The Graduates Guide to Getting a Job in Consulting: Part 4 – Interview Types
There is no one formula to tackling a consulting interview. Interviews come in a range of formats and flavors. The best way to cope with these different styles is to understand what the interviewer is looking for from each one and come up with a strategy to perform well.
You will often be briefed of the interview type prior to the date. However, in some situations you may turn up to an interview day with a range of different review processes you are unprepared for. This is often setup deliberately by your potential employer to see how you adapt to new situations.
Initial Phone Interview
A phone interview (or screening interview) is almost always part of the recruitment process. This is generally to see if you are who you say you are on your CV, ensure you can communicate in a pleasant manner and tick enough of the initial boxes to invite you to interview.
Phone interviews can be a little daunting as you can’t see the individual you are speaking to, and therefore cannot use body language to display yourself in a positive light.
Having a quiet confidence is important in phone interviews. It shows the potential employer you are mature enough to communicate with people you don’t know in an acceptable and mature manner.
Try smiling politely whilst on an interview call, it really does alter your voice and people generally respond well.
It is also advisable to review the job specification prior to phone interview and make some notes on key features they are looking for. Using these notes write down, five to ten key points or features you would like to convey. This is one advantage of not being face to face, it’s almost like taking a cheat sheet into an exam. Try and tick off all the features as they come up naturally (best not to force out details unnecessarily).
At the bottom of your sheet, write down a few relevant questions you have about the role. These should be about corporate culture, industry specific questions, recent clients and methodologies. It is best to avoid talk of contracts and remuneration at this point, unless raised by the interviewer. Everyone cares about salary, but it’s just not the done thing to bring it up at this stage unless raised from the other party. It sets an unfair prejudice against you that money is your only interest and not problem solving or skills development. If you’re applying to a reputable consulting firm the salary and benefits are normally better than that of a fixed location office job in the same field.
You’ve made the first cut and now you find yourself surrounded by a room of other hopefuls. You have been given a generic business scenario, with some supporting data. This can be an intimidating scenario which divides personalities. Generally those with a competitive nature feel compelled to become more competitive, and those with introvert tendencies can feel pushed into the corner and express themselves less.
The key to success in these scenarios is generally to do neither (unless in some sales esque role which may favor a more aggressive/outgoing personality). The real key is not to come across like a graduate. Shouting over and above the pack regardless of context will result in a red tick, as will shying away from any sort of conversation.
Aim to come across in a measured, logical and authoritative manner. It’s also important to make your point neatly. Going on and on about why you think your action plan is the best will lose people’s attention and lead to people interrupting you, undermining any authority you might have had.
Instead punctuate your point of view clearly and explain why in no more than two sentences. For example “I think we should purchase product component A. I understand the data shows its upfront cost is 4% more than product B however I’ve calculated the cost of life and concluded that over 5 years it will be more cost effective in terms of maintenance.”
Also instead of asking the group “do you agree?”, try using the phrase “do you think that is reasonable?”. You will almost always come up against people with different opinions to you, but it’s very difficult to say a reasonable suggestion isn’t reasonable without looking like a difficult or abrasive character. This technique forces your opposition to appraise the logical point you have just made and cuts off an easy way for them to return fire by promoting their own idea.
In the same fashion as just displayed, don’t be afraid to disagree. Ensure to show respect of the other individuals opinion. If possible try and imply that you are building on their suggestion and adding to the concept, as opposed to completely disregarding it (obviously this is only relevant if suggestion is not directly opposing to your position). As always, keep it short and sweet. Address their idea, add your value/pitch your concept and then explain why (referring to data if preferable). This shows your ability to work with others, but doesn’t make you look like a walkover. It displays an emotional intelligence and tentative approach to resolving conflict.
Image the other candidates are your future clients. By doing so you can come across in a way this is likely to be favorable to your potential employer. Showing the ability to represent the interest of multiple parties and come to a compromise (especially if the compromise is stacked more in your favor) if a very valuable skill when dealing with client relationships.
One instance where it may be OK to cut into a conversation with more force, is where the task assigned is one of time sensitivity and the other candidates have become embroiled in a trivial discussion. This is a common occurrence where each individual is trying to stand out in a group task. It is easy to get swept away in the detail when it’s detail you have pitched and forget about the overall point of the exercise. Don’t get caught in this trap, make sure if you are arguing a point it is worth arguing over. There is no better way to leave a poor impression than hearing “times up” halfway through a passive aggressive debate about a non-critical detail when the objective has not been achieved.
Although you may be assigned a planning scenario in a group exercise, this section is focused on an individual assignment. You are usually given a business scenario, a set amount of time (thirty minutes/one hour), and some basic resources to explain how you would approach the problem and what solutions you might suggest. These assignments can be real curve balls if not prepared for.
If the assignment is on a topic that you have limited knowledge of focus on three key factors. Time, money and resources. These make up the three main points of focus on almost any project and by factoring them into your answers or presentation it shows an awareness of project best practices. This is a factor many graduates fail to realize, it’s all good having amazing ideas about how to fix a problem, but if it isn’t cost effective, timely and you don’t have the right people available then it’s not going to be a reality.
It may be tempting to dump your brain out onto a page when in a planning scenario. Feel free to throw everything at the board for the first 5 to 10 minutes. Once you’ve put all your ideas out there, identify the best 10 to 20% of them and scrap the rest. When you only have a short allotted time to present back your findings quality beats quantity.
Try and create a story. Coming up with a good solution is hard enough, but what’s the point if you can’t capture your reviewers attention long enough to fully explain it. All good stories (even slightly dry business ones) have a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is the problems faced, the middle is the journey and creation of the solution and the ending is the final formation of your ideas, their application and the benefit or value created. Consultants can benefit from being good storytellers, capturing clients imaginations and making boring presentation bearable.
If you are provided with some form of data in the initial briefing, make every effort to read through it properly and if there is a sufficient amount turn that data into information. Simple cost/risk ratios or clean data visualizations can be eye catching and help you support your core concept. Ignore data at your peril, if it’s provided it is almost always meant to be used. With the increasing pace of change in business in the modern era, companies are more and more interesting in having business propositions backed up with cold hard facts.
Once you are done presenting your solution you are likely to be subject to questions from a panel or individuals. Respect their point of view, and accept relevant criticism. However make sure to remember that this is an exercise in planning, and a plan is a variable. Businesses make plans all the time, they are an adaptable, shifting mechanism. If a criticism is made of something that is not essential to the core of your concept, or was not mentioned in the initial briefing try responding with a reconstructive amendment. For example “Yes, that’s a very good point about factoring in consultants time off into the project plan. Could the junior on this project shadow this project team for the first few weeks and be drafted in to cover if required?”. This approach allows you to score points after the initial presentation and shows your ability to digest constructive criticism and immediately act on it.
Pressure Boiler Interview/Stress
This format is to test your metal and as the name suggests, your ability to work under pressure. A pressure boiler interview is hardly ever disclosed as one. This type of interview could be in the format of a one on one, panel or group interview.
The key to coming across well in a pressure based interview is to identify that it is in fact a pressure interview. Picking up on an abrasive or aggressive tone, or personal and direct questions early on will help you tackle your interview.
Understand that the point of the interview is to see how you handle difficult situations and to try to make you squirm. By doing so you can shift your focus from fighting fires, to simply remaining calm and collected. Show you can handle tough customers calmly and respond in an authoritative tone.
Realize that comments made in these sessions are not personal, they are intended to make sure you can hack potentially ropy situations in the real world. Consultants need to be able to remain calm and collected in tough conversations with clients and third parties.
This is more relevant for those going down the route of a technical consultant. Depending on the job specification and level of preparation this can range from a bit of simple configuration to a writing and deploying a piece of code.
They are generally timed and may or may not allow you access to documentation or external resources. The only real way to prepare for a technical challenge is to do your homework. Research what tools the specific niche you are interviewing for tend to use and pick them up.
Panel interviews can often overlap into pressure interviews, with varying ranges of cross examination. You may find that some firms use a good cop/bad cop approach in these scenarios, with another individual acting as a neutral whilst recording your performance. Be aware of this technique and you will be able to react professionally.
Another common practice is to have two of the panel disagree on an issue and see to what extent the candidate interacts with the debate and how politically they respond.
One on Ones
These are exactly what they say on the tin, and can be a cause of great stress. With panel interviews if you have one or more members of the panel won over, they will often fight your corner in the post interview discussions.
One to ones can be a bit daunting. Alone in a room with another individual who controls your fate and could potentially grant or deny you your dream job. The reality is, with a little practice you can learn to build rapport quickly with almost any individual (unless this is a planned pressure interview).
The reality is during one recruitment cycle you may have upwards of three or four one on ones depending on the process of the company. These can be with anyone from HR, your potential line manager, future possible team members, all the way up to Director and Partner level.
The majority people are likely involved in a lot of interviews and most of the time this is a repetitive distraction to something they are more interested in getting done. One of the best things you can do is at least make the process a little interesting for them.
Think of your skills as split into quantitative and qualitative. Your “quantitative” skills are your degree, certifications, proven skills. Your “qualitative” skills are your personality, conversational skills, creativity and all the other important things that make you up that you can’t get a certification for.
The reality is as a new graduate who has made it this far, there is probably very little different between you and the other candidates “quantitative” skills. However you can make an impression by showing how easy you are to work with, how transparent you are about your intentions and goals. If an interviewer sees something of a shared interest on your CV they will likely pick up on it quickly (because believe it or not their human and they like to talk about their interests). This is a good point to build rapport. Show some passion about things you are interested in. Show some emotional intelligence by playing on your shared interest and asking well formed questions, and if things are going really well don’t be afraid to show a sense of humor.
If they are more of a closed book, use leading questions to drag out something about them that they will be interested in talking about. For example “I’m interested to hear from someone who’s actually done it, what life is like on client site? Do the team usually do anything sociable in the evenings, or do you stick to your personal interests?”. These questions indirectly approach shared ground and open people up to talking about themselves. It’s very easy to get enthusiastic about another person’s interests if you can begin interviewing them!
Interviews are just opportunities. Putting too much onus on the outcome means putting excessive pressure on yourself, and may lead to pangs of desperation which can be off putting to an employer.
If you are worried about a specific interview for a job you are desperate for, I recommend scheduling two or three interviews beforehand that you are less interested in on face value. There is no better practice than the real thing, and who knows you might be surprised and get an offer for a much better job than the one you were pulling your hair out over.
Happy Job Hunting,