Management consulting interviews: the 2 smartest case study techniques


“Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” – Winston Churchill

Churchill would’ve made a great consultant.

This is the 3rd post in a series on management consulting interviews. Previous posts covered fit interviews and followup questions.

We’ll start with the first part of Churchill’s quote – the need to “tell them what you’re going to tell them” (aka, upfront structure). If you don’t remember anything else from this post, remember that.

Why the need for upfront structure?

  • It minimizes interviewer confusion
  • It demonstrates your ability to give clear responses¬†to complex questions
  • It demonstrates your ability to prioritize key issues

Here are examples of weak and strong responses to a case study question:

Question: What areas would you investigate to better understand increased employee turnover at Bank of Atlantis?

Weak: I think you want to investigate salaries relative to their competitors. Higher salaries can be a big reason why employees want to leave the bank to work elsewhere. Salaries and maybe benefits. Lack of sufficient benefits – maybe things like retirement plans and health insurance. And of course, you’d want to take a look at lifestyle issues. Have the employees been working harder lately, and if so, what’s been causing the longer hours?

Strong: There are 3 areas I’d like to investigate to better understand the causes of higher employee turnover. The first would be Bank of Atlantis salaries relative to local competitors. Are their base salaries higher, lower, comparable? What about bonuses, any not-so-obvious compensation measures, and so forth? The second area would be benefits relative to competitors. The big ones would include retirement and 401K contributions and health insurance. Finally, I’d look at employee lifestyle and how it compares past to present. Have the employees been working longer hours recently?

The weak response lacks upfront structure. The answer confuses the interviewer and stumbles from one point to the other.

The strong response provides a clear roadmap in the first sentence. It then adheres to this roadmap (“There are 3 areas”) throughout the response, using anchor words like “first,” “second,” and “finally.”

Your grammar and diction do not need to rival Shakespeare. Clarity and simplicity are preferred.

Now to the last part of Churchill’s quote – “tell them what you’ve told them” (aka, the conclusion).

This is a crucial skill to demonstrate for the following reasons:

  • It demonstrates your ability to synthesize lots of information
  • It demonstrates your ability to highlight the key takeaways
  • It provides a satisfying wrap-up to a long answer

I’ll use the sample above to show how you can make the strong response even better:

Strong: There are 3 areas I’d like to investigate to better understand the causes of higher employee turnover. The first would be Bank of Atlantis salaries relative to local competitors. Are there base salaries higher, lower, comparable? What about bonuses, any not-so-obvious compensation measures, and so forth? The second area would be benefits relative to competitors. The big ones would include retirement and 401K contributions and health insurance. Finally, I’d look at employee lifestyle and how it compares past to present. Have the employees been working longer hours recently? By looking at salaries, benefits, and recent lifestyle changes, we’ll be able to get to the biggest causal factors that can drive employees to quit and or find similar jobs elsewhere.

The conclusion acknowledges your clear understanding of the problem (“causal factors that can drive employees to quit…”) and reinforces the 3 areas that underpin the solution.

It’s not necessary to demonstrate both skills in every response – particularly with short, narrowly-focused questions.

Some final takeaways:

  1. It’s recommended that you take time before tough questions to plan your response. Only the rarest of interviewers can build an elegant response on the fly.
  2. This advice also works with quantitative questions. Here, you should give a brief roadmap for your calculations (“upfront structure”), and provide takeaways from the solution (eg, “45% annual turnover is incredibly high – the next thing I’d do is see how that stacks up with competitors and our own historic data”).
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