Business Acumen in Case Interviews

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Question:

First of all, I want to thank you for all the great materials that you have developed and posted on the web.

By far the best of these has to be your LOMS program and the emails you circulate.

I have recently received feedback from my final round interviews at McKinsey, and have been told that they would like to interview me two more times because they were not clear on some of my case solving abilities.

The feedback is that they felt that my conceptualising of the case problem was not good enough, or at times not present at all.

However, they felt that I was structured in my approach, and overall they were impressed with my general capabilities and therefore they wanted to offer me another chance to interview.

As this conceptualisation was something that was fed back to me from my first round interview, I tried my best at tackling this particular aspect of the case, but clearly I have missed the boat!

I am now confused as to what it is they are actually looking for.

I have studied your LOMS program extensively and have tried my best during my interviews to implement all your advice.

In particular ,the idea of using custom issue trees to highlight the drivers in the case, as well as getting into the habit of continuously synthesizing.

So I guess my question to you is:  what is it that they are looking for? And how do I improve on this aspect of the case?

On another note, I come from a non-business background and the general feeling from all my interviewers (I had three) was that I was too slick and too prepared for the interview, and that they felt I may lack key business insights!

I am not quite sure what this means or how i go about tackling this either.

<snip>

Having spoken to one of my interviewers for some feedback, I am a little clearer on what conceptualising is, but none the wiser on how I improve my skill in this area, and so was hoping you could be of some help.

Essentially, McKinsey looks for three things when they interview for cases, and candidates are marked on these three areas:
1. analytical, i.e. structuring of a problem
2. quantitative
3. conceptual

Conceptual relates to how one makes inferences from the data that you have collected, and what that means for the business.

Basically the "so what" factor!

Where I went wrong was not conceptualising to the level that they expect at McKinsey.

They mention that there are often three levels in the cases they do, and they expect candidates to get to at least Level 2 but better Level 3.

So for example, when you calculate a number in a case, and you get a result that is actually counter-intuitive, the first level of conceptualising is to state that this is counter-intuitive and why.

The next level would be to dig a little deeper and look at the assumptions you made that allowed you to come to that answer and whether they were wrong and where amendments can be made to make it more accurate.

And then taking it that one step further would be to make some further inferences by combining all the data you have gathered, and essentially relating it back to the business.

Now this is verbatim from the McKinsey guy who was giving me feedback. Now I can somewhat understand this but I suppose putting it in practice is a whole different ball game.

I was wondering if you could maybe help me understand how I train my brain to think about conceptualising by possibly relating this concept back to one of your cases in the LOMS, as that would enable me to see the detail that is needed to pass at Mckinsey on this front.

As I mentioned, they have offered me two further interviews, as many of the interviewers were actually impressed with me overall, including my case interview abilities, but two interviewers felt I was weak on this aspect.

Your help and insight would be much appreciated.

My Reply:

Let me start by interpreting the feedback you're getting and then discuss how to address it.

First, replace the word "conceptualizing" with the word "insightfulness" to better grasp their feedback.

Basically you are analytical enough, but not "insightful" enough.

You are opening a case well. You are structuring the problem-solving approach logically. You are drilling down branches of your issue trees well. The math is good.

And finally the synthesis language structure and style are good, but the content of the conclusions are too superficial.

I often explain that the role of the consultant is to analyze all this data and turn it into useful information... often by "connecting the dots" between disparate pieces of information.

(Kind of like those "connect the dot" diagrams many of us drew as kids... once we connected the dots we saw a picture emerge that suddenly made sense...but when just looking at the dots, all we saw were dots.)

Let me also interpret the comment about you being too slick and too prepared.

It seems that your case interview style and structure are extremely good, but the actual insights are not at a comparable level.

To give you an example of this, when you speak, you sound like a partner, yet you are failing to either notice or verbally articulate insights that an analyst-level consultant would  normally notice.

So I'm not sure that you are too slick or too prepared, rather I think there is a big discrepancy in performance between different aspects of your case skills.

This can come across as overly prepared.

The more typical evolution of one's consulting skills is that problem-structuring skills, synthesis skills, and insightfulness tend to improve more or less together.

In your case, your progression on the first few skills has been very good, and in comparison, your ability on the last skill -- insightfulness -- has lagged behind.

In part, the first few skills are easier to teach and practice.  The latter -- insightfulness -- is much harder to learn.  To some extent, it comes from talent.

Let me clarify using the terminology used by your interviewer.

Level 1 and Level 2 insights I think very much can be taught, practiced and improved.

It is possible to get an offer with consistent Level 1 and Level 2 insights.... and it helps if a candidate can add even one Level 3 insight.

However, Level 3 is very hard to train for.  It is a function of business experience and "talent."

When I was interviewing for consulting jobs, I was delivering Level 2 insights consistently on 29 out of 30 case interviews.

I would deliver a Level 3 insight perhaps one out of every three cases (fortunately many of the cases where I did deliver a Level 3 insight were in final rounds).

Today, with many more years of business experience and far more diverse set of business experiences, I am hitting Level 3 insights with my clients pretty much every day consistently.

I do this by integrating my total life and career experiences in business, economics, psychology, people skills, managing public companies, private companies, writing multiple books, being a former CIO, being a recognized national expert in marketing, working in 30 industries, financial skills, etc...

In many respects, Level 3 insights is really pattern recognition. When a client notices that I am saying something insightful, what I am really doing behind the scenes is recognizing that a client's situation seems very similar to another situation that I've seen before.

Level 3 insightfulness is basically a well-articulated pattern match.

The problem with being Level 3 insightful early in one's career is you have less exposure to other situations by which to compare the client situation against.

Your mental "database" of patterns is smaller, due to the comparatively less experience.

Now that being said, I have seen people with PhD backgrounds with no business experience who are able to deliver Level 3 insights.

In those situation, the individuals were 1) highly observant, 2) had a lot of common sense (in addition to analytical sense), and 3) were extremely good at noticing inconsistencies.

In these cases, these people did not compare the client situation to a database of patterns in their head, but they were very astute in noticing inconsistencies in the client situation... and the act of pointing out these inconsistencies is essentially the same as delivering a Level 3 insight.

I will provide an example or two of this in a moment.

But first, let me suggest some things you can realistically accomplish in the next week or two.

First, I don't think it is possible to go to Level 3 insightfulness in just a week or two.  Some people have this natural talent and are able to operate at this level without much practice -- so let's call Level 3 insights as being driven by talent and or experience.

Second, I do think it is worth striving to consistently hit Level 2 insights on all your cases all the time... and hopefully by doing so, occasionally notice a Level 3 insight (basically get a little lucky by making sure you are in the place where Level 3 insights are most obvious.. and hoping you notice them.)

I suspect this is the root cause problem you had in some of your interviews.  You were not consistently hitting Level 2 insights often enough (particularly compared to how well you were handling other parts of the case).

ACTION 1: Review specific aspects of certain cases in LOMS.

For examples of consistent Level 2 insight performance, I refer you to the LOMS cases where I interview myself.

I know you have studied these, but this time I suggest you look at the transcript version, and in particular the synthesis portions of those cases.

I think you know the synthesis language pattern pretty well by now, but ignore that aspect of the synthesis for the time being. Instead, pay attention to the specific insight I made and try to "reverse engineer" where that insight came from.

Try to figure out why I chose that particular insight to emphasize.  Also, most Level 3 insights are delivered towards or at the very end of the case.

So you will want to especially pay attention to those synthesis areas.

It is very common when delivering Level 2 and Level 3 insights that I am combining insights from multiple branches of an issue tree.

So assume an issue tree has Branch 1, Branch 2 and Branch 3.

Good Level 1 insights help you determine when you have reached a logical dead-end in a single branch of the issue tree, and often prompts you to go to a different branch.

A Level 2 insight is basically the same as "revising your hypothesis" -- where you realize your original hypothesis was wrong, and you restructure the issue tree entirely.

So Level 1 insights tells you Branch 1 is done. Level 2 insights tell you that the entire issue tree is wrong, given what is now known about the case.

Another way to state the role of a Level 2 insight is: it is what allows you to recognize that you have been focusing on solving the wrong problem... or the realization that what you thought was the client's problem is just a symptom of the root cause problem.

Level 3 insights come from linking together a sub-conclusion in Branch 1 with a specific fact that was mentioned in Branch 2 (but didn't seem that important), combined with an analysis with Branch 3 that leads to the big "So What" conclusion for the whole case.

So going back to the LOMS cases where I interview myself, (I think they are Cases 2, 4 and 5.. the last example for each case), specifically pay attention to phrases similar to the following:

"Huh, that's interesting... so that means X must not be true, so therefore Y must be true (Level 1).  Well that suggests then (new hypothesis).... and to find that out, we would need Data A, B, and C (Level 2)."

And pay attention to the final big synthesis at the end of each case, that's where the Level 3 insights tend to be.. though not all cases will have a Level 3 insight (or at least not a very dramatic one).

ACTION 2: Practice Synthesizing Business Magazine Articles - Linking Together Disparate Information into a Level 3 style conclusion.

I would suggest reading Bloomberg Business Week (or a similar business magazine that goes into a bit more depth in their stories) and practicing synthesizing articles you read.

Not summarizing the articles, but synthesizing the implications of the articles.

So in the U.S., Borders (bookstores) is on the verge of bankruptcy.  Amazon Kindle sales are strong. Barnes and Noble is doing well... what are the potential implications of this?

Almost every article has a deeper layer of insight within just the words... you can practice finding "what is important" in every article.

Or stated differently, read each article and explain the significance of the article.

Here is another example. I have been reading articles about the recent Oscar Awards.

Apparently, the male co-host James Franco did not do well as a co-host. Apparently, he was nervous, frozen, not funny, disinterested..

What are the implications for next year's Oscars?

Possible implications (Level 3-ish insights) might include:

1) Never use young co-hosts in the future; they don't take the Oscars seriously.

2) Contractually require co-hosts to re-hearse a certain amount (Franco only practiced one or two days a week for his Oscar co-hosting performance... well, we know how that turned out).

3) Alter the selection process to screen out good film actors who are not good with live audiences (Franco was clearly not, though from what I could tell, Anne Hathaway was).

Now if you read articles about the Oscars, most of them do not explicitly mention any of the implications I mentioned above.

So Level 3 insights is (in some ways) stating explicitly what is only implied by the data at hand (and could be easily overlooked by others).

Notice how this simple pop-culture story on the Oscars has meaning "beneath" the words.  There's an American idiom that one needs to learn to "read between the lines"... as in notice the meaning between the lines of text.

So you can develop this skill somewhat by reading articles, preferably business articles, and practice teasing out the insights implied by the article but not always stated.

By the way, this is often what I do when I am asked to be an expert commentator on live national television.

The news anchors states the facts of the news story, I am on the air to "read between the lines" and explicitly identify the significance (or the "so what," to use McKinsey terminology) of the news story.

Action 3: Adopt a different attitude in cases.

This final suggestion will seem very unusual, but all I can say is to trust me when I say it does help.

From an attitude standpoint, take a step back from the case.... forget it is an interview... imagine the client is a dear friend that is struggling with this business issue.

Temporarily, forget the frameworks, forget the analysis... what should your friend be worried about... what is your friend overlooking but shouldn't be?

And in your gut and via common sense (whether it fits in your issue tree or not), what else is important... beyond the obvious superficial data?

So if your friend was in charge of picking co-hosts for the Oscars, what would you tell her to do differently next year, given the facts of what happened this year?

Sometimes temporarily adopting a totally unstructured mindset for a few seconds during a case lets your mind think more intuitively and openly... and then link it back to the analysis (very important).

That is Level 3 stuff.

Identify what those issues are, and link them back to your synthesis and conclusions.

(A Level 3 macro-conclusion is the integration of multiple sub-conclusions and facts identified throughout the case.)

Examples:

Case question: How  to improve the profit of the client

Level 1: Pricing and volume have not changed... so therefore, the solution must be on the cost side.

Level 2:  The easiest way to turn around profitability of this business is to cut fixed costs... that's my revised hypothesis. To test it, I need to know A, B and C.

Level 3: Given the extreme difficulty of improving profits even by a little (sub-conclusion from say minute 10 of the case) and the fact that the underlying market trend causing the firm's profit problems is likely to continue (from sayminute 25 of the case), the client should consider exiting the market entirely by selling the division off.
(Notice the conclusion answers a question that the client was not even asking... but should be asking.  This is known as identifying the "so what" of the situation for a client, or a dear friend as the case may be.)

Good luck with your extended final round, and let me know how it goes.

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