The Life of a Consultant series continues. The guest today is Marquis – former McKinsey consultant, Stanford GSB graduate, and author of the popular consulting blog Marquis’ Weblog. Previous interviews covered consultants from Booz Allen, AT Kearney, and Nortel.
Some background: I’ve been reading Marquis’ blog for several years. He is a prolific and insightful poster who truly cares about his readers. Head over to his blog to read tons of great articles about consulting, business school, and general career advice.
Now on to the interview! I’ve bolded a few things that are particularly helpful for prospective applicants
Please note, the personal views and opinions expressed are strictly those of the interviewee and do not reflect the views of the interviewee’s employers or affiliated entities.
1. For the benefit of readers, can you give us a summary of your background?
I’m originally from a small town in Virginia and, through some miracle, I ended up at Princeton University, where I earned an A.B. in Computer Science. After college, I worked as a Software Engineer for a couple of companies (an internet consulting firm in NYC and a software and systems engineering firm in the DC area), focused primarily on Java development. While at the second company, I earned my first graduate degree, an M.S. in Management of Information Technology from the University of Virginia, as the first step toward stepping from behind a computer to learning about management. After five years as a Software Engineer, I attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business and completed a joint-degree program, earning an MBA and an M.A. in Education. Following business school, I spent a couple of years as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where I worked on projects in a range of industries/functions. In late 2008, I left McKinsey and started an exciting new gig in Chicago, where I’ve been for two months now.
2. You run a popular career-advice blog over at Marquis’ Weblog. What inspired you to start this site?
I started the site back in Oct. 2003 as a tool to help other B-school aspirants by sharing stories of my own B-school process. I didn’t know any MBAs while I was applying, which made the application process a huge mystery for me. I figured that, if there were other aspirants who didn’t know anyone in the MBA world, they could rely on me as the person that they “know”. Over time, I learned that telling my story was giving a lot of people hope because, “if someone as silly as [me] can get into and through a top B-school, then just about anybody can” (that is a direct quote from a reader I met a few years ago). After graduation, the site continued to morph into its current form where I help readers even more by answering their questions on just about any topic they generate for me, including career, education, and business. It hsan’t been easy to keep my site going for so long, but, as long as it’s helping people, I’ll keep on doing it…well, as long as I’m also having fun doing it, that is :-)
By the way, I wrote up a much longer response to this question in a past entry on my blog, which can be found here.
3. You went to Stanford GSB for business school before working at McKinsey. Can you tell us why you chose Stanford GSB?
Hmmm…why did I choose Stanford GSB?…That’s basically what the first three year’s worth of entries in my blog are about :-) That exact question was posed to me in an entry from last October, so I’ll copy over what I used to respond to that reader:
At a high-level, I was looking for the following things in a business school and Stanford offered all of them:
a. Strong general management program –> My goal was to finish B-school with a strong overall understanding of business, so I targeted general management programs when selecting schools. Stanford is among the top general management programs out there, so it immediately make the short-list of schools for me.
b. Small class size –> I wanted a school where each incoming class was small enough for me to really get to know my classmates over my two years. I was trying to find a place that would allow me to be a name and not a number and Stanford’s average class size of 370 made it a great fit in this metric.
c. Strong “transformational” and diverse culture –> Every business school has a strong culture, but not every school’s culture will be a fit for everyone. I was looking for a culture that embraced diversity of thought, background, nationality, and perspective among its students. Even more important to me was finding a school whose culture left its students feeling like they’d reached their full potentials and had been transformed by their MBA experiences. As I researched Stanford and spoke to students, I learned that the GSB scored off the charts in both of these areas, cementing its position as my #1 choice school.
4. What sparked your interest in McKinsey as a career? Can you tell us about your recruiting experience with the firm?
My interest in McKinsey was sparked prior to applying to business school as I researched the management consulting industry. During this research, I found that McK had a reputation for creating CEO’s and other business and organizational leaders, which is what I aspired to become. Also, I learned that it was known for tackling mission critical issues for its clients, which also appealed to me. Finally, I thought that having a stint at McKinsey would do wonders for my own professional brand since my first employer collapsed after the dot-com bubble burst and my second employer was too small for anyone to have ever heard of.
My recruiting experience with the Firm was very straight-forward and positive overall. It started during the first year at Stanford by attending several events and getting to know people, which confirmed my liking for the place. I was dinged for the summer internship after second-round interviews, but several people from McK stayed in touch with me during that summer, which made me put McK back at the top of my list for the full-time recruiting process. Fortunately, I did better the second time around and was able to secure a full-time offer. My experience was so good that I devoted significant attention to recruiting once I joined the Firm in order to have a positive impact on the recruiting of other candidates.
5. During your time at McKinsey, you were based in Atlanta. Did you notice any differences between working in a smaller office like Atlanta versus a larger office like New York?
There wasn’t a difference in terms of the actual nuts and bolts of what I did day-to-day, but I did note a few differences, including:
1. Types of projects available within the office and region — Different offices have core sets of clients, which have different needs from teams, so I found that I’d have different options (topic areas, industry, function, etc) for studies than my friends in other offices…it is possible that there’s a correlation between variety of available work and office size, but I’m not certain about that.
2. Ability to connect with other Associates in the office — I found it much easier to build good friendships with the majority of my fellow Associates because there were fewer of us and we’d hang out quite often. I imagine that it is more difficult to get to know as high a proportion of the Associates in a bigger office like New York.
3. Social options for outside-of-work times — Often, it doesn’t take long to see what there is to see and do what there is to do in a city with a smaller office. Whereas, in a huge city like NYC, there are any number of social outlets and they change all the time, which provides more options during one’s off-time.
MC note: these themes echo my global firms vs boutiques post
6. What do you think are the most important lessons you took away from McKinsey?
It’s difficult to give a short answer to this question because I learned a lot in my years at McK. A few lessons that come to mind are:
1. The Consulting Toolkit — Structured problem solving, analytics, frameworks to think about business issues, methods to effective present/lay-out arguments/analyses, etc
2. Ways to leverage both EQ (emotional quotient) and IQ (intellectual quotient) — I’ve heard it said that EQ gets you through life and IQ gets you through school. I’ve always been a killer EQ guy, but McK taught me how to effectively leverage IQ to be even more effective
3. The importance of developing a network of supporters within an organization/office/etc.
4. Ability to get spun up on a particular company, industry, function, or topic very quickly and develop a perspective on it
5. Understanding of the impact of professional presence and tools to develop that presence
6. Importance of maintaining a strong work-life balance (I was terrible at it, so I learned from the downside of it…more on this below)
7. I know this question is huge for readers, and you seem as well-placed to answer it as anyone: what would you say are the biggest differences amongst the Big 3 (McKinsey, Bain, BCG)?
This is a great question, but one that I’m cautious about answering because I’ve never worked for Bain or BCG. From what I’ve heard, all three companies tackle the same types of questions for their clients and bring tremendous intellectual power to every client situation. The two biggest differences I always hear about are the methodology/approach used by each firm and their corporate cultures. I’m sure many of your readers have heard about “The McKinsey Way”, the McK approach to problem-solving and delivering client value…a few books have been written about it, so there’s a lot of information about it out in the market. I’ve heard that Bain and BCG have their own methodologies that, while different, provide a similar guideline upon which to rely when doing client work. I imagine that there are nuanced differences between the three though. And, as for the culture issue, I’d suggest that your readers attend a few info sessions for each firm and talk to some of the company representatives. That process should leave them with a good idea of each company’s culture.
8. What motivated your transition from consulting to finance?
Actually, I didn’t really make a full-on transition into finance, which I’m very happy about considering the state of the finance industry right now. Rather, my new company is a strategic advisory and capital investment firm and my current work is still strategy-based, just with a different focus and in a different arena. But, I’ve been diving into company financial statements (to learn about those companies) more than I have since taken my Corporate Finance course at Stanford GSB. As I looked at my options, I was trying to optimize on several factors, including my interest in the work, what I’d learn in the role, and how it would fit into my overall “story” in the long-term, and this gig fit the bill perfectly. Plus, it didn’t hurt that it is based in Chicago where I had a lot of friends, so I wouldn’t have had to build a social network from scratch like I did in Atlanta.
9. Any last words of advice to prospective consultants?
As you can imagine, many of my reader requests are for advice about consulting, so I’ve thought and written about this a LOT. You know that consulting people like to use structure whenever possible, right? So, I’ll break this into two parts: getting the job and then nailing the job.
Winning an offer in consulting is no easy feat, so prospective applicants need to be on point from the beginning. Here are a few lessons that I learned along the way in my own process:
- Start preparing for case interviews as early as possible (case prep guides, practice cases, mental math exercises, etc)
- Do as much due diligence on the different firms as possible (leverage company websites, recruiting sessions, industry publications, etc)
- Develop your “Why Company X is a fit for me” and “Why I am a fit for Company X” stories early on and continue to sharpen them as you find out more about the firms during the due diligence process
- Take stock of your professional, educational, and life experiences and figure out how to concisely describe them in depth (this will be helpful in the fit interviews)
- Remember that you have a lot to offer wherever you end up, so, if you don’t get a consulting offer, the world will not end, your life will not be over, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not a high-quality candidate
Once a person gets their consulting offer, they should immediately shift their mindset to preparing to do well at the job. To address this point, I’ll leverage some content I wrote for an entry a while back because the readers here might find it useful. With that in mind, my top-10 list of tips for soon-to-be consultants are:
- Be confident, but humble
- Get really good at Excel modeling (or any other core skill to the job) as early as possible
- Always present the best “you” as possible
- Be prepared to be pushed
- Don’t be afraid to seek help when needed
- Build a support network within your office as early as possible
- Show enthusiasm and interest
- Always execute on deliverables
- Don’t be afraid to be active/vocal in team settings
- Sign up for the frequent flier, hotel loyalty, and rewards credit cards as early as possible (if you’re going to be living out of a suitcase, you might as well benefit from it, right?)
And, one last piece of advice…be prepared for the strain that the job can put on real-life relationships with significant others, family, friends, colleagues, etc. I underestimated this point going in and was totally unprepared for the difficult process of balancing the job with the personal relationships I valued. I still wonder how things might have turned out differently if I’d been more prepared for this issue from the beginning.
10. How should readers get in touch with you?
Readers can contact me at the email address that I set up for my blog. I often have a long backlog of messages, but I always send a response, even if it takes me a month or more to do so.
Are you a current consultant or someone who recruited successfully? Interested in being interviewed? Please get in touch to be featured in the Life as a Consultant series.