Imagine this. Your company is looking for a new CEO. Finally, after months of rigorous interviews and hours on the phone pouring over candidate resumes with your search firm, two candidates finally made the short-list. But the board is split. One candidate has the background most of us dream of–elite schools, blue chip companies, well-connected, and looks the part. But the other has something different. A spark. An obvious desire to make things happen. He much hungrier to take over the helm and had more creative, actionable ideas in all of his interviews. You also really connected with him during the meeting. But just one problem. He has no proven record at a firm like yours. Which of the two would you choose?
In most cases, it seems likely that the two candidates wouldn’t be quite so different. But even if they were, I suspect that the answer would be “it depends.” It might depend on the board, the other executives, the industry, sector, and stage of the company. There are many factors that go into hiring a CEO and into hiring decisions generally. That’s why in most industries, search firms help facilitate the process. They post jobs, work networks, make calls, screen dozens, and sometimes hundreds of resumes, interview candidates, and work for weeks, even months to fill a single slot. And in a recent message, I received a question from a reader who feared just that. As an applicant to the consulting industry, he feared that his application would be lost in that pile of a hundred resumes and that he’d go weeks, even months with no luck, given he’s the “inexperienced” person in my hypothetical above.
I responded with a few words, which I’ve shared below. But I’ll also note, that my answer only scratches the surface, as there are so many factors that might go into recruiting in the consulting field that it’s impossible to talk about all of them in a single post. Hopefully this post will be helpful as a good start.
THE ORIGINAL MESSAGE
I really enjoy your blog. It’s very well-written and informative! Here’s my story.
I’m an undergraduate student looking to eventually end up in consulting and currently looking for an internship. I’ve found a small firm that I’m really interested in. I sent them a email, got a response, and met with one of the consultants earlier in the week. I had a pretty good experience and think I may have a small shot at getting an internship at the firm.
But I currently go to (state university) and my GPA is a 3.2, which is low for the consulting field, and I don’t have any real finance, accounting, engineering, or even business coursework. But because of my meeting, the consultant said he’s willing to accept my resume during current recruiting cycle. However, because they’re openly targeting a 3.5+ GPA, I don’t know if I have a chance.
At the end of the day, I really want to work in the management consulting industry, but am not sure what to do next. Was wondering if you can help? Do you have any suggestions on how to maximize my chance of getting in the industry.
Thank you in advance,
Thanks so much for your message, and for reading my blog. I appreciate your kind words and hope you continue to read.
So, in general, most experts will tell you that performance always trumps pedigree. And that instead, hard work, intelligence, speed, and raw intellectual capacity is more important. It’s what companies like to call the “meritocracy.” In a sense, meritocracy is part of the “American Dream” where everyone gets a fair shot, where opportunity has no bound, and where climbing the ladder is based on your performance in the workplace. But as nice as that my sound, it has few issues. 1. As a firm manager, how can you measure all of these things from two candidates you don’t know and have never seen perform. 2. And even if you could measure, most people are human, and make decisions based on their experiences, especially when they don’t have a real basis for analysis. 3. Where do things like talent, attitude, future potential, integrity, and ability to lead come into play? 4. And finally, what happens when the decision is ambiguous and multiple people don’t agree. Or worse, if they choose the wrong person.
Which leads me to my point. My point is that, while in an idealistic world, a company based solely on merit (or on future merit) would be great, it’s almost impossible to create that environment. There are too many complex business and political factors, and too much information that can’t be uncovered. This is especially true for new hires, and more specifically for college graduates.
That said, I think your concern i justified, as on average, you probably won’t win too many resume “competitions” in your quest for a management consulting role. That’s because at many of those firms grades are king, and school names, connections, and previous experience are like keys to the treasure chest of employment. But for this firm, you may still have a chance. I’ve laid out a small framework of things you might consider as you think about it.
1. Assess Fit. First, since this firm is a boutique, the firm might interview you in one of two ways. One on hand, it may be highly selective as a small firm, and so those who gain employment may have to fit very strict criteria, and that may be grades, cultural fit, connections, geography, specific expertise, energy, or a combination of those, and maybe other factors. On the other hand, the firm may really need help, and they may be looking now, or may not have a lot of applicants, and so it might prioritize someone who wants to come in and work hard, and choose the applicant who has the most passion to work in the industry. I’ve navigated this process multiple times and in my experience it can be hard to predict. Though I’ll note that many of the most successful boutiques were indeed pretty selective.
For you, having already talked to a consultant, you’re in the drivers seat and have the best view of what’s actually true. If the latter, then you may want to follow through and submit your resume. After all, if he really liked you, he may push for your into the second round. On the other hand, if you’re having doubts and don’t feel comfortable submitting now then you also have the option of rescinding. As a smaller company, they may understand, though you also run the risk of coming off as indecisive, which may not help in your quest to land a role at that company. Before doing that though, you should do a bit more analysis.
2. Look For Other Strengths. First, you should consider your profile as a whole. Although you don’t have an engineering or other traditional “consulting” degree, any quantitative classes, professional exams, certifications, or even regular business classes might help you to stand out. So you should be sure to highlight them. And if not, you might consider taking a few, either now or post-graduation. It often helps to have these because sometimes “perception is more important that reality,” especially for the purposes of finding a job. As such, many places will value your perceived understanding, interpreted through your tangible qualifications, and they’ll value that more than your actual understanding. That’s why things like major and grades become important during interviews. And that’s part of what hinders the pure meritocracy argument at times. In part that’s because firms have limited time to interview and don’t have the resources or information about your college or pre-college experiences. So it’s less risky and it’s also more standardized to use your scores, majors, etc as a proxy. And after that, then merit may come more into play once you get the job. So to the extent you do have other strengths that may not be obvious, be sure to sounds the alarm.
3. Network More. Going forward, considering your stats and experience, you’ll also have the best bet breaking into the industry by finding links and connections, through friends, acquaintances, the career center, or anyone who can figure out how to help you. It would require a lot more networking, reaching out to more and more people, watching for issues in the industry that you can bring up during future conversations, and most importantly seeing if you can make a connection with someone who may be a champion for you when passing your resume along. As I mentioned before, it would also help to get some relevant experience along the way, though under this scenario, it would make you a better networker because you had a better idea of what to say and more experiences to draw from. Though keep in mind, there are quite a few different types of consulting, so be sure you get training that’s relevant to what you’re looking for. And in the end, you could be more qualified and also have more people pulling for you in your next interview. Thee odds could tilt in your favor.
4. More Practical Considerations. Aside from looking at intangible considerations like fit, networking, areas of strength, there are also a few practical things you may want to consider as you think about it from a longer-term perspective. Generally, most people in your shoes consider taking finance classes. Many students also proactively raise their GPAs, some concentrating on their quant GPAs. Other candidates work during the school year, some others at smaller firms trying to build up qualifications. Along those lines, another group might work in some sort of school clinic, some of which may even give credit, or even count it as an internship. Though you’ll have to balance all of that with your grades issue.
5. Go Through The Back Door. Additionally, you may even consider another industry to get started from. One good thing about consulting, which is not as true of banking or the legal profession, is that you don’t need to start there to get there. Good corporate, entrepreneurial, and/or functional experiences are highly valuable and showing impact will go a long way. But depending on the size, prestige, and location of the firm you want to break into, you’ll need to have taken on higher level of responsibility, proven an ability to make impact and drive change, and be able to tell a compelling story before finding a seat at the interview table. At that point, many of the larger consulting firms may also require a case study. For some, that process may be long, so I’ll save it for another post.
6. Think Longer-Term. And so finally, if none of this works or you don’t want to sacrifice that much time to move into consulting now, you could still end up with some pretty good experience. That will not only set you up well in your current career, but it may also set you up well for an MBA program, where you’ll go and have the chance to start all over again. And in the end, you’ll have a chance to give consulting another shot. But who knows, it’s possible that by then, you may not even want to.
Good luck either way!