Why Consulting Firms Hire Interns

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This article is intended for those who have obtained an internship job offer from a strategy consulting firm.

One of the goals nearly all interns have in an internship is to secure a full time job offer by the end of the internship.

To assist you in this objective, it's important to understand WHY consulting firms have internship programs in the first place.

(By the way, as a general rule if you would like someone else to do something for you, such as extend a full time job offer, it really, really, really helps to understand the situation from THEIR perspective, rather than get overly focused on your own perspective.)

Consulting firms have internship programs for three reasons:

1) to get early access to top talent (and prevent competitors from getting exclusive access to top talent)
2) to reduce risk of making a bad full time hire
3) to "lock in" top talent and create switching costs to changing firms

The following story is not true, but it illustrates the point I'd like to make.

Once upon a time, MBB only extended job offers for full time consulting positions. The firms waged an all out war to identify, and win over the top talent from the various business schools the firms recruited from.

One day, the partner in charge of recruiting at BCG concluded that the war for talent was brutal. It was hard to get the best talent and convince them to come to BCG instead of going to McKinsey or Bain.

The partner was looking to give BCG an edge -- a competitive advantage of some sort. He decided to make a strategic choice by creating an internship program.

Instead of only recruiting 2nd year business school students, the firm would also recruit 1st year business school students to be summer interns.

In the first year of this new recruiting effort, BCG was able to attract the top 2% of all 1st year students to join BCG for the summer.

By the end of the internship, BCG figured out which interns were good (and which were not) and extended full time job offers to the good interns. In addition, BCG said, "If you join BCG full time, we will pay for your 2nd year of business school."

It was a very attractive offer. All of the interns who received full time job offers with tuition reimbursement accepted BCG's generous offer.

What happened the following recruiting year was quite revealing.

The "bad" BCG interns that did not get full time job offers re-entered the recruiting process as second year students. These interns interviewed with McKinsey and Bain -- and in many cases got offers from those firms.

McKinsey and Bain got the candidates that couldn't make it at BCG.

In addition, McKinsey and Bain also interviewed the other 2nd year business school students. However, since the best of them (the top 2%) had already joined BCG, McKinsey and Bain were fighting over the the remainder of the top 5%.

So out of a graduating class of 100 students, BCG already "locked up" the #1 and #2 best students, and McKinsey and Bain were left to fight it out to identify and attract students #3, #4, and #5.

Of course, BCG was also competing for 2nd year students too. So BCG also got the #3 student (because maybe that student decided to try out investment banking the prior summer and wasn't in the internship recruiting pool).

So in a single recruiting season, BCG got students #1, #2, AND #3. Meanwhile Bain got the #4 student and McKinsey got the #5 student.

An internal McKinsey analysis showed that if this trend continued, it would be impossible for McKinsey to sustain its position as the top strategy consulting firm in the world. Within 5 years, BCG's employee ranks would consists of people McKinsey wanted to hire, but never even got a chance to interview.

McKinsey then decided that it had no choice but to start an internship program too. And once McKinsey did so, Bain followed suit as well.

While the specifics of this story are made up, the competitive dynamic between MBB is very real.

So what is the point of this story?

From the employer's point of view, there are two kinds of interns:

1) Those that the firm wants to join full time.
2) Those that firm would rather have work for a competitor.

I know it is somewhat obvious, but it is vital you get yourself placed into the first category. When you do, several things happen (which are less obvious):

The firm will wine you and dine you to try and entice you to join their firm full time. They will take you out to lavish dinners at the top restaurants in town. There will be social events with other interns that are just amazing. They will throw money at you in hopes you will join the firm full time.

When you are on the "desired" category of interns, it is overwhelmingly advantageous to you to join the firm that extended a full time offer. Here's why.

It's much LESS RISKY for you to join a firm where you already have established a good performance track record and you have a network of contacts that already know your work.

If you are a BCG intern and get a full time offer, your overall chances of career success will be higher at BCG than if you joined McKinsey or Bain. You know the people at BCG. More importantly, they know you and your work.

At BCG, you are much more likely to be staffed on projects with the higher performing managers and partners than you would at McKinsey or Bain.

In addition, if you don't secure a full time offer as a BCG intern, this negatively impacts your recruiting chances at McKinsey and Bain.

Your interviewers at McKinsey and Bain will ask if BCG gave you a full time offer after your internship.

If the answer is "no," it gives McKinsey and Bain reasons to hesitate in extending a full time job offer to you. They can't help but wonder what flaw in your performance BCG might have noticed (while working with you for a whole summer) that they did not notice in their case interviews with you.

To McKinsey and Bain, you suddenly become a high risk choice.

(Also, don't even thinking about lying in this situation. The interviewers from McKinsey, Bain and BCG often know each other. If you tell McKinsey you got an offer from BCG and you didn't, you WILL be found out at some point and your reputation will be permanently tarnished.

No consulting firm knowingly hires someone who lies to them -- period. That's because if you are willing to lie to get a job offer, they wonder if you will lie or fabricate data to a client to keep a job too.)

Stay tuned for my next article that explains why for all practical purposes, full time job offer decisions for interns are decided in the first 10 days of an internship.

In addition, to be on my distribution list for resources about succeeding in a consulting internship, just complete the form below:

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