases, homework assignments, and behavioral interview questions (e.g., “tell me about time when”).

Consulting and product case interviews may involve some amount of calculation and math as a component of required analysis.

Similar to communication, companies will also evaluate your math passively as you tell stories and discuss problems. They’ll look to see how comfortable you are working with different types of data and metrics.

Creativity (Top)

What does this mean Creativity is the ability to connect two seemingly unconnected pieces of information in a useful way. Is there a new analysis that will work for this problem? Is there a story we can tell that gets our main point across best? Is there a novel way to design a product that will delight customers?

People who can solve “hard” problems need to be inventive in their day-to-day work.
Why companies want people with this skill Companies value creativity because it is the driver of innovation. Consulting, product, and strategy roles require that people solve novel problems, and therefore the companies need people who can go beyond simply applying known solutions.
What does it look like in a job description Many roles will discuss creativity specifically in the JD. They may also emphasize solving novel problems.

Examples from recent job descriptions:
  • “Common traits of those successful in this role are leadership … creativity, and the ability to work with people across all levels in an organization.” (from McKinsey)
  • “Highly enthusiastic, creative, with an entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to innovate.” (Adobe PM role)
How do companies test for this skill? Companies will use case interviews to evaluate creativity. They’ll specifically look to see if you are able to come up with customized, creative frameworks in the face of a new challenge.

Companies may also probe for creativity during behavioral interviews - asking you about a time when you needed to be inventive or innovative to solve a problem.

Business intuition (Top)

What does this mean Business intuition or business acumen is the ability to do three things: First, is to identify which information is most important given any amount of data or context, second is to clarify what decisions need to be made, and third is to figure out what actions need to be taken in any given business scenario.

Having strong business acumen means you ask productive questions and are able to focus thinking and energy on the areas that will make the most difference.
Why companies want people with this skill Companies screen for this skill because it is key for prioritization and efficiency. People lacking in intuition may spend hours or days focusing on the wrong angle of a project, or they may “miss the forest for the trees” in their analysis. People with strong acumen may be able to come up with an answer that is 85% as accurate with only 5-10% of the work of someone lacking in this skill.
What does it look like in a job description Companies will look for candidates with a background in their specific industry, or describe a general understanding of some business skills.

Examples from recent job descriptions:
  • “Ability to quickly develop a deep understanding of the industry and company” (from a strategy director role)
  • “Optimizing business outcomes is second nature.” (from an operations manager role)
How do companies test for this skill? Companies test for this skill using case questions and homework assignments. They will also test for this skill during behavioral interviews–specifically, they’ll listen for your ability to describe past achievements and how well you articulate what was important to your company and why in a given moment. They’re listening to see how fluent you are in the language of business at previous roles.

Communication (Top)

What does this mean Business communication involves translating complicated analyses or ideas into digestible and persuasive slides and sentences that are used to make decisions and drive action.

People who are strong in communication are able to headline effectively and structure their communication in a way that others can easily follow.
Why companies want people with this skill Written and verbal communication are the keys to scale. Employees who are strong at communicating can create alignment with teams, divisions, and customers. Similar to “math,” strong communication is an absolute must-have skill for people solving complex business problems.
What does it look like in a job description “Strong communicator” or “executive communications” are often directly listed as requirements in job descriptions. Companies may also be more tactical in describing the type of communication that is necessary - from a senior product manager role: “ability to break down and describe complex technologies in a clear and understandable manner.”
How do companies test for this skill? The entire interview is a communication test, from the intro emails to the exit thank yous, your communication is being screened at every step of the process. This is especially true during case interview questions and behavioral interview questions.

Collaboration (Top)

What does this mean Collaboration is the ability to work with others to get things done. Including people in your problem solving will generate better answers, working with teammates in your planning will create more alignment, and partnering in your work will create better deliverables, faster.
Why companies want people with this skill Collaboration is one of the key skills towards actually shipping results and driving action. The best solution for a problem is worth $0 if it never leaves a Google doc or a power point. Companies need leaders who are able to work with others and get things done quickly.
What does it look like in a job description Companies will highlight your need to work cross-functionally to be successful. They may identify specific teams you’ll have to work with or include phrases like “leading through influence.”
How do companies test for this skill? Companies use behavioral interviews to test for this skill. They may ask a question like “tell me about a time you disagreed with a colleague, how did you resolve it?” or “how do you align stakeholders that have different opinions while working on a project?”

Critically, they want to hear about your ability to interact with real people to make things happen.

Leadership (Top)

What does this mean Companies typically have their own definitions of leadership - Amazon famously has their 14 principles which centers around ownership and output, while McKinsey describes it as “a set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization.”
Why companies want people with this skill Leaders are force multipliers. People who can “round up” on the context and their environment, and make the people around them perform better and have a better experience.
What does it look like in a job description Companies will often directly ask for leadership experience - either through direct people management, or experience with a project, team, or other leadership.

Examples from recent job descriptions:
  • “Leadership Experience: Prior experience setting and delivering on a strategy you crafted, where you were accountable for the outcomes.” (from a senior PM role)
How do companies test for this skill? Companies use behavioral interviews to screen for leadership. They’ll ask you to “tell me about a time when” you had to set goals, build trust, or even to just describe your leadership style.

Be prepared to talk about your definition of leadership, and be able to map it to the company’s definition if they have one available.

P.S. Are you preparing for PM interviews?

Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.