When I was in the Army, one of the most memorable speeches I ever heard came from was by a Lieutenant General. He was getting Cadets ready for summer training, where cadets spend five weeks going through a rigorous training schedule. They would learn basic army skills, including the fundamentals of combat patrols and ultimately how to be a leader. The General spoke about how the summer training was a great chance for the young future lieutenants to build their leadership style.
The problem with leadership, in his words, is that you’re building the airplane while you fly it. He would know. This Lieutenant General is a helicopter pilot who served in 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment. This is the unit that famously flew helicopters in the 2011 Raid on the Osama Bin Laden Compound. You don’t get into that unit without being one of the best pilots, so I trust his judgment when it comes to airplane analogies. Anyway, what he meant by ‘building the airplane while you fly it’ is you can’t build your leadership style without leading people first. This is the exact challenge cadets have during summer training: they must fly whatever rickety airplane of a leadership style they know until they can grow into better leaders. There is no substitute for experience in this regard.
While I’ve only jumped out of airplanes and don’t know the first thing about flying them, his point stuck with me as a great analogy.
Recruiting For Consulting
I had not thought about this speech for a few years until I started recruiting for consulting in my MBA program. It struck me because, similar to leadership, I was not only building competence in casing and math skills but honing my soft skills as well. Also, it all had to come together during the interview for me to be successful and show I could handle clients. I was having my own building of the airplane in flight moment! From day one when I started recruiting, I had to act like a consultant to learn how to be one and learn from my mistakes. The airplane analogy also makes sense because consulting firms are looking for leaders who clients can look to for leadership. As cases grow more demanding and complicated, they’ll figure out if a consultant is a pretender or the real deal. So it’s important to get as much “flight time” in as possible if you will follow my metaphor.
The first step is understanding that you can’t fly the airplane by yourself while you are also trying to build it. Take cadet training: what the Lieutenant General left out in his airplane analogy is that cadets also have a ton of support and mentorship to help them build their leadership style. They have coaches and classes, where they receive a lot of feedback. If you try to do consulting recruiting by yourself, your chances of failure are almost certain. Going through the process and landing my top choice of internship in PwC’s Customer Transformation Advisory practice made that clear. That’s why I am going to provide some tips while sticking with the aviation theme to honor the inspiration of the Lieutenant General and his great speech.
Rule #1: Fly the Airplane!
When I say fly the airplane, I am referring to the Federal Aviation Administration Maxim: “Fly the Aircraft First.” This means that if there is an issue that occurs with the aircraft, you should not forget that you are flying an airplane while you are trying to fix it. Otherwise, you will crash. This was a big point in the general’s speech and its purpose was to remind cadets’ to remember the bigger picture. That’s why “Fly the Airplane!” was shouted at them for the rest of the summer. It was meant to keep the young leaders on track.
So, keep that in your mind so you don’t forget the bigger picture in recruiting. You’ll need to improve on a lot of things from the start. If you focus too much on one thing, you’re going to miss building other equally critical skills that will help earn an offer. For example, I’ve seen this as students focus too much on perfecting their math skills perfect for case interviews. Usually what happens is these individual’s never spend the time learning to talk about their stories in the behavioral interviews. The opposite occurs as well, where candidates don’t practice math because they don’t like it. At the end of the day you can’t be in front of clients if you aren’t personable or if you aren’t generally competent at math and problem-solving. A candidate has to check all the boxes in order to show the potential of being a great consultant. So with the rest of these rules, keep in mind that you can’t get too fixated on one or you might risk not being well rounded enough to score an offer.
A Good Starting Point: If you need a checklist to keep track of everything you need to work on I’ll give you my personal list as a starting place. In no specific order: case interview skills (i.e. structuring, math, recommendations), behavioral interview skills, networking, researching firms, building your resume, and applying for internships and jobs. These are all a high level view, but I think this is probably the minimum areas you’ll have to work on to ultimately score an offer. I also think a good starting point is reading books like Case in Point by Marc Cosetino or Case Interview Secrets by Victor Cheng. These will give you a more in depth look at all the things I discuss in this article.
Rule #2: Find the Right Flight Instructors
So you know you need to fly the airplane first… but you might be asking how you’ll know if you’re focusing too much on one area or where you need to improve? Well, you need to find the right flight instructors. In this case, those instructors tend to be from one of three groups. The first group will be your school’s consulting club/ This campus group will be your go-to group for practice case interviews, connections into firms, resume preparation, and (most importantly) mentorship. Many programs will assign a mentor to guide new MBA students through the recruiting process, and they provide an invaluable resource. I credit my mentor as one of the biggest reasons I got an offer to a firm because of all his feedback. He helped me hone my case interview skills, showed me who I needed to network with (and how), and helped me focus when I was felt overwhelmed by the recruiting process in general.
The second group of ‘flight instructors’ is your school’s career services center. These centers are great for resume prep, interview prep, and finding connections into firms and hosting job boards. They are extremely helpful. More than that, they are typically well-connected to the alumni of the different firms where you are applying. At the same time, they can help coordinate networking events and keep track of different statistics and facts about firms which can aid in your job search.
The final group is consultants already at firms, who can offer their help and opinions during coffee chats and networking sessions. At three different firms, I was offered mentors to help me prepare for specific firm interviews — and I still stay in touch with one of them. The big advantage of this group is they have a lot of firm-specific knowledge that can help you in the interview process. They have been successful in the recruiting process, have mentored multiple people, and know exactly what you need to focus on to get an offer. I received firm-specific case interviews from my mentors that were extremely like what I ended up seeing during the actual interviews. Also, these mentors typically make it clear that they were open to me posing questions that I wouldn’t ask in a coffee chat or interview. That’s when I would ask more personal questions about work life balance and their reasons for signing with their firm since there was more of a peer relationship. These mentor relationships are invaluable in the recruiting process and can really help you gain an edge in receiving an offer and deciding who to eventually sign with.
Keeping Track of Progress: The support and feedback you get from any of those three groups will; be valuable to your development. You need to capture that feedback in a case interview log or a journal. I had mine broken down by different skills like math, structuring, recommendation and behaviorals so that I could record exactly how I did on each part. This really brought to light my weak points. Plus, it gave me encouragement on where I was strong or progressing.
Rule #3: Draw Your Map
Consulting firms come with different reputations, types of projects, and specializations. I broke them down into three groups: MBB (McKinsey, Bain, BCG), Big 4 (EY, PwC, Deloitte, KPMG) and boutique firms (Kearney and everybody else). Each firm is structured differently and looking for distinct types of people to fit the firm’s culture. It can be b hard, without a background in the industry, to know where and what type of firm you want to go to; in many ways, they can all look similar initially.
I was definitely lost when I started. In response, I had to draw my own personal map on where I I thought I would be a good fit. I did this in two steps. First I researched the firms through their websites and by talking to MBA classmates and friends who’ve interned and worked at different firms. Secondly, I did coffee chats and networked with people in the firms. I asked specific questions and asked for examples of different things the firms said about themselves. For example, every firm is going to claim they have a great culture and benefits; ask the interviewer to give an example of an experience that showed them that. When I asked this question about PwC, I got a great story about the amazing amount of support my interviewer got with the birth of their new child, from the parental leave and project flexibility they were given. Asking for that example gave me more information about the firm than any question specifically about culture ever could.
Write Thank You Letters: This might be surprising for some people, but a big networking mistake I regularly see is people not writing thank you letters after coffee chats. Not coming from a business background, I did not know that this was important. There are a couple good reasons to do it though. First, consultants often head off to the next thing after a coffee chat. Depending on the level of interaction, they might not remember much about you (or even what was even discussed). Sending a thank you note that includes your contact information and mentions something you liked about the discussion helps them remember you better. Second, given this is a pretty common practice, it might be noticed that you didn’t send a thank you note. It might sound petty, but you want people to look at you like you are already a consultant. This is a first step to start acting like one.
Rule #4: Get Enough Time in the Flight Simulator
So I’ve mentioned case interview practice and behavioral practice a few times. Case interviews, if you don’t know, are 20-30 minute interviews typically where you solve a theoretical business problem. In theory, this exhibits your critical thinking and math skills to an interviewer. In a behavioral interview, you are answering questions like “Why do you want to work here?” or “Tell me about a time you failed.” These are aimed to find out who you are as a person and your character.
I could write another article on how to prepare for these interviews, but I’ll leave that to your “flight instructors.” Many times, MBA students worry about the magic number of practice interviews before they are ready. Instead, be aware of your progress and what you need to improve on. As I mentioned, a case log is a great way to track your progress. From my experience, I believe that 30 practice cases and interviews are the minimum you should do before a real interview. Many would say more or less depending on how quickly someone is progressing with their skills. There are definitely individuals who need more practice than others. You’ll never know though unless you are getting enough repetitions and keeping track of your progress. Make sure you are getting into the “flight simulator” and getting that real feedback on your abilities or you risk not acing the case and the interview.
Extra Focused Practice: Once you receive feedback and have a good log of cases, you’ll know where you need to improve. Whether it is the first part of the case where you structure your approach to solving the problem or doing quick math, you are going to need to improve somewhere. One strategy is to redo old cases by yourself and focus on the sections where you didn’t do well. There are also websites like Rocketblocks or caseinterview.com that can give you new problems to practice specific parts of cases. Finally, here’s a fun thing to do: get with a friend who is also recruiting for consulting and just make up cases to practice structuring or quiz each other with ridiculous math problems. Keep it interesting so you continue to build on your skill set.
Rule #5: Make Sure You Are Not “All Gas and No Brakes”
My final rule is to make sure you don’t overdo preparation. I’ve seen many people push themselves to the point that they are just burnt out. As a result, they don’t interview well because they are so tired and stressed. MBA recruiting can be a stressful time for any career you choose, but especially for consulting. You need to pace your preparation and know what your limits are to prevent this.
Consultants are looking for people who are excited to join their firm and enjoy the process of solving complex problems. They are not looking for someone who just wants to get through the interview and leave. So do your best to enjoy yourself while you are in the process. You will thank yourself once you land the offer. There will be plenty of opportunities to meet people in fun ways during different firm events. While it is important to network, you are going to make better connections if you are relaxed and having fun. It is a hard balance to achieve. At the end of the day, no one wants a stressed out pilot trying to land their airplane. You’ve got plenty of support in your MBA program and friends who are going through it with you. Just relax a bit and everything will be okay. You’ll build that airplane and you’ll land it too and score yourself a sweet offer and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Don’t Lose Yourself: Interviewers want someone they can get along with and imagine themselves working with. It is important to be yourself through this process. During each of my interviews, I got to talk about my hobbies and interests at one point or another, so keep up with them. You never know when a practitioner or a partner has the exact same hobby as you do so you can engage deeply with them. I have seen people get away with not being the most polished in the case interview because they really connected with the person across the table. Consulting is ultimately about people, and people respond to individuals who are genuine and have more to their life than just work. Be yourself and it will pay off.
Bio: I’m just a kid from Youngstown, Ohio who’s trying to make it in the world as part of full-time MBA Class of 2022 in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. I’m an aspiring consultant and U.S. Army Reserve Commander who spent 8 years as an active duty engineer officer following my graduation from West Point in 2012. My professional interests are leadership, marketing, technology, entertainment, and finance. I also love the outdoors whether that’s hiking, running, or mountain biking. The rest of my spare time is spent watching football and hockey or finding the next great restaurant or dive bar in Pittsburgh.
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