Week Zero

In short: McKinsey interviews. What went wrong. My “week zero” in consulting. First training. Getting on my first project.

Last week’s post discussed why I’m documenting my consulting experience and who an insecure overachiever is. Most likely, it is you.

In today’s post, we will pick up from where I stopped narrating my consulting story due to Stanford MBA admission and dropout. Then we will go all the way to the first day of my first engagement.

Vocabulary tip. “Engagement” is a client project at McKinsey. “Week zero” is the week prior to the official start of an engagement. Usually it is devoted to various preparation activities like search for experts, getting to know the client team, getting access to data rooms, etc. For more information about consulting vocabulary, have a look here.

My McKinsey Interviews

My interviewing process at McKinsey was standard. A problem-solving test in June, the first round with engagement managers in July, and the final round with partners and directors on August 2, 2013. Each time I had 2 interviews rather than 3 because the interviewers were sufficiently happy with my performance to let me pass.

I Was Impressed by the Interviewers and Recruiting

The recruiting managers were responsive to my requests. I asked them to schedule a PST in June as early as possible upon my return from Minnesota. They did that. After my first round, I confessed I needed a quick decision on my application. I urgently needed a job and money to pay bills. They scheduled my final interview just 2 weeks later and, if successful, allowed to start working in less than a month.

In round 1, I discovered a common passion with one of the interviewers – Italy. We spent 6-8 minutes talking about our favorite places there. Then he told me about his most exciting project experiences (e.g., climbing a construction crane in a faraway seaport on sunrise). I was impressed by how open this manager was with me. Later he called me unexpectedly and shared some preparation tips and general advice. He encouraged me to call him anytime if I had questions (and I did).

In round 2, I met the Head of McKinsey in Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa. After 5 minutes of our interview, it became clear to me how this 42-year-old consultant has climbed so high. He knows how to connect with anyone. Talking to him felt like engaging with a senior empathetic friend. He told me how he joined McKinsey 15 years ago as a young BA. He noted that I looked too young for my age. Then recalled how his own young looks spoiled first impression with clients even when he was already a partner:

  • Who is the partner here? I want to talk to someone senior – the senior client would ask.
  • Well, it’s me actually… – this director (then partner) would reply.

The rest of our interview was a simple case and lots of talks about my and his past experiences. Now I realize that was the fit part. But back then, it was just a friendly conversation.

What about the other interviewers (one in round 1 and one in round 2)? They were smart, intelligent, and professional, but seemed less friendly. I was not able to build personal ties with them during the interview.

Not Everything Was Perfect

You do not need to perform perfectly in order to get an offer. I did not at least. My pitfalls:

  • In a round 1 case interview, I made a mistake in arithmetic. Went back to check my calculations and discovered it myself
  • In a different round 1 interview, I forgot the rule of 72. [Recall, it states that to estimate the number of years required to double your money at a given annual rate of return, you need to divide 72 by the compound interest rate expressed as percentage]. I told my interviewer I did not remember the formula. I suggested to perform manual calculations, but warned they might take up to 5 minutes. The interviewer replied that there is no need to waste time and told me the rule.
  • I was very nervous during my round 1. As a result, I got the feedback to relax and be more confident next time.

Despite these weaknesses, I got a pass. This initial success, coupled with 30 more cases practiced, boosted my confidence ahead of round 2. The latter went smoothly.

The Difference between the First and the Final Rounds: Fit

There was a slight difference between first and second-round interviews. I had the impression that engagement managers focused more on testing my hard skills such as solving cases, structuring, and doing calculations, with a few fit questions. Partners seemed to be less concerned about hard skills and ran light discussions with a few simple case questions. However, they spent more time talking to me about my background, motivation, and career goals. This might be just my unique experience. But it might as well have an explanation. Partners are more experienced in recruiting and have stronger people skills. They employ these skills in a casual talk to weed out candidates. Moreover, they know managers have already tested candidates’ problem-solving skills. Whatever the explanation, I concluded that candidates should not neglect the fit part, especially ahead of the final round.

 

Why I Chose McKinsey over Other Companies

As always, motivation letter and answers to fit questions are one thing. The actual employer selection rationale is another thing. Here is what I had in mind when I chose to take the McKinsey offer.

  • I did not pass BCG screening
  • Oliver Wyman freezed hiring until October and offered me an intern role. A McKinsey BA right away was a no-brainer
  • Bain postponed my first round till late August and offered January 2014 as the starting month. I needed a job to pay bills asap
  • I liked the people I met during interviews at McKinsey. I wanted to have such colleagues
  • In my opinion, McKinsey had the best brand. I needed it to “keep my options open” once I figure out which industry I would like to work in. Moreover, it offered great international opportunities

Hence I signed the McKinsey business analyst offer gladly. Back then, with a masters degree, I did not have to undergo a 6-month internship. My job started on August 16, 2013 with a round of orientation and an introductory training

Embark / Basic Consulting Readiness

first day at McKinsey, Bain, BCG

EMBARK (former Basic Consulting Readiness, BCR) is a one-week onsite introductory training program for 25-35 analysts and associates. When I attended the program, its agenda looked like this

  • Get to know your “classmates”
  • Learn the mission and values
  • Learn the McKinsey approach to structuring problems, gathering and analyzing the data, solving problems, and presenting findings to the client (see “The McKinsey Approach to Problem-Solving“)
  • Learn how to navigate enormous company resources such as visual graphics (consultant’s best friends; people who help with ppt presentations), research teams, internal and external expert networks, the library of all McKinsey presentations and documents, and a huge proprietary online learning platform
  • Policies and procedures such as confidentiality, staffing, expense and time reporting, travel, personal investments, etc.
  • Basic consulting skills like creating presentations by hand and in ppt, modeling in Excel, interviewing clients, team problem-solvings, and communication

The program had 2 hosts – engagement managers from Poland and Norway, and lasted 5 days. The analysts and associates came from several European offices. We had a series of lectures, group exercises, and a simulation of a consulting project. Each day started at 8 or 9 am with no excuses for late arrivals. It ended after 10 pm in a bar or a restaurant with McKinsey managers and partners.

Why BCR Was Important for Me

Over the years, I realized that the most important thing about BCR is not learning consulting skills and values or going to bars at night. It is making friends with your “classmates”. Oftentimes the fast pace and the huge load of consulting work prevent from building relationships with teammates on engagements. Sometimes you grow so tired of the work you do not want to see anyone on the weekends, let alone the people you have literally lived with Monday through Friday. Moreover, out-of-town and out-of-country projects mean many people in the home office will seem strangers to you (you do not even recognize them). I was in such situations myself. Having 2 or 3 friends from BCR to keep in touch was a great relief. And we are still in touch – even after leaving McKinsey.

Some say people at McKinsey are arrogant and unfriendly. This is wrong. Like in any organization, they are such as you find them. What I’ve learned is that I need to find great people around me and stick to them. BCR was a great occasion.

Staffing for My First Project

A true insecure overachiever, I rushed to find my first engagement as soon as possible. The process of joining an engagement from the human resources perspective is called “staffing”. So I was trying to get staffed while still at BCR.

The staffing process is quite simple. Each free consultant (called “on the beach” consultant) receives a local office newsletter with ongoing projects and names of managers to contact. Naturally, I called all the managers who were in the latest newsletter, regardless of engagement location or type of work required. I did not care. I just wanted to get staffed and prove what I’m worth quickly.

Why would managers staff inexperienced consultants and waste time coaching them for months? Because in internal accounting each team member costs something to the engagement, while all newcomers are free. So managers, especially on large engagements, can get a newcomer “on top” and save budget. I think this is fair.

I was lucky. I got in touch with a manager – rising star at the office who was in charge of a 5-person team looking to expand. We liked each other, and so I joined the engagement the day my BCR was over.

Should I have staffed quickly?

The example of my friend showed that the answer is “not necessarily”. He did not get staffed immediately, but rather stayed “on the beach”. While there, he did some “free” work for an amazing but highly selective partner. The work was great, and the partner staffed my friend on several exciting studies in Europe. I later had a chance to work with this partner, too. However, getting this chance took me 2 months “on the beach” and lots of effort to attract his attention.

When you have just joined the Firm, it is ok to wait a bit. You do not know the people around you yet. You cannot decide yet which projects are good and which are not that good. So taking time to look around and learn how things work is not a bad idea.

Lessons Learned

My major takeaways (“conclusions” in McKinsey-speak) from the interview process, BCR, and staffing on the first project are as follows.

Interviews

  • Screening is a random process. Do not get disappointed if you are rejected by some consulting firms. It is hard for an insecure overachiever, but try.
    Frankly speaking, you should not be disappointed even if you are rejected by every firm. What do Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Albert Einstein have in common? They would have never passed McKinsey selection
  • The hiring process across consulting companies is uneven. Holding 3 or more offers simultaneously is difficult in practice, even if you are prepared enough
  • Negotiate your interview timing, starting date, and even position. Recruiters are friendly and surprisingly flexible. Interviewing is a two-way trade, not just your sales pitch. Negotiating will not negatively affect your offer. Zero downside, lucrative upside. Why not try?
  • There are some intelligent, friendly, and inspiring people at McKinsey. Great start for an inexperienced fresh grad willing to learn from smart colleagues

BCR / EMBARK

  • A fun way to catch up on developing some consulting skills. Useful if you want to “hit the ground running on day 1” (show your best work from the start of the project, in McKinsey-speak)
  • Opportunity to build connections in your local office. Most importanly, the right time to make friends

Staffing on the First Project

  • There is no point in rushing. Take time to look around.

 

Next week I will write about my experience on the first project. Lots of learning, team events, and some uneven developments.

Thank you for reading,

Victor Rogulenko

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