Consulting firms are in the business of renting out brains and so it’s important that they’re 100% sure they’ve hired the right one!

As a consultant your firm gets paid for you to think, synthesize massive quantities of new data and to throw out irrelevant data to structure an approach to solve a problem that is keeping the client’s CEO awake at night. Not only must you have the ability to come up with solutions but you should be good at narrating these in a way that enables your firm to convince the client that they can/should make the necessary changes to reap the intended benefits. That’s why consulting firms put so much weight on the case question in their interviews. This format best allows them to judge how logically and persuasively you can present an argument, a business story and a case.

Practice makes perfect

In order to nail a case interview, you need to know two things: how to prepare and how to perform.  This blog is not so much about taking you through a case study but rather reinforcing how critical practice is before taking on a case study at any of the management consulting firms out there.  Successful hires into this competitive industry complete at least 20 practice case studies with friends, colleagues or MBA class mates.

For further reference of relevant and up-to-date case study preparation I highly recommend:

  • The Vault Online guide to case study preparation;

  • Marc P. Cosentino’s book Case In Point; and

  • Attending all case prep workshops that the consulting firms have on offer at the time

Focus on solutions thinking, not just the answer

….The mind is wondrous.  It starts working the second you’re born and doesn’t stop until you get a case question!  Case In Point: Marc P. Cosentino

Case study questions are becoming more and more complex, in line with the rapidly changing highly complex world that organisations need to operate in.  I believe that too many candidates focus on the final answer within their cases rather than the ability to correctly explain to their interviewer exactly how they got there. Remember that even if you get the numbers wrong the ability to explain yourself also counts. Resist the temptation to memorise a single framework only: this will be insufficient preparation to answer a creative case study and often also has the downside of ‘freezing’ thinking patterns, particularly in stressful situations like an interview. Rather, harness your solutions-orientation, choosing to approach all problems in a logical and organized way, empowering you to manage whatever is thrown at you.

Best guide for you too!

Case studies also act as a gauge for you during your interview process – providing you with the opportunity to assess whether you actually want to be doing the type of work that your case focused on. It enables you to honestly answer the following questions:  Is this the type of work you want to be doing? Is this the type of environment in which you can learn and flourish?  Most importantly, do you enjoy problem solving? This is essential if you want to have a happy and successful career in management consulting.

What Interviewers Want

Consulting firms look for “low-risk” hires.  Candidates who receive job offers in consulting do so for the following reasons:

  1. They are able to convince the interviewer that they are committed to consulting;

  2. They are able to convince the interviewer that they are able to work 20 hour days and travel extensively;

  3. They demonstrate success-oriented behaviour;

  4. They exhibit and can prove good analytical-problem solving skills when answering case studies;

  5. They are able to articulate their thoughts, create a positive presence and defend themselves without been defensive;

  6. They don’t know it yet – but they are “insecure over-achievers” ….

15 Top Tips

In closing I want to share some “case commandments” from Cosentino’s book. Cosentino succinctly captures the non-negotiables of a case study brilliantly, and I’ve added my own experiences as someone who walks the case study journey with my candidates daily, as follows:

  1. Listen to the question: Listening is the most important skill that a management consultant has

  2. Take notes: It’s non-negotiable – candidates that don’t, always bomb

  3. Summarise the question: Always relay the question back to your interviewer – you are allowed to talk at this point!

  4. Verify the objectives: Always check and verify objectives especially the non-obvious ones

  5. Ask clarifying questions: Ask as many basic questions as you can upfront about the case – it helps you clarify the problem statement

  6. Organise your answer: Hardest part of the case: lay out your structure as to how you are going to “tackle” the problem, clearly linking solutions to the problems

  7. Hold that thought for a second or two: Think before you speak – don’t be afraid of a little silence

  8. Manage your time: Stay focused on the original question / case problem.  Too many candidates wander off down an incorrect path, all too often bombing out!

  9. Work the numbers: Show that you can think in, and work with numbers

  10. Tell a story: Use your ability to narrate, finding the story from within the ‘data’ that identifies the problems, explains and sells the solutions in language that would make sense to the client, not just other consultants.

  11. Be coachable: Ask for help when you need it.  Candidates that don’t ask for help tend to bomb, either because they didn’t understand what was being asked or because the interviewer felt that they were unwilling to admit when out of their depth, something that could cost millions if left unchecked in the “real world”.

  12. Assess the situation: Read your interviewers body language [bored, interested, engaged, disconnected] and adapt your interaction accordingly

  13. Be creative and brainstorm: Demonstrate that you can think out of the box – this is critical

  14. Exude a positive attitude: Recruiters in these firms look for people who are excited by solving a case problem

  15. Bring closure and summarise: Review your findings; does your answer make good business sense and have you addressed the initial problem?

I continue to prepare candidates for the case study process within most firms. Having assisted hundreds of aspirant consultants I know that when interviewing within the management consulting industry it is critical to be well prepared. We’re so confident in this preparation that we’ve incorporated it into our TSR Assured Recruitment offering. This not only increases our clients’ chances of finding the best person for the job but we’re able to help great candidates know and show themselves well in interviews including being fully comfortable when tackling such case studies.