Bain On MBA Recruitment During COVID-19

Keith Bevans, Bain partner and head of global consultant recruiting

Keith Bevans, Bain partner and head of global consultant recruiting

Few people are as knowledgeable about MBA recruitment and hiring than Keith Bevans. For nearly a quarter of a century, Bevans has been something of a fixture at Bain & Co. He first joined Bain’s Chicago Office in 1996 after earning both master’s and undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering from MIT. After spending four years as an analyst, he left to get his MBA at Harvard Business School, only to return to Bain in 2002 in Chicago. He spent 17 years in a client-facing role until transitioning full-time into the role of global head of consultant recruiting for Bain in 2013.

In this role, he oversees the most important talent acquisition initiative at one of the world’s leading management consulting firms. An MBA job in consulting is among the most coveted job opportunities in the world. Last year, MBA graduates from his alma mater who took jobs in consulting were paid $165,000 to start, with signing bonuses that average $30,000 each. A post-MBA consulting gig is not only among the highest-paid career choices for freshly minted MBAs; those jobs also afford a new graduate the opportunity to work across numerous industries and companies on a diverse range of challenging assignments.

When Bevans spent the majority of his time on client work, he consulted with healthcare providers, manufacturers, retailers and airlines. Within the healthcare sector alone, his experience spans smaller community hospitals, hospital networks and major clinical networks. He has helped clients to address growth strategy, Lean Six Sigma, mergers and acquisitions, due diligence, service line strategy and procurement.

Poets&Quants recently caught up with Bevans to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the recruitment of interns this summer as well full-time job offers from the world’s leading business schools (you can hear a podcast version of the May 21 interview here with co-hosts Maria Wich-Vila of ApplicantLab and Caroline Diarte-Edwards of Fortuna Admissions). It is a wide-ranging conversation from the importance of GMAT scores in MBA recruiting (his answer may surprise you) to what exactly is Bain looking for in an ideal hire.

John A. Byrne: Keith, tell us how the virus and the pandemic have impacted recruiting both for interns and for full-time job seekers right now at Bain?

Keith Bevans: It’s a great question and one that’s on a lot of people’s minds. When things really started to become clear that we were in the midst of something bigger than anything we had seen before, we were actually in the middle of campus recruiting at INSEAD in early and mid-March. We quickly had to pivot to doing a lot of things virtual. At the time, we were also running some in-office programs for some of our advanced degree candidates.

Within the course of about 10 days, it went from we should be fine to we need everybody to fill out a health declaration form before they physically come into our office or tell them not to comeat all and send them a Zoom link. Things were changing back then, every day. You were learning new things and needing to adjust on the fly. A lot of what we were doing person just went virtual. We were going to do coffee chats. Now, it’s the Zoom. We were going to do interviews in person. Now, it’s by Zoom. We were going to do a panel discussion and a presentation. We’ll do those online as well. We were fortunate at Bain that we started doing the Bain passports and Bain strategy webinar series probably three or four years ago. So we had already made that switch years ago as we were very fortunate as a recruiting team that we were more or less seamlessly able to transition to a virtual environment. From a recruiting standpoint, we did go through the INSEAD process. We extended offers for interns and for full-time positions. We have multiple people even coming over to North America from INSEAD this year.

Byrne: Did you have to pull back on any of your recruiting commitments?

Bevans: Recruiting in that past cycle didn’t change very much. We still have 450 interns coming into our traditional undergraduate and MBA internship programs. They start in about three weeks. We are planning a fantastic summer experience. In the first half of March, maybe March 12th or 13th, I actually sent an email to all 600 incoming offerees or interns letting them know that, yes, things are changing very rapidly, but our business is very strong, and we look forward to seeing you. We absolutely intend to honor every one of your offers. We did that at this point two and a half months ago, and nothing has changed. We are planning a phenomenal summer experience with a week-long global training program. It will all be virtual for our MBA interns. We’re asking them all to plan on a full 10-week experience with Bain.

To be fair and to be honest with you, we also recognize that we’re all going through the same thing, but it’s affecting all of us differently. We are asking people who are in particularly difficult situations or family circumstances to let us know if they’re operating at 70% or 50% or less capacity because we still want them to participate in some way and get the Bain experience that they earned in the recruiting process, but we’re working through all of that. The experience and what we’re trying to deliver in terms of learning and professional growth has not changed one bit.

Byrne: That’s great. Now, Keith, I know that some companies have delayed the start times for their full-time job hires after graduation because of the pandemic. Are your start times the same or have you pushed them back?

Bevans: Well, we’re in the middle of communicating that. I’m not going to talk too much about that. We let some students know that their start dates are going to change. We have not finalized what that exactly means as of right now, but, yeah. We sort of run our start date process in the spring every year based on business needs and we are trying to match those with other things that are happening in the calendar.

This year, that process is running a little bit later because things are changing literally every day. Typically, students who are coming in full time or rejoining us after business school or after they did their summer internship get the offer in the fall. So interns in August who are still full-time students in that October time frame may accept an offer not knowing that start date until the spring. This is a plus or minus because it may be a little bit later this year than everybody would like. We’re still finalizing the exact start dates for this year.

Byrne: Given all the uncertainty, do you have an idea of what’s going to happen in the fall and winter when you would traditionally do info sessions and coffee chats?

Bevans: I imagine a lot of people are anxious about that, not just students but also schools. Part of the value proposition that a lot of the top MBA programs offer their students is that companies like Bain & Company are interested in getting to know their students. Anything that could disrupt that is obviously top of mind for all of us. As it relates to the fall, we’re planning on doing recruiting for the year. Let me just say that upfront. Our business is quite strong going in, stronger than it’s been going into any other downturn. We’ve come out of every other downturn stronger than our business was before the downturn.

Last time, our business was up significantly after the 2008-2009 downturn. Our business was up 20% to 30% after the last downturn. You can only do that if you have the capacity to do the work that you’re anticipating which means you actually have to stay true to the long-term vision of the business and not do anything in the near term that sacrifices your long-term growth and health.

Recruiting is a vital pipeline for us in terms of our ability to grow the business. Maybe, it’s worth reminding the audience given some of the questions that I get from recruits. We’re a strategy firm. We’re thinking three to five years out in terms of what a business needs to look like and what the business needs will be. In that sense, you don’t radically change what you’re doing. You don’t wait for the storm to end and then get back to what you were doing.

Now is the time where you actually think there might even be more MBA talent interested in consulting that may not have been interested before. That’s actually an opportunity for us to prepare for the future. That is something we’re all expecting which is exactly what we did in the last couple of downturns. I’ve actually been here. This is now my third one at Bain. Every time we come out of the downturn stronger than when we went in. This time, we’re going in as strong as we’ve ever been. Just a couple of weeks ago we closed an acquisition of Quartz, another consulting firm in Europe. We also closed an analytics firm over there. We’re making the moves that we think we need to make for the long-term prospects for the business, and recruiting is no different.

Byrne: I also would imagine that consulting tends to do well during a downturn because that’s when companies need more help. Is that true?

Bevans: The way I like to think about it and I’ll oversimplify it not to minimize the extreme difficulties that the virus has on people’s livelihoods, on their health, on their family situations, but in any downturn even separate from this current downturn, when times are good, companies are calling Bain to help them figure out where to invest and how to grow their business. Private equity firms are calling us to help them figure out which deals are the best deals to make.

When times are bad, companies just like us have to start thinking about whether they need to pull back in certain areas of their operations. How can I do that without sacrificing the long-term growth and long-term health of the business? We can be just as helpful there as we can in terms of thinking where to grow. In some ways, the nature of the work that we’re doing changes a little bit, but the need for the type of expertise that Bain & Company brings to the table remains very high.

Even now, we have dozens of teams deployed globally working in areas related to COVID. That spans from social impact work with nonprofits that are connecting some of the most vulnerable in the world populations to the resources and help that they need in countries all over the place. We’re also working with clients that are going through very traumatic and disruptive situations where they have to take thousands of people and convert their workforce on a moment’s notice to effective work from a home workforce.

What’s really inspiring to me is seeing some of the work that we’re doing with companies in the healthcare sector, with first responders and some of the PPE at work. We are working with companies that are trying to help the world deal with this crisis and knowing that my colleagues are involved in all three aspects of that sort of response on the global side is really inspiring. That’s in addition to all the locally-driven fundraising efforts and volunteer efforts that are happening. Earlier this week, we posted about some of the work that our colleagues are doing in Texas to help feed the frontlines. That’s a grassroots effort that our consultants believe are important to us. I’m really inspired to see what we’re doing around the system globally at Bain to respond to this and put our best foot forward. It’s really neat to see.

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