Choosing between Multiple Offers – McKinsey, BCG, Bain, & Deloitte

by Victor Cheng

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Question:

Thank you for all the work you’ve done in helping fellow future consultants such as myself prepare for the case interview process.

As an HBS [Harvard Business School] student I have access to a tremendous amount of case-prep resources and I have to say that the material you provide for free on your website are some of the best out there on the market.

I’ve recently received offers from McKinsey, Bain and BCG and Deloitte and I’ve already signed up for your upcoming webinar on how to succeed as a consultant.

I can’t wait to hear additional advice you have to give, and hope to learn a lot and hit the ground running.

I have to concur with a lot of your readers in saying that the most important kind of case preparation is doing mock cases with actual consultants, or other candidates who know what they’re doing.

I went to a less prestigious undergrad where that peer group didn’t exist, and really wish I had had access to your LOMS program back then so I could see what it was I was getting wrong.

I also found taking a huge step away from the frameworks to be critical – it’s easy to get over-prepared by memorizing the Case in Point frameworks and lose sight of what your interviewer is talking about.

Putting yourself in the shoes of a customer of the company you’re doing the case interview for works wonders in creating a relevant framework rather trying to fit a square framework into a round hole. This is double-true for BCG.

As I recall, several years ago you were tasked with having to choose between seven different consulting firms, each of which extended you an offer.

I was wondering if you could walk through how you ultimately decided on McKinsey. To expand on that a little, I was wondering if you had any advice from your many readers who have all three offers with respect to:

1) What categories are most important in choosing an offer

2) What questions to ask consultants at the firms and

3) Who in the firm to talk to to get the most reliable answers to your questions.

Finally, I was wondering if it was common or rare for students to accept an offer with one firm, intern there, discover they love consulting but don’t fit in with that firm and then apply for and work with another firm full time.

Thank You!

My Reply:

First off, congratulations on your sweep of the top 3 + Deloitte. That is not an easy accomplishment, so nice job getting that done.

For the sake of my other readers who may not be familiar with how Harvard Business School works, it is most definitely not the norm for an HBS student to sweep the top 3.

So it is very much an accomplishment earned through individual talent and effort, not by the mere fact of the name of your business school.

Also, thank you so much for your feedback. Considering the resources you have available to you at HBS, your compliments on my materials are high praise indeed.

As you know, I’ve been a little slow in responding to your email and did see you on the webinar for new consultants — you were the one who kept asking questions!

By the way, I did notice a very strong correlation between those webinar participants who asked the most questions and those who got the most / most prestigious job offers.

What’s the commonality behind this observation?

In a word…. curiosity.

Curious people ask lots of questions.  I know I ask a lot of questions. Whenever I go to a workshop or seminar, I sit in the front row seat. I bring two notebooks to take notes. And I ask 1/4 of all questions asked by an audience of 500 people.

I was like this in college, at McKinsey and today.

Curious people are just addicted to asking questions… because well we just want to… no, have to know why something is the way it is.

I will second your thoughts on doing live practice case interviews from someone who knows what they are doing — either a current/former consultant, or a very high caliber candidate going through recruiting.

As you indicated in your experience coming out of undergrad, one does not always have access to good practice partners. And as you deduced, Look Over My Shoulder® was designed for the situation where practice partners are not available to you or your access to them is limited.

In those situations, LOMS is extremely helpful in one very important regard.  It is a very fast and effective way to figure out where you tend to blow your cases most often.

In my experience, most candidates early in their preparation process are extreme creatures of habit.

If they are given 6 cases in a row, very often they will make the exact same mistake on all 6 cases.

I get a lot of emails from candidates who are late in starting their preparation efforts. They have a strong enough consulting resume or CV to line up interviews with several firms.

However, these firms often schedule their interviews in very close proximity to each other.

The problem with this is there is often no time between live interviews to get feedback on your mistakes, practice the right way several times, and then go on to your next live interview.

So I get a fair number of emails from people who were strong enough to get from say McKinsey and Bain and a few other firms… did all the first rounds back-to-back, and then find out they got rejected from all of the firms.

And in asking for feedback (which I should mention firms do not always give you), all the firms cite the exact same reason for rejecting the candidate.

The most common reasons are poor problem structuring, overly framework driven, no hypothesis, no insight (a.k.a. the synthesis was lousy), or math skills were error prone.

This is usually when someone out of serious desperation emails me for help.  The email usually goes something like this….

“I had interviews with X, Y and Z firms. They all said I stink at ABC skill. Help, how do I get better at that specific skill?”

This is where the interesting thing comes in… in nearly all the emails I receive like this, the person says I know I am supposed to be ___________ (structured, hypothesis driven, etc…)… and I thought I did it right, butapparently I did not since the results speak for themselves.

Knowing what to do is unfortunately not good enough.

You have to

1) do it in a very specific way, and

2) be able to do it in a live interview environment.

Look Over My Shoulder® helps you learn #1 — the very specific way to do it right, and live practice helps you accomplish #2 — the ability to replicate that skills under the pressure of a live interview.

By the way, the wrong way to use LOMS is to just sit back and passively listen to the recordings or speed read the transcripts.

This only gives you a superficial understanding of the material.

The right way to use LOMS is to use a STOP and GO approach. You playback the recorded interview for only 5 minutes and then you hit the PAUSE button.

Then you ask yourself, did this candidate do the last five minutes right?

Given the situation, how would I have handled it?  Many people actually say out loud what they would have said had this been a real interview (this is a good habit, by the way).

Then they hit the play button again… and usually in another minute or two, my verbal commentary will be injected into the recording as a “voice over” analysis.

During those commentaries (much like in my emails), I break down precisely what the candidate did well and did poorly in the last 5 minutes.  If the candidate made a big mistake, I will often re-enact on the spot what the candidate should have done and said.

Now this is the important step that I suspect too many LOMS members overlook.

At that moment, it is very important to compare what you would have said in that 5-minute segment of the interview with what you were supposed to say instead.

That moment where you see the difference between your instinctive habit and the correct approach… it is that moment where discovery occurs. It is the time when many people first begin to appreciate the subtle and very granular distinctions between okay performance vs. excellent performance.

Then (no we’re not done yet with this 5-minute slice of LOMS) you should say out loud, using your own style, the correct approach to that 5-minute segment of the case.

So all in all, truly analyzing the LOMS recordings for the first time can easily take 10 – 15 minutes just to go through a 5-minute segment of the audio. Keep in mind, the total length of the audio in LOMS is around 10 hours… so if you do it right, it can easily take 20 – 30 hours to go through LOMS the first time.

What people pick up at this stage is very subtle… here are a few examples that I’ve seen:

* The person discovers they were thinking in the right structured way, but they did not explain what they were thinking… or

* They knew they were supposed to synthesize at the end of the case, but they didn’t realize they could synthesize throughout the case too… and once they realized it, they discovered that because synthesis happens throughout thecase, suddenly one’s hypotheses are so much on target — because there is just something useful about having to explain your thinking out loud to someone else, it just clarifies your thinking. (Of course, you want to explain your thinking in a very particular way… to avoid confusing your interviewer too.)

* The person was structured, verbally communicated the structure, but didn’t realize they could actually draw out the framework and issue tree on a pad of paper, rotate the pad of paper 180 degrees and show the interviewer theframework… stating the hypothesis and explaining the rationale for both the framework/issue tree and the further rational for why you want to start with a particular branch first.

Notice that all these discoveries are not “what” type discoveries, they are “how” type discoveries.

Through this practice, many people do not learning anything new from LOMS about what to do. What they discover (which is a good word for it) from LOMS is how to do it.

Now let me move on to the next topic which I will re-print here:

“I also found taking a huge step away from the frameworks to be critical – it’s easy to get over-prepared by memorizing the Case in Point frameworks and lose sight of what your interviewer is talking about.

Putting yourself in the shoes of a customer of the company you’re doing the case interview for works wonders in creating a relevant framework rather trying to fit a square framework into a round hole.”

Yes, yes, yes!

This is so true… at first you master the frameworks (which forces you to learn the underlying thinking process), so can then afford to ignore the frameworks… or more precisely push the frameworks into the back of your mind…

It’s still there if you need it (like a tool in your toolbag), but not so much in the forefront of your mind that it gets in the way of being curious, thoughtful, and reflective about your client’s situation.

I have been trying to find a way to emphasize this point, but I don’t think I have done a very good job on this. So thank you for creating the opportunity for me to re-emphasize this point.

A good consultant is not a good framework memorizer. A good consultant is a good thinker and analyzer.

It is absurdly easy to think that the purpose of the case interview is to test your ability to remember and use frameworks.  No, no, no!

The purpose of the case interview is to find people who can be good at serving clients.  And to serve a client well as a consultant, it requires you to think… not just recall stuff from memory.

That is very important distinction, and I know that despite this extended explanation, a few hundred people will still not catch my meaning on this, and I just KNOW I will get a complaint email from someone who memorized every question in the business situation framework and in an interview asked every single one of those question starting from the left of the page to the right of the page… and then they’ll wonder why they didn’t get to the next round.

Answer: they were so obsessed with doing the framework right, they forgot to think about whether or not the framework was even relevant… or perhaps only one out of the four branches in the framework was relevant in this specific client situation.

So the real value in the frameworks I teach is that by mastering them, you hopefully discover the thought process behind them.. and can thus forget about the formal framework, because once you have the skill to produce a framework at will, there really is no need to memorize any framework at all.

I know it sounds like I contradicted myself several times there, but at some point in your preparation (usually after a lot of practice and mock cases) you will appreciate what I said in my last paragraph — and if you didn’t totally get my meaning, it means you are still in the phase of becoming proficient with the frameworks (and their underlying logic) and haven’t yet mastered both.

These days I never use any frameworks at all in my client work. I just use a blend of judgement, experience, and the hypothesis/ issue tree combination.

Actually, I do use the profitability framework quite a lot with new clients, but quickly move away from it, once I grasp where the money is being made in the company, and where it is being spent.

Okay, now on to the final topic of how to choose from multiple job offers.

Here was the original series of questions:

“As I recall, several years ago you were tasked with having to choose between seven different consulting firms, each of which extended you an offer.

I was wondering if you could walk through how you ultimately decided on McKinsey. To expand on that a little, I was wondering if you had any advice from your many readers who have all three offers with respect to:

1) What categories are most important in choosing an offer

2) What questions to ask consultants at the firms and

3) Who in the firm to talk to to get the most reliable answers to your questions.

Finally, I was wondering if it was common or rare for students to accept an offer with one firm, intern there, discover they love consulting but don’t fit in with that firm, and then apply for and work with another firm full-time.”

Well I find it quite ironic that people who are so good at case interviews and advising clients on which decisions to make, when presented with multiple offers, forgot to use those exact same skills to make their own decision.

I know this is not the case with this particular reader (but it is with some others), but let me translate the person’s question into case interview language.

If my hypothesis is: I should join firm X over firms Y & Z, what factors would I suggest including as the branches of the issue tree designed to test this particular hypothesis?

In fact, I do have a framework for making this kind of decision (of course I do, I’m a consultant! :)

Okay, here is the approach.  The top of the issue tree is not “Pick job offer A, B or C.”

The top of the issue tree is where you want to be in your career in 3 – 5 years from now.  Then you work down one level to determine what you need to achieve that goal… and job offer A, B or C is in the 2nd or 3rd layer of the issue tree… not the top.

Okay, let me translate into English.

1) Determine your 3 – 5 year goal

2) Identify what must be true about your career leading up to that goal (these are the “factors”)

3) Evaluate each firm on its ability to deliver what you need

Once you have the factors identified (which is very much a personal decision), then you want to gather data to evaluate each firm on each factor.

The best people to ask for candid information about how each firm really works are the people who would be about one or two years ahead of you in the firm.

I have found they are by far the most open about sharing everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly — inside the firm.  While partners are good consultants, they are also good salespeople too… so if they like you, they will be very enthusiastic about the good stuff and if asked a direct question about the bad stuff, they will tell you the bad stuff… but whisper it.

This is of course massive generalization, but I think it is largely true in comparison with the consultants who have worked full time at the firm between 1 – 2 years.

In terms of questions to ask, ask for the biggest surprises, the biggest discrepancy between the firm’s image vs. actual life. Ask them what they did in terms of work the last two weeks.

Ask them when was the last time they led a client meeting or gave a presentation (or whatever experience you want to have at that firm).

Ask them what time they finished work last night.

Ask them how often in the last 30 days did they eat dinner in the office because they were working late.

Ask in the last 30 days, how many nights were they out of town.

Ask what their career goals are three years from now… and ask them if working in that firm has been helping them towards that goal.

Ask them if they tucked their kids into bed last night (LOL, yeah ask the partners that one… :)

As for how I chose McKinsey, I am not sure my process from back then is one you would want to emulate.

I consciously wanted a big brand name on my resume for my first full time job.

During my internship recruiting the prior year, I had a terrible time getting interviews because I had no big brand names on my resume… I had to work like crazy to build my resume with big brand names between the internship recruiting season and full time recruiting.

So I quickly realized how important that was coming right out of college… so I had a huge bias towards as big a brand name as possible.

For me, that was Bain vs. McKinsey.  I did my own career goal analysis. I wanted to work in Silicon Valley and I wanted to do a startup eventually, and Bain San Francisco was the ideal fit for me.

But I also had personal considerations.

My girlfriend at the time was going to be in New York, and I really wanted to be with her — more than the other considerations.

So the goal was: how do I be in New York (I didn’t want to do a long distance relationship).

Bain did not have much of a NY presence, and in comparison McKinsey did — NY McKinsey is probably the largest office in North America.

So in the end, I chose a woman… and working at McKinsey was just the easiest way to do that.

And it worked out well.

We got married about a year after that.

And now we have three kids together (all girls… and as one father with much older children — also all girls — said to me, “man with many daughters ends up with many boyfriends…” but I digress).

And to be clear, my path did follow the framework I shared earlier. I knew what I wanted my total life to look like in 3 – 5 years (of which career was a part of it, but not the most important part) and I evaluated my options accordingly.

(And after my wife went to HBS, we did live in Silicon Valley for about eight years before recently moving to the Pacific Northwest in the U.S…. and I did end up working in technology for close to a decade, helping take one company public, running a division of a public company, and starting companies of my own.)

And ironically, I am writing today from Silicon Valley — from my hotel room at the Palo Alto Sheraton, about 1/2 mile from Stanford… and have a meeting later this morning with several Silicon Valley CEOs.

—-

Good luck in making your choice, but take comfort in the fact that there is unlikely to be a bad decision.

One more thing — it is uncommon, but not unheard of to do, say, a McKinsey internship, but work full time at a different firm.

More commonly, someone will switch entire industries, working in investment banking for the internship, and switching to consulting (or vice versa).

Part of the reason is if you do well in the internship, there are numerous financial incentives to come back full time.

So it is better to spend more time picking carefully which firm to go for the summer, as the switching cost can be quite expensive.

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