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

Traps:

  • 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

Success:

  • 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

Traps:

  • 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.

Success:

  • 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.

Traps:

  • 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.

Success:

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

Traps:

  • 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


Answering “so, tell me about yourself…”

March 7, 2009

An almost universal interview question is some version of “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your resume”. Despite this being entirely predictable and a softball question, I see way too many interviewees butcher it or at least under-deliver on it. An earlier post on interviewing basics outlines how to handle the overall interview. I want to dig into how to handle what is likely the first question.

 

Build a Framework

 

Always remember that you are trying to convey several main ideas to your interviewer. Every story or example you offer should re-enforce these themes. In the Consulting Enterprise program we discuss storyboarding and building your logic “pyramid”. This is simply a specific application of the concept. Note: Barbara Minto has written a detailed methodology on building effective communication frameworks (pyramids) that I’ll describe in a future post.

 

I tend to recommend breaking your communication goals into 3-4 categories. Two things you are absolutely, always trying to get across are 1) you can do the job and 2) you are a good fit. The other categories (leadership, teamwork, etc.) will vary by firm and position and require you to do a little research.

 

Capability

·        General capability. Convince me you are a “do-er”, that you have overcome obstacles, are smart and have progressed in your activities etc.

·        Specific capabilities. This relates to the position in question. For a financial analyst job, can you describe relevant coursework or experience? Do you respond well to probes about your thought process?

·        Fundamentally, this is an “am I impressed with you?” category.

 

Fit

·        Cultural fit. Are you one of us? Do you seem to understand our culture? Are your goals aligned with what our organization can deliver?

·        Likeability. This is the “airport test”. Are you someone I want to be on a team with? Did we build rapport? It sounds like “cultural fit” but is subtly different. There may be people you really like who are a bad cultural fit and vice versa.

·        Likelihood to accept. Given the competitiveness of recruiting in many situations, recruiters have to gauge actual interest. Have you convinced me that this is really what you want?

 

Other categories

·        What other major themes do you need to hit. Decide and break down into sub messages.

 

Strategy

 

When launching into your self-description, you need to focus on a few key things.

 

·        Keep it concise. Depending on your career stage, this should be 2-5 minutes. For students, 3 minutes is a decent guideline. Also, always remember Mark Twain’s quote to the effect that he apologized for writing a long letter, but he didn’t have the time to write a short one.

 

Don’t hit on every thing you have done. BORING. Only touch on one or two key things from each position or phase of your experience that relates to your bigger themes. Part of the test is showing that you know what’s important.

 

Also, save the detail on your good examples for later. Just give the “takeaway” at this stage. You don’t want to distract from the flow of your story.

 

At a certain level, you simply need to get through it…

 

·        Tell a story. Stories have a beginning, middle and end. You need to bring the listener along with you. Develop a story “through line” that logically connects your experiences and development and leads to you sitting where you are, very much wanting the job the interviewer is evaluating you for.

 

·        Anticipate concerns.  We can often predict the gaps people see in our experience. Take time to subtly rebut them with your examples and story. Example, you are interviewing for a job requiring quantitative skills, but are a history major (I faced this). Then emphasize examples of success dealing with quantitative problems. Could be A’s in Finance or a project etc. But get out in front of it.

 

·        Ask for the job. Make clear to me from the beginning that you are excited about the position. You need to be strong on this. I see a lot of people visibly waffle and show their uncertainty. That is deadly. Your competition isn’t wavering (at least the smart ones).

 

Example (Abbreviated for space and annotated for commentary)

 

I often try to model an answer back for people. I’ll try to do a simulation here in print. Imagine me interviewing for a management consulting job coming out of MBA. I had a graduate degree in history and no direct work experience.

 

Question: “So Phil, why don’t you walk me through your resume…”

 

Answer: “Thanks so much for the opportunity to interview. I’m really excited about Ernst & Young and consulting.”

 

“I think I’ve always been interested in business and problem solving. My grandfather was a corporate senior exec and we always talked business and politics. He even gave me a subscription to Kiplinger’s when I was in middle school.” (Connecting interest to my past, explaining logic of transition from academia to business).

 

“I grew up out east, but decided to take a chance and go to school a long way from home at Rice in Houston, TX to study history. I think I was curious about how events unfolded and created our world.” (Demonstrating independence and willingness to take risks and willingness to move for opportunities)

 

“In school, I was convinced that I wanted to be a history professor. I took a heavy load in Poli Sci and History, while also holding a lot of leadership positions. Probably the most significant was being one of the founding justices of my school’s University Court. We had to figure out a lot of internal process and develop institutional credibility. I was fortunate enough to be elected Chief Justice my senior year.” (Leadership, work ethic, process orientation. Limited examples to one. More data is on resume and remains to be used for questions and probing.)

 

“I decided to pursue my PhD in History and followed that path to grad school. Along the way I realized what I liked was the debate and intellectual interaction of the classes and seminars, as well as the teaching. What I didn’t particularly enjoy was writing books and that is ultimately how you are evaluated and promoted. I also better understood the economics and determined business school was a better fit for me. “(Explains transition in terms consultant will probably understand, connects interests to consulting relevant skills like rigorous debate and explaining concepts.)

 

“Here at Carlson, I have really focused on developing more tangible experience and skills. I have taken a broad course load and done well with it. In addition, I have held internships during school at 3M in strategy, last summer at Malt-O-Meal and currently am taking the New Product Development class which requires 15-20 hours a week of my time to develop a business plan and working prototype of a piece of microprocessor test equipment for a local company. In particular, I’d note my summer internship. My boss had not had an intern before, so I was assigned a broadly defined goal and was forced to scope the project and get it done while also doing detailed market analytics on a daily basis in support of the business. It really forced me to get efficient and clear.” (Showing hard work, ability to sustain effort, ability to take on technical tasks)

 

“And now I’m looking for a management consulting job. I think it’s the most challenging and interesting opportunity out there for me. I’ve consistently sought bigger challenges wherever I’ve been and this is the best path for me. My wife and I have discussed the lifestyle and demands of the position and we are committed to the requirements. She has a demanding job that requires travel and so understands. What else I can I tell you?” (Hit on desire for job, understanding of demands and thoughtful decision that it was a good fit)

 

What did I hit on?

·        Capability: multiple examples of skills required in consulting, teaching/team work, regular engagement in extra-curricular activities, several clear examples of quant work etc. I gave them plenty to probe on while (hopefully) instilling initial confidence.

·        Fit: Likeable? I don’t know…But I hit on the rest. Lifestyle, travel and work demands are all at least partially addressed.

 

Is this perfect? Of course not, but it’s not bad. I encourage everyone to practice your story. If nothing else, it forces you to figure your story out! J

 

You also never know when you’ll need to deliver it. It may not be just in an interview. Or better stated, remember that you are ALWAYS interviewing. You never know where your next opportunity will come from.