What key soft skills do consulting firms look for in interviews?

The importance of soft skills in consulting interviews

There's two sides to every coin, and consulting is no exception. The hard skills help you do the analysis, but once you've got an answer, you need client buy in. To get client buy in, you almost always need exceptional soft skills. As a result, the consulting firms want to see strong soft skills demonstrated in the interviews.

A Managing Director who I used to work with at BCG, always used to joke that he was the Benjamin Button of consulting:

"I was a terrible Associate, a passable Consultant, a decent manager and pretty good Partner ..." - Anon BCG Managing Director

Now, there is definitely a lot of self-deprecating humor in there and he likely was near the top of his class in each of the levels. But his joke had a point: he believed he's significantly better at soft skills than he was at hard skills. As we discussed earlier, the more you progress through the consulting career ladder, the more the daily skill set you use goes from hard to soft.

So what soft skills really matter? Which ones will interviewers be looking for you to demonstrate?

Communication

Communication is key. It's akin to structuring a problem on the analytical side. If you can't communicate, your career as a consultant will unfortunately be DOA (dead on arrival). At every turn of your job, your communication skills will be key. You'll need to communicate effectively with teammates, managers, client contacts, partners, executives (all the way up to CEOs). The annals of history are littered with people who had great ideas but couldn't get them accomplished. Why didn't they get them accomplished? Because they couldn't convince others to help them? Why couldn't they do that? They couldn't communicate effectively.

Below Genelle Kahan, a former Bain & Co. Manager who conducted 300+ interviews on behalf of Bain, shares the three key traits that define successful communication in a case interview.

Leadership ability

This is another key skill that your interviewer is going to be looking for. On the job, you're going to have to lead yourself through case problems, lead your teams and your clients to the right solutions despite a tight timeline. In the case interview itself, the interviewer will be specifically evaluating your ability to lead yourself through the problem space. That is the best proxy he/she will have to whether you possess those skills. Leadership is like pornography in the sense that fits Supreme Court Justice Stewart's 1964 description of it: it's hard to define but "I know it when I see it."

Likely, your interviewer will feel the same way. But there are subtle signals that will help convey your leadership ability. Are you proactive in picking a direction and exploring it? Or do you wait for the interviewer to tell you what to analyze? Do you take the problem and "go off in the corner" and try to solve it while not taking the interviewer along with you? A key part of leadership is bringing your team along with you - getting them where you need to go. As you're going through the case, involve the interviewer in the conversation. Take charge of the case at hand but bring them along on your journey to demonstrate how you can do this.

Collaboration

Increasingly, this is a skillset that the firms have been bumping up in importance. There are structural reasons for why, which stem from the trends shaping the industry that we discussed above. Specifically, as teams helping clients are becoming bigger and the number of handoffs between teams are going up (eg strategy -> implementation), the need for flawless collaboration goes up. In addition, collaboration on implementation cases is critical because unlike a MECE strategy analysis at some point the rubber will hit the road and teams need to cooperate to ship product or launch services or make process changes.

Drive

Finally, drive. What do we mean by drive? Essentially, the type of force of nature that enables someone to keep going when everything seems for naught. Given the tough lifestyle, long hours, demanding clients, pressure of moving up the firm ladder, consulting can be an incredibly tough career track to manage. Thus, it's important that firms find, hire and retain people with incredible amount of drive. This will help consultants push through barriers: whether it's getting all the right data from the client, rebuilding a model 27 different ways to get at the right insight or working on upselling a client on new case work for years before finally breaking through.

At the end of the day, drive is what helps push consultants and these firms forward. All the smarts and soft skill polish in the world won't accomplish anything, if there isn't some drive to go forward and seize the opportunity from the consultant him/herself. In a case interview, this often comes up in how a candidate approaches the problem. Do they keep pushing through to get the right information? If they make a small math error, do they give up and get deflated? If their first hypothesis leads to a dead end, do they pack up and go home? The firms want to find someone who no matter how many roadblocks they encounter, keeps on trucking. That's the drive they're looking for.

Gotchas! Pitfalls to avoid

If you think of interviews as a simulation game of sorts, there are ways to win points and lose points. We just spent the whole section above, discussing ways to win points: by demonstrating the analytical and soft skills that these firms need and want to see.

But, there are ways to lose points too. Obviously, not demonstrating the key skills above, or worse showing a complete lack of them, will lose you points. But even more pernicious is the case where you demonstrate all the skills with flying colors but sustain enough self-inflicted interview wounds. We interviewed Abhi Tiwari, a former BCG consultant and current Amazon Product Leader, about what to avoid. The key summary of the top things are the following:

Asking how you're doing

This is a big no no. Tiwari said it best: "This is a bad thing to do. It demonstrates a lack of confidence and you'll never get a real answer." That's a real double whammy: you won't get any useful information by asking (eg if you're bombing, a consultant is unlikely to tell you that) and it's going to count against you in the final assessment. Think of it this way: if you're doing great, you'll get a job offer / next round invite shortly so the risk of asking and putting a mark against your name makes no sense. If you're worried you're not doing well, it's much better to quickly regroup yourself and turn the interview around than simply ask for confirmation.

Negativity

During both the case and fit portion of your interviews, it's really important to retain a positive attitude. Again, this isn't some random standard that the firms are measuring you against. It matters because on the job, despite how tough the circumstances might become, clients will expect the consultants to maintain a positive, productive attitude. So in the case, if you have a minor error or get stuck, don't let your attitude sour. In the fit portion, if you've had a less than optimal prior experience, don't fall into the trap of coming across as a "Negative Nancy" when explaining it if asked.

For a deeper dive on avoiding negativity and other fit interview "red flags," check out this interview with Amar Shibli, a former McKinsey & Co. Engagement Manager, and the RocketBlocks Founder, Kenton Kivestu.

Flipping the interview

What do we mean by this? Essentially, we're referring to the practice where a candidate will "flip" the discussion around and assume the position of the interviewer. This might seem ludicrous, but it does happen with some regularity. Why? Well, in an ill-fated attempt to demonstrate their toughness, some candidates mistakenly believe that if they start asking their own interviewer really tough, or challenging problems that it will make them seem smart.

The unifying trait: confidence

In everything we've discussed above - leadership, collaboration, drive - there is an underlying, unifying trait which ties them all together: confidence. And consultants care deeply about the confidence a candidate can project. This makes good sense too. As a consultant, you'll be advising top firms, top execs and top leaders on how to solve their most difficult problems when you yourself might only be twenty five or fresh out of your MBA program! At times, that contrast can seem bonkers... but one key trait that will help put everyone at ease is a confident candidate who even if they don't have the right answer immediately is confident that they can lead and drive toward the right with their team. Regardless of what type of case interview situation you're in, that is key. On that note, let's take a look at the different styles of case interviews out there.

Go to next section: case interview styles