Michael Sandel’s “Justice”

September 30, 2009

Michael Sandel is a renowned Harvard professor who teaches a class titled “Justice”. Its subject matter is ethical decisions and challenging students’ mental models. (ie: actually challenging people to think.) His class has been recorded in a high production value setting by WGBH in Boston and is now available online at http://justiceharvard.org/

It’s interesting and thought provoking material and the episodes come with suggested readings to go with them. I always appreciate excellent teaching and would encourage you to take a look at the site, even if you don’t have the time to watch all 12 episodes.


Case Interviewing Feedback

September 26, 2009

I asked several friends and former colleagues in consulting firms to offer feedback on my recent case interviewing post. I’ve attached (edited) comments that built on or differed slightly from my input.



  • It sets the tone for the rest of the interview, and can really get an interviewee off to a great start. It’s critical to nail.
  • Issue trees are really helpful in making sure you’re asking the right question, have it disaggregated into MECE (mutually-exclusive, collectively exhaustive) chunks, and can communicate what you think is most important to the interviewer in a very easy-to-follow-manner. Plus, if you’re structure is thoughtful at the beginning, it can serve as “true north” during the interview to make sure you’ve hit all the points you outlined in the beginning / capture relevant data in a easy-to-find place.


  • Your comment about the importance of communication under Analytical Abilities point 1 is absolutely true, almost to the point of making it a separate category alongside analytical abilities.  If one can’t communicate their insights or approach, the thought and work doesn’t do much good 
  • Thinking about what you say is also important, students can trap themselves if they speak to quickly, but it’s important for them to explain their thought process – why are they asking certain questions?  What assumptions are they making?  Etc.  The interviewer wants to know these things, but make sure they show an insightful thought process

Public Math – Multiple people cited the importance of confidence here.

  • This isn’t a critical portion of the interview in and of itself, but seems to be where students are most nervous. We’ve all been working with calculators since 4th grade, but what we’re interested in seeing is a natural intuition with numbers – practice, practice, practice.
  • It’s a huge confidence booster and helps with the flow of the interview if candidates know they can rock it, go in, and get the job done. Market-sizing mini-cases are a great way to test both the believability of assumptions and math skills.

Analytics & Synthesis

  • There’s a big difference between summary and implications – pushing to action is a huge differentiator, and closes the interview gracefully. Not to sound corny, but really practicing the “30 second CEO elevator speech” can be tremendously helpful.
  • I also like your point, “more business students than you might think have great grades, but aren’t “savvy”…
  • I’m glad you mentioned that announcing you are using a canned framework is not important to interviewers – not all cases can use a canned framework, and if they are relevant, understanding why a framework addresses what it does is the important factor, not that framework “ABC” is being used
  • The one caveat I’d have is on the closing thoughts/wrap up portion. Obviously most interviews allow you to gather your thoughts, but I had one where the interviewer wanted me to spit out the conclusion immediately. It definitely threw me off guard. I think it’s a good idea for students to practice a couple times without taking a pause to formulate their conclusion. This time pressure will help them think on their feet and synthesize thoughts on the go.
  • “You begin to touch on my point when you mention that firms are looking for ‘driven problem solvers’. I can’t stress this enough to students: it is extremely important that the individual push forward without me first telling them to. If I give someone a slide with data about how labor costs are increasing, 99% of the time the student will say, “It looks like labor costs are increasing”, and then look up at me for some sort of approval. I nod my head and say, “Great, now what”, or “so what”. This is fine, but the optimal answer – the answer that shows me you are driven to figure out the the problem – is “It looks like labor costs are increasing. I think this is likely a large part of why our profits have been shrinking. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to dig a little deeper on reasons this might be, such as labor hours or wage rates”. This response A) shows me they have figured out the answer, B) shows me they are eager to push further, and C) gives me a chance to point them in another direction in case they happen to be going down the wrong path.
    In short, while the case is certainly a collaborative process between interviewer and interviewee – the individuals who take the lead in this relationship are much more impressive.”


  • I agree with your comment about how to use Case in Point – it is a good introduction to case prep, but can’t replace live practice.
  • Hopefully students will heed your advice, it can only help and it’s for their benefit. 

So there! 🙂

Case Interviewing

September 19, 2009

A major stressor for a bunch of my students at this time of year is case interviewing. Many of the top recruiters of both UG and MBA students use some form of problem solving interview to gauge candidates’ analytical skills as well as their grace under pressure. I’ll lay out a few of the major themes I review with people as they prepare to go through this process.

What are firms looking for?

  1. Analytical abilities – How clearly can you develop an analytical framework, dissect a problem, create clear alternatives and effectively communicate a recommendation?
  2. Poise – How well do you handle stress and intense questioning? Do you get lost in a sea of data or do you understand what’s important? Do you stand your ground when appropriate or cave under pressure? Do you hard headedly stick to ill conceived positions? How comfortable are you in your own skin?
  3. Fit – Are you one of us? Do you think like we do? Am I comfortable with you in front of my clients on day one?

Each of these is important and falling down on any one is a killer. Keep in mind that you can do really well on all and not get an offer based on how competitive the field is for these roles.

How do I handle the case?

1. Frame the problem

You are typically asked a question or presented and introductory slide or two with data. Make sure you understand the question and then take a few minutes to collect your thoughts and commit them to paper in a logic tree.

Success (failure is the inverse of these):

  • You clearly repeat the question and understand any clarifications the interviewer offers
  • You lay out a reasonable approach


  • DO NOT assume too much. I see candidates try to be too clever and jump to conclusions. This is death in a case. You will waste time, spin wheels and not be demonstrating any of traits 1-3 above.

2. Dig for details

Once you’ve laid out a framework you start asking good questions. This is a narrowing process to eliminate potential problems of avenues that don’t apply. You are trying to show your breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your ability to synthesize in real time.

This is where you are showing your analytical skills. How well do you handle challenges? How well do you respond when what you thought might be the answer has no data and so (obviously) isn’t a useful path?

Also important is how curious and intuitive are you? Stated differently, do you demonstrate an aptitude for being a driving problem solver? Too many people are trying to be formulaic in digging. I call it “wielding frameworks.” Don’t tell me you’ll do a Porter’s 5 Forces. Do it. When I pose you an interesting conundrum, be curious and dig until you’re satisfied you’ve reached the bottom of the information well.

Also, think about what you’re saying here. Many people simply talk too much without good information. You can put waayyy too much out there for your interviewer (or inquisitor) to jump on. Share pertinent information or insights. You definitely want to share your thinking. Just be careful what and when you share it.

More business students than you might think have gotten great grades, but aren’t “savvy”. They can lose sight of what matters in unstructured problems. Solving an undefined case is much harder than getting to the crux of a pricing case when you’re in a pricing class and the case relates to this week’s reading. In that situation, you already have the problem domain narrowed way down. Here you have to figure out the problem


  • Asking good questions that are on point
  • Taking direction and guidance from interviewer. Most are trying to assist you. Don’t treat them as adversaries.
  • Demonstrating curiosity
  • Demonstrating good business acumen/intuition/savviness


  • Not listening to guidance
  • Talking too much in advance of intuition and/or data
  • Failing to follow through on useful paths (this is where “curiosity” matters)

3. Develop the math/reach insight

There is typically a key insight in the case. It might be quantitative – I’ve given you numbers and you reach a financial conclusion (ex: Product line A isn’t profitable) It might be qualitative – based on asking good questions it turns out that you learn a new competitor has entered the market. Either way, you reach an insight that can then drive you to conclusions about sensible recommendations going forward.

It is critically important that you demonstrate comfort with number for those firms that care. Assume McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting and Deloitte all care a lot. Do you get what direction the numbers are moving and at what scale? Also – don’t make it harder than it has to be. My emphasis is on understanding. Don’t worry about the 3rd decimal point here. If someone says 190,000, do the math with 200,000. It’s easier and you’ll still get to the right conclusion. Keep it as simple as you can.


  • Obviously, getting the “right” answer matters. But it’s not the only thing.
  • Understanding the insight you’ve reached. Again this sounds obvious, but many candidates don’t understand what they’ve just learned.
  • Demonstrating comfort with the scale and direction of numbers.


  • Thinking you are done. You’re NOT! This is only partial credit. You have to move on to step 4.
  • Blowing the math. People get wrapped up in the math and can fluster.

4. Make recommendations

Take time to think through what to say. It’s an opportunity to regroup and spend 60 seconds jotting down your ideas. You are trying to show the comprehensiveness of your thinking on solutions to the problem as well as the implications of the solutions.

As an example, I use a case that is about profitability. One of the potential recommendations a candidate could make amounts to “eliminate this customer segment because we lose money on them”. Perfectly good recommendation if qualified by some statement like “understanding that I’d want to know more about our fixed vs. variable costs (and then why)”. In essence, do you understand that the financial accounting for profit might be different than the managerial accounting of it? Unqualified you leave the impression you don’t understand the cost accounting implications of what you’ve said and I will proceed to dig until it hurts. On the other hand if you don’t even mention cutting this segment you are missing an obvious potential solution.

The idea is to frame all the available actions that could be promising, walk the interviewer through them and the implications of each.


  • Getting the bulk of the potential recommendations
  • Responding well to challenges of your logic


  • Missing major potential solutions
  • Not understanding the likely implications of your recommendations
  • Thinking your done at “insight”
  • Being shallow

Closing thoughts

  • Practice. A lot.

Successful candidates have typically done 10+ practice cases and I have some students who’ve done 25+. Some people may be clever enough to just stand and deliver w/o this practice. I wouldn’t count on you being one of them. In many case it takes a 3.8 GPA and very high standardized test scores to be considered for a 1st round interview.

A Bain consultant recently told me (paraphrased) that “everyone we interview is super smart. It’s more about how they handle our process and culture. Then it’s how they stack up against other candidates what are all awesome as well.”

Practice can take many forms. Get in the habit of asking your self “why?” a lot. Read the WSJ with a clinical eye and try to understand what’s going on behind a particular story. Find a few friends and grill each other on mini cases etc.

  • Relax and have fun – If you don’t find this at least a little fun, you are probably not well suited to the industry.
  • This discipline is directly applicable to ANY problem solving situation. The same skills apply to work place, classroom and any other environment that requires organizing your thinking to solve a problem.
  • Find contacts at the firm who’ll practice a case with you. They all have slightly different styles. Most alums want to help you. Let them.
  • Resources: The best selling case prep book is Case in Point. It’s a great resource to start with.  Don’t get too wrapped up in the frameworks and drilling on them independently. Practice matters far more past a basic understanding of the method.

Good luck. Let me know what I’ve missed.

Related Post: Case Interviewing Feedback

Best Places to Start Your Career

September 16, 2009

Here is Businessweek’s assessment of the best places to start. A few caveats: 1) It assumes you want to be at a big place, 2) all lists like this gloss over lots of intricate details that are important to you as an individual. Ernst & Young may be a great place to work for accountants, but not if you don’t want to be an accountant. You get the idea.

Never-the-less, its an interesting list and set of articles that get at the realities of big company life and how the workplace has changed over the last few years for new hires.


Fake it ‘til you make it

September 12, 2009

Something I see a lot of people struggle with in their careers is having the confidence to lead. I hint at this in a number of my posts, but I don’t think I’ve ever addressed head on. So here goes.

I was just reading a column in business week (“Acting the Part of a Leader”) by noted leadership author Warren Bennis that struck a few chords for me. Many people I chat with or teach have the mistaken impression (in my opinion) that people they perceive as leaders have tremendous confidence, are particularly wise or have some other higher powers that they aspire to have. They often are looking for “the answer” to how to get there themselves. I am certain I was that way years ago and I guess I still am in some ways.

Based on my own experience and backed by some scholarly research, here’s the secret: Most “leaders” didn’t start out that way. It is in fact achievable if you are willing to work at it, take some risks and be resilient when you get knocked down. In addition, you usually have a limited number of really high pressure situations in which to learn to perform. These situations are often thrust on you by circumstances.

Play the Part

Bennis makes an important point about leaders. They are usually “acting the part” of a leader. I suppose that some people naturally do the right things, but most I can think of (Lincoln, Roosevelt, MacArthur, Churchill, Alexander etc.) were masters of wearing “the mask of command”. They understood the part they were required to play to move people forward.

The same dynamic plays out in smaller groups and day-to-day experiences. Most of us won’t lead the free world or face life and death decision for multitudes. But most of us will face adversity in groups and have the opportunity to lead, even if quietly and not from the front.

I think this takes courage more than confidence – A willingness to “be out there” and maybe be wrong. I encourage people to put themselves out there. If it’s a little bumpy, that’s to be expected.  Confidence grows from experience. Do it more and you’ll get better at it.

I’d also add there’s a big difference between being nervous and showing your anxiety. Being visibly agitated doesn’t instill confidence in anyone. I haven’t met many people who were confident in every situation they face, but those who adapt and are able to project confidence are better able to bring teams along.

You often have to play a role that is difficult for you, but needed by the group to advance. In my own career I can think of many examples. The way you lead a small group of high performers is very different that how you lead a team that is underperforming and on a tight deadline. That’s part of what makes genuine leadership tough. There are common principles, but every situation is different. You need to try and be who you need to be given the context.

 So I guess my take-away is “fake it ‘til you make it”. There’s no reason you can’t be more effective if you work at it.

Managing Personal Career Risk

September 6, 2009

Several conversations I’ve had in the last week made me want to capture some thoughts on how I think about risk in your career decisions. So many decisions come down to some version of “what’s the upside” versus “what’s the downside”? I’ll run through a few concepts I try to impart and then use an example or two to illustrate how differently things can play out from the same situation. This post builds on a few ideas I laid out in an earlier one entitled “Career Choices”.

How do you perceive risk?

One lesson from my grad school experience (Yes – I actually learned something!) was a simple psychological one. Our professor challenged us to think about the question “how comfortable are you with different types and amounts of risk?”

He then loosely categorized personalities as:

  • “risk averse” (ie: any loss is painful. Will settle for more certain outcomes)
  • “risk neutral” (ie: ambivalent about risk and thus able to weigh both upside and downside and go with best choice.
  • “risk seeking” (ie: willing to bear tremendous losses in search of big gains.)

Personally, I’m risk neutral. I’ve been willing to take some creative fliers in my career and make big changes, but always felt they were calculated risks with limited downside. Or least bearable downside. I’ll discuss one example later.

So, how comfortable are you with risk in your career and what works for you? A few questions that I ask people (and myself) when faced with significant decisions include:

(Note: Major assumption for this is that you have gone through some thinking about what you want. I have written about this in prior posts and will try not to repeat myself here. )

  • What can you/can’t you live with? Some things may have great aspects, but some of the tradeoffs simply won’t work. Simple examples could be “great job, but pays half of what we need to be viable” or “Perfect position, but I can’t re-locate right now.”
  • How bad is the worst case? If you completely blow it, how bad is it really? There’s a big difference between “I move back into Mom & Dad’s basement for a few months” and “I lose the house and can’t cover the kids’ private school tuition.”
  • How big/exciting is the best case? If everything works out, how cool is the upside? If the upside is your life-long dream, it may trump all other considerations.
  • What’s you’re most likely outcome? In a probabilistic world we all know you can’t count on a specific outcome, but given what you know what do you think is likely?
  • How many of the outcomes are attractive (or at least acceptable)? Again getting at probabilities.

So let me pose two examples that I see quite often. The first is a student coming out of school with several choices available to them and the second is a mid-career professional (in this case me) debating a move.

Soon to be graduate

This candidate has a good job offer at a stable, respected company. They are also pursuing several very competitive and prestigious positions. They have an “exploding offer” from their summer employer, meaning that they will have to decide on the “bird in hand” before they have any input on the prestigious “birds in the bush”.

So what do you do?

Well, it depends. I’ll paint two different scenarios that I think are entirely reasonable based on your risk profile.

Scenario 1: The good offer I have now is OK, but I just can’t see myself doing that for the next 2-3 years. The work is too easy for me and as a result I think I will stagnate.  I’m going to roll the dice and see how the more exciting path works out.

In this case, my push back includes:  “Do you really understand the position?”, “Can you make the position more than it is on paper?” “Are you OK if other alternatives don’t play out as you hope?”

Scenario 2: The good offer I have is OK, but not my dream job. There are other roles I am more excited about, but I can see myself in this job.

Here my pushback is focused on probabilities and comfort level with getting to the end of recruiting and having no offer. I’ll also ask whether they have explored the position and can they make it more than it is.

After I grill people and make them play out the scenarios they have to make a choice. In the last several years I have seen people go both ways and think that they are usually making a good choice for themselves. It comes back to how good or bad will you feel based on where you land on the payout matrix. If you are comfortable taking the risk and the offer in hand makes you depressed then turn it down in good conscience. But if you can’t bear the thought of not having something, then take the offer and focus on being excellent at it and making it more than it is by going beyond the role.

The point is to be thoughtful about your own sense of self and career. Own the decision and then move on and make the most out of whatever path you take. My point to students coming out of school is that they are so early in their careers that almost any choice they make that authentically reflects their values will work out. They have nearly infinite time to adjust.

Mid career

So now you have more mileage and have accumulated commitments; family, house, expectations…

I’ll give an example from my own experience. In a prior life at 3M I had an opportunity to leave a stable, prestigious position that I enjoyed for a different position within 3M that I felt was more entrepreneurial. It also was treated within the HR system as a “project” which meant it wasn’t tied to an existing product P&L. That means if the project doesn’t go well, you’re on the “unassigned list” and on your way out the door unless something unusual happens.

My prospective boss was someone I knew and respected and he’s still a good friend today. I was frank and said I knew the risks, but was really interested in the autonomy and the specific industry so I was committed to making the move even if it didn’t work out in the end. He told me something to the effect of,” don’t worry. If this doesn’t work out we’ll find something for you. “ I told him I appreciated the sentiment, but we both knew full well that neither of us could control the outcome if things didn’t go well.

At the time I had two kids and a mortgage. I weighed my personal goals, career aspirations etc. against the downside risk fairly carefully. I decided that the risk of NOT taking it was larger. You only get so many good pitches to swing at and this seemed like a great one. I felt fairly confident I could find another job in the Minneapolis market in 3-6 months and had a sufficient cash cushion for longer than that.

In the end it went well for me, but had it not I was OK with the downside. And for me personally staying where I was had more risk because I get complacent if I’m not stretching myself. I also got to move to China briefly, travel globally and learn a ton. So the potential payouts were well in my favor and the downside risk seemed acceptable.

As evidence that it can go wrong, a similar venture started at the same time in the same business didn’t go as well and a number of people were “unassigned”. Many found internal positions, but many didn’t. It can go either way. Often for reasons entirely beyond your control.

Closing Thoughts…

Let me offer a few platitudes that are mostly true in my experience.

If you can’t take simple risks, like being daring in a class assignment in school, how will you ever take them when you leave? I would challenge you to be more daring, but we are who we are. It’s OK to be OK with what you have. As a student of mine pointed out just today, not everyone wants to be a leader or run everything. That’s an important realization. Just don’t expect the benefits of running everything if you’ve made choices to settle for less.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a tangible opportunity is very valuable. It gives you a platform to perform on and earn invitations to bigger things. No one will know how good you are if no one sees you work. I think people become too enamored with “the hardest thing to get” and prestige. There are lots of ways to achieve your goals, don’t get too locked into only one path. I also think people fail to adequately explore or understand the “cool” things they want assuming the coolness will overcome the difficulties and hardships. As a friend of mine once put it, “The grass is always greener, but all lawns have to be mowed!”

Don’t worry too much about individual choices. Most things will work themselves out in the long run if you are patient and diligent. Much success comes from “mistakes”.

Don’t have regrets. I don’t know many people who regret things they did. But I know A LOT of people who regret things they didn’t do. The Marines call this making “errors of commission” (ie: proactively learning). These are usually good mistakes. You learn. “Errors of omission” are things you didn’t bother to do or take action on. Bad. Passivity leads to victimhood. Also, sometimes the risk is not taking a risk.  This can cut both ways though.

Calibrate the consequences. Losing the house is different than losing 6 months early in your career. Scale of potential mistake is a big deal. I don’t mean to minimize it. This is why its so important to understand your own comfort with risks.

Timing is everything. When can you afford to take risks?

So think through what matters to you and come to terms with your comfort level with career risks.

Related posts:

On making career choices: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/career-choices/

Starting transitions: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/exploring-interests/

It’s your career: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/19/its-your-career/

Dreams: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/dreams/