Improving Case Interview Skills After a Rejection

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Question:

Unfortunately, yesterday I received the feedback after my first round interview at Bain [Europe]. The approach and the solution to the cases was correct, but I didn't pass for the following reasons:

1) incisiveness not so high (i.e. lack of "verve")

2) few analytical mistakes

As an engineer with an MBA, I could say I can improve #2.

About #1, I think it's a problem of personal attitude, experience, and a characteristic of my personality.

I tend to be more thoughtful and not so "aggressive".

I have to say also that last time I didn't try the LOMS, mainly because at this moment I couldn't afford that expense.

The good news is that 30 minutes after this feedback, I received a call from BCG.... I will have the first round [soon]. Therefore, I have [X] days more to think about where and how to improve my skills.

Any ideas?

This time, if you really think the LOMS will help me in that case, I will try it.

My Reply:

Before I provide some suggestions, let me introduce a key concept.

I've mentioned that consulting is very much a relationship business. That aside, consulting is really a business about selling confidence. The client is not confident that he is making the right decision.

The consultant is more confident than the client that she can figure out the right decision.

Given the discrepancy between confidence level, the client hires the consultant.

As part of the consulting relationship, the client's confidence in the key decision improves.

So bottom line, all consulting firms sell the ability for clients to feel more confident in their decisions.

The reason why firms look for incisiveness or the ability to provide crisp, insightful advice is that this kind of thing improves a client's confidence.

To use an example that you are probably much more familiar with:

Let me ask you, why do you read these (often) very long emails from me?

Think about it for a moment.

To be very candid, one of the reasons I suspect you read these emails is that you are feeling uncertain, apprehensive, or confused about the case interview.

This is probably why you sought out information and resources on this topic. I mean, it is the essence of the psychological motivation behind why anyone searches for anything in Google.

So that likely explains why you went looking for stuff and found my stuff on case interviews online.

But why do you continue to read these emails?

The most common reason I hear is that these emails are "very good," "useful," "insightful," etc...

But what causes them to be that way?

Underneath that, I think I end up providing certainty, confidence and clarity around how to do well in case interviews.

So in many ways I am your "consultant" (translated: provider of certainty, confidence & clarity.. the 3 C's)... so that you can get a job in a consulting firm and be someone else's consultant.

So when a candidate is thoughtful (a process that takes place within one's mind, but is not verbalized), it does not convey certainty, confidence or clarity.

It is important that thoughtful thinking is stated out loud.

Keep in mind, before I started writing these emails, I was very "thoughtful" about case interviews -- with no one paying any attention.

My point is that thoughtful thinking does not count. Thoughtful thinking stated out loud does count.

This assumes you had the right idea in your head, but you opted to stay silent out of habit or personality.  In this situation, you just need to get used to the idea that you need to be more outspoken (in a factually accurate and insightful way).

On a side note, I was not raised this way. I am ethnically Chinese, but born and raised in the U.S.  There are certain traits within Chinese culture (like being quietly thoughtful) that are counter-productive in consulting.

These traits include (as a child): "Don't speak unless spoken to," "Respect (deference to) elders," "Value authority figures (parents, professors, experts)," etc...

This is fine and all, but it's a lousy way to be a good consultant.  I mean every client I've ever had has been older than me. Some as much as three times older than me.

The whole reason clients hire you is to have one person who will honestly tell them when they are wrong (because in most companies, their employees never will).

So who am I, as a 22 year old kid, to tell a Billionaire who is three times my age that he's dead wrong -- and I have the facts to back it up?  Well, better get some "verve" and politely and respectfully make your point.

The way to change this behavior is to embrace a different set of values and behaviors. Give yourself permission to speak your mind (as long as you can prove what you say...), which is the big difference between clients and consultants.

Clients have opinions. Consultants have conclusions.

(The difference is data and a good issue tree structure).

Now, let's assume the issue was not an unwillingness to speak your mind, but instead was that you just didn't have the insightful thought.

Let me translate the feedback you received from Bain. You had the right problem solving approach. You solved the case.

But how you communicated that you solved the case did not convey the 3 C's - Certainty, Confidence, which in turns causes the Clarity you did provide to be in doubt.

This is not useful (e.g., not billable) for a consulting firm.

So either the words you used were very "watered down," or how you delivered those words lacked a sense of certainty.

To solve the first problem, avoid using "hedging" words like, "maybe," "possibly," "this is probably wrong but," "perhaps the client might want to enter the market."

This kind of language is so wishy washy and frankly kind of lame coming from a consultant.

You want to use more confident language.  (Which in your mind might seem "aggressive," but when done right, does not come across that way... it comes across as certain.)

"Given this analysis, clearly the client should enter the XYZ market.

Here's why the data leads to this conclusion:

1) The market is growing rapidly, much faster than any other market the client participates in.

2) The company's patent portfolio provides technology capabilities not matched by any other competitor.

3) Customer research indicates a huge gap in the marketplace with key needs not being met by existing providers -- but happens to match the capabilities provided by the client's patents.

Given this, I conclude that entering the XYZ market is the right move for the client."

Now, you need to be careful to avoid: Sounding confident, but actually being factually wrong.

Interviewers smirk at this.

You can't fool them, or charm them, or sell them on an idea just because you're enthusiastic about it.

For case interviewers, you need to analytically prove you are right (and say so in a way that conveys certainty, confidence and clarity to the interviewer).

There is a fine line to walk here. If you are overly confident, it can come across as arrogant. This is bad because it damages the client relationship.

So the trick is to demonstrate as much of the 3 C's as you possibly can without damaging the relationship. This is also one reason why long term client relationships matter so much.

The longer you know a client well, the more aggressive you can be without alienating them.

I had one client who had been with me four years or so -- almost from the beginning of when I started consulting on my own (rather than helping run small public companies).

I told him, "John (not his real name), we've been talking about this a lot.  There is nothing left to debate. You know it's the right move. I know it's the right move. You just have to get it done. I am officially kicking you in the *ss -- you just need to make it happen."

That's a pretty aggressive way to treat a client, right? I would never do that with a new client.. only someone I had a good relationship with, and who has given me implicit permission to be that aggressive with them.

Now that you understand what you're supposed to do in communicating your ideas and WHY it's important, let's talk about how to improve those skills in the next week or two.

What I want to do now is share an email I received from a different reader today. The person just received an offer from Accenture.

***

Offer from Accenture

"I just received an offer from Accenture here [United States] (after three case interviews)!!!!

Thanks for taking your time to educate everyone on the insights of case interviews.

My advice to applicants is to practice, practice, practice.

Once you are comfortable and confident, there isn't much that can hold you back."

***

This is the key to improving confidence in anything -- lots and lots of practice.

You either need to practice feeling confident that your answer is the correct one -- so there's no logical reason to avoid sharing it -- or you need to practice saying out loud what you already confidently feel is correct.

Either can improve via practice.

Now let me answer your question as to whether or not Look Over My Shoulder® will be useful to you in this situation.

I'll answer by saying that I think you are asking the wrong question... (how's that for verve and the 3C's?  🙂 )

The first decision you need to make is to decide whether or not it is worth the time and effort to practice/prepare further.

That is the first decision, and by far the more important decision.

Assuming you decide it is worth the effort, the next question is, "What is the best way to practice in your particular case?"

This depends on several factors:

* Your access (or lack thereof) to practice partners

* The level of importance you place on getting into consulting or into BCG

* How much time you have

In the case of the reader who got the offer from Accenture, the person did not use LOMS, but did do a lot of case interview practice.

I do not know what the practice regiment consisted of, whether or not the person had other friends to practice with who were also recruiting, but the point was very clear -- practice a lot.

And for what it is worth, it is certainly possible to get a consulting offer without LOMS. After all, I am walking proof of that, as I got seven consulting offers before turning down interviews, and I did not have access to LOMS.

But, I also practiced for (start to finish) close to 18 months to pull that off, and I had multiple practice partners, and I had time on my side... lots of it.

LOMS makes the most sense when you have a situation that resembles some combination of:

1) no access or limited access to practice partners

2) you are extremely serious about getting an offer (and insist on getting every competitive edge you possibly can)

3) you don't have a lot of time and need to practice ASAP

The downside of practice partners is that they may not always be available on your schedule. If time is on your side, this is a non-issue, but if you need to practice ten cases in the next two days, it's awfully tough to find someone who can do that with you.

Do I think LOMS would be helpful in your case? Yes, certainly (though I am biased on this one).

Is it better than the alternative or practicing in a different way? I don't know enough to say, as it depends on your answer to the three questions above.

That being said, if you were to use LOMS, there is a very particular way I would recommend using it.

To improve your consistency in avoiding analytical errors, going through all of LOMS will help with that. Rather than just listen passively, you will want to use a stop and go approach... hit the "pause" button a lot.

Every time you hit the "pause" button, you want to ask yourself, "What would I do in this situation?"

"Do I agree with how the candidate is handling the case? If not, why not? What would I do instead?"

Moving on to the incisiveness and "verve" factor, I think you need to especially pay close attention to the synthesis section at the end of each case, and the interim synthesis that occurs every time a candidate is transitioning from one branch of an issue tree or framework.

For each case, the early examples are examples of this synthesis being done poorly.  The last one or two examples are examples of this synthesis being done well.

The first thing you want to do is notice the difference between the two -- poor synthesis vs. excellent synthesis.

Which one do you sound more similar to?

If you are not sure, synthesize each case out loud (even if you already know the answer to the case)... even consider recording it and playing it back so you can hear how you sound.

Compare your recording to the poor vs. excellent synthesis examples for each case in LOMS.

Once again, which one does your synthesis sound more similar to?

1) If you pay a lot of attention to learning how to recognize the difference between high incisive comments vs. those that aren't, oftentimes that alone can be enough to improve your performance in this area.

2) Next, focus on just the last example in each case -- the best practice example. Every time you hear the candidate synthesize where he or she is in the case, I want you to hit the "pause" button and say out loud the exact same thing.

I know this sounds crazy, but it really works.

I had one reader write in who got an offer from McKinsey Copenhagen who did this exclusively.

He indicated it really helped him get accustomed to the language pattern most commonly associated with incisiveness. It is both a choice of words and a method of delivery that ends up conveying the 3 Cs.

Get used to what it feels like to speak in this way.

It will feel awkward at first, and the whole point of this repetition is to get rid of that awkward feeling so that at a minimum, you are aware enough of when you need to do this, and skilled enough that you can force yourself to do it in an interview (and maybe eventually do it naturally).

By the way, this technique for learning is called "modeling" or "role modeling"... emulating a best practice role model. It works for golf swings, baking a cake, and synthesis in case interviews.

There are only so many ways to learn a skill. I like this one a lot.

Alright, let me wrap this up.

The good news in all this is that you were able to get a BCG interview opportunity. This suggests to me that you have a strong background and/or application.  Clearly this is a good thing.

The issue now is how to make the most of the opportunity you do have. These interviews are not easy to come by, just ask the many people who email me about second chance interviews -- with the most common reason for not doing well in the first chance interview being insufficient practice.

So whether you practice with Look Over My Shoulder® (LOMS) or practice with a partner, the most important thing is to practice, period.

For more on case interview preparation, review my free video series on Case Interview Secrets.

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