Crossroads interview with Xuan, a PHD student with a strong quantitative background seeking insights on how to differentiate herself as a consulting candidate through building her qualitative skills for recruiting season.
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We will be doing a segment I call Crossroads. For those who are new to the show, Crossroads are pretty much when a guest comes on who are thinking about either going into consulting or leaving the profession, and they get a chance to ask me questions based on my own personal experiences. For this Crossroads conversation, I’m excited to be able to connect with Xuan.
Interview with Xuan
Xuan, can you take a moment to introduce yourself to the listeners and share with us a little bit about the type of guidance you’re currently seeking in the crossroads you’re at today?
My name is Xuan. I got my degree in Genetics and I have had some experience while getting my PhD and currently I’m doing internship in business development at a small biotech. I’m trying to transition to consulting and there’s some challenges along the way. I’m seeking guidance from Christie on how to prepare effectively and to give a good interview performance.
We’re so excited to have you on the show, Xuan. What’s unique about your background is that you are a PhD student. Sometimes when I’ve spoken to individuals looking to go into consultants, they have been in business school or having that business background. Your background is very unique. I’m actually honored that you’re trusting in me to give you some advice, so thank you. Whenever you’re ready, let’s begin. Let’s go for it.
My first question is what are some of the qualities that you view that push a candidate over the edge? My feeling is that nowadays, getting into consulting is so competitive and giving a good interview performance is simply not sufficient. You have to be truly outstanding. I wonder, as an interviewer, what have you observed of some of the qualities that differentiate outstanding performance from a good performance?
It’s a commonly asked question, especially for people that are looking to go into consulting and doing case interviews. In the past, I’ve been part of the recruiting process where we did case interviews. It’s a couple of things. The first thing, as a candidate, you definitely want to make sure that you are prepared. Prepared meaning that you have done a number of different cases in the past that you’re comfortable speaking the language of a case and you’re attacking it with a structured way.
What I see makes a candidate go from good to great is how creative their solutions are, how crisp they are able to articulate their thoughts, and also how innovative they are able to bring in different elements based on what they have learned. That seems to be what resonate. In terms of the mechanics of a case and having the canned answers is one thing, that’s showing basic proficiency, but being able to think about it outside the box and that honestly that just comes from taking a moment and learning as much as you can about the business world, seeing different things, being able to apply different concepts from different industries, and not just focusing on what is a tried and true answer.
To do that in a way that is compelling, where I see sometimes a good candidate can sound flat if they sound too robotic. Someone who’s prepared, they may be over-prepared and so in their minds, this is just another case. You have to remember that the interviewer is there to assess your abilities, not only as a consultant at that firm, but as a colleague. You want to bring some of that personality and that shine, bring some innovative ways to think about things, but do so in a way that is not robotic. Letting your personality shine in addition to being able to come away with crisp, articulate responses, and thinking about it, taking time to pause, think about which was being asked of you, think about what’s not being asked of you, and making sure you answer the question. You can do that really crisp. That’s some of the ways. You can go to so many others, but those are the main things that stick out, when you’re able to do that in that way.
If I understand correctly, it sounds like a good performance all share some basic proficiency in terms of being able to act to a problem, being able to solve it. What truly takes a candidate from good to outstanding is the ability to be innovative, to show his or her unique personality and do that and articulate that in a very crisp and compelling way. Is that correct?
There’s innovative and compelling, but also simple. There’s a lot of power in being able to take something that’s very complex and being able to simplify it. Find ways that you’re able to talk about a business problem in layman terms. That also can come off compelling because people don’t have to try to interpret or understand what you’re saying as much when you’re using more common language. I see another thing sometimes with candidates is that they get so caught up in using these big fancy words that may not resonate. Knowing the fancy words is one thing but knowing when to use them is another. Being able to have that professional maturity can make a candidate shine.
Would you recommend avoiding using those fancy words in a case interview?
I would say use them sparingly. Focus on what matters most, making sure that you give your core message if you use certain languages. My biggest thing is making sure you’re answering the question and that you’re not just trying to answer it to sound smart. That’s the biggest thing. Answer the question but answer it in a way that anyone can understand it. Me as an interviewer, I have to look into the colleague, but I also think about, “Is this someone that I can put in front of a client?” Clients may or may not know the language that you speak. How can you take these big concepts and break it down into simple language, making analogies or referring to things in everyday language? That’s a good skill to perfect. People that do that really well come off more credible than trying to use a lot of big fancy words. Use it sparingly.
Use it when it’s appropriate, but not to try to impress someone.
That’s a good rule of thumb.
You mentioned preparation. Sometimes we want to prepare as much as possible, but after so much preparation, how do we avoid getting into the habit of forfeiting a case that we did before?
Maybe give a little bit more of an example.
For example, you have done a case about outsourcing in the country in Asia. Then come another case that’s outsourcing. You try to remember what happened to that case and try to apply that knowledge to this one, forfeiting your own knowledge into another case that may be similar but, on the other hand, may not be.
There is going to be some similarity in certain industry or in certain similar business processes. It goes back to the question being asked in the case. Don’t get caught up in, “This is an outsourcing case. I have to go to what’s my outsourcing methodology or what is it that I did in outsourcing for this other case?” Sometimes there may be some similarities, but you want to look at each case with a fresh pair of eyes. Obviously you’re going to have a reference, so you could say, “I remember I did another case, it was an outdoor thing case,” but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be equal. It goes back to making sure you understand the question because you can have one outsourcing case that asked you about what would be the impact to the industry versus another outsourcing case that talks about the technology being used. Same thing about outsourcing, two different perspectives, two different challenges. It goes back to making sure you have a clear understanding of the acts of the case.
That’s a good point, I appreciate that. I would move forward to my next question. In my recent interview I got this feedback that he thinks I need to get better at being able to pull information forward. I’m confused by what that means. Can you please clarify that?
Was it at the end of the case or was it at the beginning of the case? Give me a little bit more so I can try to see if I understand what he was referring to.
He was saying that this is a very useful skill that has many applications. For example, the information I get from him, you have to be able to really dive in and be able to eliminate some hypothesis and move onto the next one. It sounds like making good use of the information I received from the interviewer. That’s my superficial understanding of it.
First off, you got to see yourself as being extremely lucky that he’s given you feedback. I’ve been part of cases in the past where I was being interviewed or I interviewed others. People don’t always give you feedback. The fact that he stopped and he gave you feedback was good. The fact that he says putting information forward from just the context, you just explain it, I’m going to take a stab that maybe he was looking for more synthesis. He was looking for you to refine your point of view along the way. You may be working through your case framework however that framework is. As you cancel out certain sub-components or components of your issue tree, he may be looking for you to refine the analysis that you’ve come to. Now that you’ve gotten certain pieces of information, what is your refined hypothesis? What is your refined analysis of the situation given what you know now? Then how does that piece of information tie back into your next step in your analysis?
It may be that you’re doing that but he’s not hearing you say that out loud. Part of the point of the case goes back to the point about what makes a candidate a good candidate from a great candidate. The point of a case is to understand your logical thinking on a situation. It’s not about the wrong or right answer. It’s about how you got to that conclusion. How did you get there in a way that you can bring your interviewer along with you? When I hear putting information forward, I’m hearing he wanted to see an update of your hypothesis or how you went from section to section in your issue tree or how you cancel things out. Then how are you giving that information so he knows exactly where you are in the case? Does that make sense?
It does. This is one of my weaknesses as well, especially after some long time-consuming calculations, I would just simply state a number. Then the interviewer asked me, ” What does this number mean?” I didn’t proactively state the implication of numbers. I have to wait for the interviewer to ask, which sometimes looks bad.
It’s just a habit. As you practice cases with your friends or with classmates or even family, make sure that’s something that they see that you’re doing so that you get in the habit of being able to clearly articulate your thinking and clearly articulate what’s the next step in your logic. It’s getting into the habit of saying it out loud that you can articulate that. When you get to the point of the case, then it becomes second nature when you’re talking through certain elements.
Would you say it is something that would simply come with just practice or there’s some technique that we can use while practicing more effectively get into the habit of synthesizing?
It’s a combination. There’s so many techniques out there on the market. There’s so many different techniques online. It’s finding one that resonates with you. It’s part technique but it’s part practice as well that in your mind you come up with your cadence of how you do that. There’s a ton of different things out on the market that can also help you with that as well.
It’s something that resonates with the individual.
You want to try to find several different frameworks or several different techniques you use. Another thing is if you try too many different techniques, you can over-complicate the way you go about your analysis. Just find one that resonates with you. Again, it also depends on the consulting firm. Different firms are looking for different things from cases. When you speak to a firm, someone that’s in big four versus a boutique consulting firm versus if you speak to some of the top strategy firm, they all look for different elements in their case and they have different pieces. I would say make sure, based on the type of firm that you’re interviewing for, that you determine what’s the best fit of a framework that you can then study. Then it’s just a matter of practice. It becomes a wash, rinse, repeat cycle of itself.
It’s just a way to create a rhythm to do something.
Making it a little bit stronger each single time you do it. Thank you for the answer for that. I really like it. My next question applies to other students as well, is how to brainstorm effectively.
Say a little bit more about that.
Normally at the end of the case, for example, you have identified the problem of our client and then they would then ask you, “How can we address that? How can we actually increase sales in that region?” You’re expected to be really creative and be totally exhaustive. All they can say is that, “The prescription of our drug has dropped because of diagnosis rate and the treatment rate has dropped. Why do you think the diagnosis rate or treatment rate have dropped for this medication?” I consider those scenarios as brainstorm. They would ask the why question, “Why do you think this has happened?” or they can ask, “There’s a problem. What are ways to address them? How can you address them in a different way?” In those scenarios, how to be creative and exhaustive?
The creativity piece goes back to the being prepared. Especially as a PhD student, you’re going to have specific life science type of cases that you’re going to be looking to solve. You definitely want to make sure that you are out there. You’re reading different types of actual cases of different of companies. In the case that you just mentioned, the drugs, that specific scenario. What are the things that are actually happening in the real world? What are some things you can go back to history and have knowledge of how different companies made decisions, whether it was the drugs or it was a trial or anything in that lens, and what was the outcome of those decisions? It’s going back to being prepared because even if you’ve never done it yet as a student, you have a lot of knowledge at your disposal of what has happened in the past. It’s getting comfortable reading up on those types of cases, understanding what was the impact, whether it was consumer impact, governmental impact, public health impact, financial, whatever those are. Having those as a frame of reference, that helps.
The other piece of brainstorming creatively is that you don’t want to be too stringent. When I say stringent, and I know I fall into this trap because I am a logical organized thinker, sometimes in that lens you create rules in the way you think or create. You create self-imposed boundaries in your thought process. Part of being creative is letting go of certain rules and being okay in the what if; what if this scenario, what if that scenario, and being able to think about things that may not hold true to existing systems or existing paradigm. That is where creativity starts to come in, the way you think that’s in a box. How do you start to stretch and break existing normative rules and how do you do that?
Again, you’re just thinking, but in doing that, it goes back to the habit. Doing that multiple times all the time helps you create this new muscle. That muscle is that creativity. You live in a world with timelines and fixes and paradigms. What if there’s a possibility to do something different? What if the sky’s not blue but the sky is red? Letting your mind wander outside of what you believe is true, is the way that you can. I call it a muscle because the more you allow yourself to do that, you can do that just by having a different type of hobby. You can do that just as something you do with your friends. It doesn’t have to be in the confines of a case, but it’s figuring out how do you incorporate ways to building creativity into your life in a way that you can retrieve that skill and apply it to a case.
You mean just in daily life?
For example, something like if I’m in a store and I see a process that I feel is inefficient and trying to think of ways and imagine new ways to improve that, something like that?
That can actually be one example. It could be something as simple as you’re at dinner and you’re saying, “Normally what comes before dinner is you have appetizers, then you have your entree, then you have your dessert. Maybe you could just have a conversation with your friends and say, “What would happen if dinner actually started with dessert instead of it starting with a salad?” It’s outside of what you know it to be. It’s not that you’re saying things will change. You’re just thinking about it differently.
That’s so true, but I feel like this problem also requires the candidate to be bold. Sometimes when I even think like that, I’m afraid of stating those ideas because I don’t want to sound weird or ridiculous.
There’s beauty in that. There’s beauty in thinking about something differently because the goal is not to be right or wrong. Remember, it’s not about being right or wrong, it’s about thinking about something differently. Show that you can think outside the box. There may be certain things that are traditional types of answers, but what if you were to take a step and say, “What if we looked at it this way, how would we tackle it this way?” Sometimes it takes asking a certain type of question as well to create a space to have that type of creativity. It’s not that you have to have the answers. Again, it’s not about being right or wrong. It’s being comfortable and pushing the boundary and pushing the narrative.
That sounds not only like habit, but also a little bit of change in perspective as well. Being bold, being comfortable with thinking outside the box and know that it’s okay. I realize that. Thank you so much. That is reminiscent of our previous points that this probably is something that’s truly differentiates a candidate, a candidate who is not afraid to say innovative ideas that are not traditional.
Sometimes, it’s not always these outlandish types of creative recommendations. It can also be something as simple as, you’ve seen something that’s successful in another industry, why don’t we apply it to this industry? It can be something as simple as a cross-pollination of ideas. It doesn’t have to be these outlandish types of things. Again, it depends. It depends on the case. It depends on what the answer is. It depends on what the ask is and how you decide to push creativity or not. Creativity comes in different layers. I talked about the extreme area of creativity. It can be something as simple as cross-pollination of ideas from one industry to another. It could be something as simple as that.
That requires a candidate to have broad knowledge of different industries. If you read a lot and prepare a lot, that will come in handy. My next question relates to the point you previously mentioned, how to prepare for the different expectations with a candidate in giving a good performance.
In terms of preparing, it goes back to being comfortable and the framework and the types of questions and being prepared. The other part of that too is knowing what the firm that you’re recruiting for, knowing what they’re looking for. Understanding again, what is the objective of their case? That’s something you get from speaking to recruiters. You can do a little bit of research online. You can connect with current employees like having informational interviews. Doing the legwork so that you know and have a clear understanding of what that firm is looking for. It’s critical because different firms are looking for different things. Ultimately, they all want amazing high-performing people, but that definition is different depending on the firm that you’re talking to. That’s a little general but that’s pretty much what the premise is, I would say.
Understand what they’re looking for and prepare accordingly. I’ll jump to my last couple of questions. This one is about how to manage a failure in the preparation and in the path of getting to consulting.
You know what’s interesting about failure, Xuan? I find that it’s not just one person. I’m not talking about you in particular, but there’s this fear that we sometimes build up in ourselves. My thing is I look at it differently. In our minds, we come up with this expectation that we’re not supposed to fail. Who says we’re not supposed to fail? How we succeed is the same way we fail. That’s just part one of life. The fact that we think we’re not supposed to fail is actually what keeps people from not succeeding.
It may sound a little weird to say, but it takes failure to succeed. Think about it. If we were to take it back to when you were a kid, people don’t just start crawling and they don’t just get up and walk. Like a little baby does, they crawl and then they try to get up, and then they fall and then they try to get up. They keep doing that over and over. Each time they fall, if they said, “I’m on the floor. I fell. I’m not going to try to walk,” there would be no walking humans on the planet if as a baby, we allowed ourselves to just say, “I fell, I can’t do it, not walking.” That’s not what we do. We take the moment, we persevere, and then everybody walks. The same concept applies to life. It’s about having the experiences. The more that you have experiences, you’re going to have failures. That’s just to be expected. The key thing to take away is take every what you call as failure, take it as an opportunity to learn from it and learn what you need to do better. Just like when you’re learning how to crawl and you’re learning how to walk, what does the baby do? They figure out, “Maybe if I lift myself up and I use the strength of my leg that can push me up, and then I can start to take a step.” Babies inherently do that. Why would that be no different than when we’re adults and we’re looking to get a consulting job or go to different tools or anything? It’s the same concept.
It’s because of the conditioning and the process of growing up. As adults, sometimes when we fail we overreact or over-complicate it instead of just simply trying again. The good thing about ourselves, about our humanity is something I’m supposed to do is something that’s good. Do I have the capabilities or am I eventually going to succeed?
What happens is like, to your point, people take those and they make failures such a debilitating type of fear. It paralyzes their real success. People are so scared. There’s a lot of things people don’t do because of fear. That same fear is what’s not making them successful. You have to fail to succeed. There are no shortcuts. There’s no quick win scheme. In life, you have to fail to succeed. That’s just how it is. The bigger question is how much do you let your failures stop you from succeeding? Going back to the case, if you’ve had a chance, you’ve done an interview, you got feedback, that’s great. Feedback is a gift. Use that to get better. There’s nothing that says you cannot go back to that same firm in the future and interview for them again. There’s nothing that says that. People do it all the time. Even if you don’t nail it the first time, that’s okay. If that’s where you want to go, whatever the firm is, if that’s what you want to do, get the feedback, take it and then steady your heart out. Practice based on that feedback and you go after it again. There’s nothing wrong with that.
It may take time, but if an individual is determined and have the mind set on it, most likely he’s going to succeed.
You have to make that choice. If you’re going to put in the work that you need, whatever the firm is you know what you need to do. It’s you deciding, “If I failed the first time, I’m worth to try it again. I know this time I’ll get it. If I don’t get it, I’ll try again.” There’s nothing wrong with that. We build up all this stuff in our heads. Some people don’t even interview, like one or two to interview and they don’t make it, and then they like, “That’s not for me. This career is not for me.” That’s not true. What is it that I need to do to prepare so that I don’t fail? It’s embracing failure as a way to catapult to your success.
Embracing the opportunity to learn and opportunity to get a stronger and have a bit more courage each time. I’m finally moving to my last question. As interviewer, based on observation, what percentage have you failed a candidate because of the behavioral of the said portion of the interview? What percentage of time you failed a candidate because of the case scale? The rest would be you failed a candidate because of the combination of both?
I never thought about it as percentages. When it comes to the behavioral piece, it depends on what the response is or what is it that’s a concern. To me, behavioral and fit is the biggest component. Usually if someone failed, at least in my mind, if someone failed an interview with me, it’s because they have shown that maybe they’re too rigid in their thinking. They’re not showing flexibility. They may not be displaying that they can be coached. Sometimes people come in and they have a very of strict way that they look at things. In our world, you have to live in ambiguity at times.
If someone comes off like they’re too rigid in their thought process, they look checked out. They’re there either because they think they’ve nailed it or they’re not feeling it. It comes off of someone’s energy. It comes off in different ways. To me that’s the biggest thing. If this is something you want, you’re passionate, you’re enthusiastic, and you’re coachable, those are workable attributes. It’s sometimes the latter that makes it difficult to have someone pass.
It sounds like the rigidity and the close-mindedness are stuff that are manifested in the case performance.
It could definitely come up in the case performance. The other part of that, so for cases, what can make someone not pass the case, at least for me, the biggest thing is if they’re not organized in their thoughts that I can’t follow them from beginning to end, like they seem to get lost in their own thought process. Anything that’s s glaringly like this person was not prepared or they don’t know what they’re doing, it comes off. What’s interesting about consulting interview, you can’t always BS your way through it. You got to know what you’re talking about, especially in the exams round. Some people are really good. Some people are really good at being great interviewees, but there’s certain elements you can’t fake. It comes out in the fit and it comes out in the case interview that time.
Especially with so many rounds. If you gave a consistently good performance, if you know what they’re talking about. You were saying that you can tell if a candidate is coachable or not from the behavioral questions you give them.
I can tell if they’re coachable or if they’re committed to the answer. They’re not willing to think about something in a different lens if I give them new information. There are ways that you can see how someone thinks just by their thought. They take you through this thought process and then you challenge it, you see how they react to it. You can see it for sure.
You are perceptive. You’re probably very good at spotting that.
I’m nice. By the time you get a chance to interview with me, you’ve probably gone through multiple rounds with a lot of different people. I know that by the time I’m talking to, you’ve been vetted tremendously, so I don’t really go hard. My biggest thing is can I work with this person and can I put this person in front of my clients? Can I see myself building trust with this person? By the time they get through all the rounds, you know they’re smart. You know they’re qualified. That’s not it. I call them in my book, in The MECE Muse, I call them the intangible. That’s what I look for when they get to me.
When you interview a candidate, you know that because they’ve passed quite a few rounds, you trust that they had this interview with skills. You are looking really for their emotional intelligence component.
Being coachable, whether open-minded or not, is a big part you would look for?
Thank you so much.
This was such a great conversation. I hope it was helpful for you.
Very helpful. You’re always so helpful. Are you going to give a live case workshop at some point somewhere?
Not on this particular episode, but that’s something I wouldn’t mind doing. That’s not a bad idea. We’ll have to figure out like how do we work that in in a future episode.
Maybe at a consulting club or something.
Xuan, I know you’re going to nail it. You’ve earned it. You’re going to go on interviews and you’re going to nail it. I would love to have you back on the show and give us an update on where you land and what you’re doing. Does that sound good?
That sounds great. Thank you so much. I hope it will happen soon.
I’m sure it will. You have a great energy. You’re ambitious. I know you’re going to take what we just talked about and you’re going to run with it.
I’m going to take that in and apply it. Thank you. You’re so inspiring.
Thank you. Thank you so much, go getters. If you have a career dilemma or just want another opinion, feel free to email us at MECEMuseUnplugged@Gmail.com. Again, Xuan, thank you for being on the show and have a great day.
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