The following is an excerpt from the interview we conducted with a Senior Associate at a top management consulting firm.
What are some of the skills one need to develop for making it into management consulting besides strong problem solving/analytical skills and communication skills?
An interesting question, and it depends on the career progression that sparks or ends up consuming your passion. Consultants passionate in a subject matter with keen problem solving skills often take the “back end” path versus a consultant who is more interested in the relationship management component taking the “front end” path. Developing mastery of the realm you advise on – healthcare, analytics, etc. – will be key, one of the advantages of being in an external advisory role is you have insights into inter industry processes and often have insights into what other comparable companies in the space are doing.
Also, don’t limit the scope to skills – think about values: passion for learning and development, client comes first attitude. These will keep you going when weeks get tough, and will help drive your work ethic.
How can someone with a technical background (math/engineering) make a convincing case for transition into management consulting?
Adapt what you do to what management consultants do – solving a complex mathematics problem could translate into understanding the financial impact of a recommendation, working on the development component on an engineering design project could be compared to re-engineering a process used by business units.
The lesson is that the background isn’t as important, what the consultants do is important. You need to translate it into something consultants do and then it becomes applicable.
What are some of the good ways besides networking through which one can land a management consulting interview assuming one doesn’t attend a target school?
If you’re not at a target school it’s challenging, standing out on paper is an easy thing to say – but the candidates at the target schools likely look just as good on paper and are at the university of preference. Networking is really key here, but to answer the question – providing work samples that get away from your candidacy on paper may work, including recommendations or PPT decks as additional components to your application may distinguish you as most of the time it’s just a resume in the initial review process.
Do you have some suggestions for preparing case interviews especially the questions involving mental math and guesstimates?
Practice the theory, then the application – there are a number of materials that have wide adoption (e.g. the book Case in Point) in both of these. The important part is the contrast of theory and application. First you learn through study how to tackle a case (read online, books, coaching from friends) then try solving some cases on your own using what you learned (cases are available online at no cost) and finally work with others (there are LinkedIn groups for this if you are having problems finding “good” help) to solve the cases “live”.
Applying case frameworks and the theory is awkward at first, don’t let the first time be in an interview. Also, ensure you place time constraints on yourself and be sure to practice noting out or drawing the framework or practice you use with and without notes on hand.
Could you tell us about what a typical day in the life of a management consultant is like?
This question is normally addressed with: “there is no such thing as a typical day”. You’re going to be working on different project types, different client accounts and often across different industries. You may specialize early, but often before that decision is made you explore quite a bit.
Understand the travel component – most firms will say travel is 80%, which means you are on client site Monday through Thursday. So two flights a week and a bit of driving around, with a lot of hotels. Also understand the expectations on hours, like travel this differs with firms, but there are going to be a lot of long weeks.
Pretty much everything is done in the team environment, and the definition of team varies – client, manager, project team, mentor, project manager – across projects and firms.
What is the most challenging part of a career in managing consulting? How can one prepare to handle such challenges before starting out in consulting?
The combination of travel, long hours, and variance across teams. A new project can feel like a new job, there’s not a lot of time for getting into the comfort zone. Change is a constant, but you are rewarded with endless opportunities for learning and development. To handle it – give it your all in the university setting, commit to the teams your on and pursue leadership positions in student organizations that challenge you. Become as involved as possible, learn how to work with people from different backgrounds and across a variety of roles.
How important are the undergraduate major and GPA in getting a first round interview assuming a candidate has strong extracurricular and leadership experience?
It depends on the firm culture – some firms have hard cut offs, others take the best from a candidate pool, others look beyond GPA. In general though, GPA is very important – it’s an assessment of your performance, even if you’re in multiple leadership roles it’s difficult to assess your impact because we have to go by what you say it was. Imagine if in place of GPA was a number, we asked how you thought you did – it’s difficult to assess just the qualitative side. To combat this, you could refine the scope of what you’ve done external of GPA and try and quantify as often as possible – this takes attention away from that single number on your resume.