Kicking off a new series of interviews is Yusuf Shaikh, a Management Consulted coach. He broke into BCG right out of undergrad, then leveraged that to move into Private Equity. Now, Yusuf advises South Africa’s leading FinTech on business strategy, M&A, and corporate development. Listen for some incredible tips for transitioning into finance after consulting, the importance of your network, and the process he runs people through to prepare them for case interviews.
After the discussion, we answer a listener question (~40:08) about generalist vs specialist consulting roles. Submit your question today for a chance to have it answered on the show! Listen here or on your favorite podcast channel, and see a full transcription below.
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Transcription: From BCG to FinTech
Yusuf, we’re so delighted to have you with us today.
Thank you so much, Stephanie. I’m excited to be here today and share more with your listeners.
Absolutely. Well, as one of our coaches here at Management Consulted, I’m sure that there’s a lot of folks out there that would like to learn a little bit more about who you are, your background experience, your take on the case interview process. So let’s dive in. Let’s dive in with some personal questions to get to know you a little bit better. We’ll start off with a random question. Yusuf, who is one person from history that you would love to get dinner with?
Sure. Thanks so much for that question. So it’s an interesting one, I had a good think through it before answering, deciding what my answer would be here. And not to be too cliché, but it’s actually a former Bainee. His name is Hamilton Helmer. And he’s an author of probably one of the best books in business strategy and just business as a whole, and it’s called “7 Powers.” Now, the reason I’d want to have dinner with him is for two reasons.
One, he has an extremely interesting history about how he actually joined Bain. He actually had a major or a PhD that was outside of business. And he was interviewing to get into a management consulting firm. It piqued his interest for various reasons. And he actually interviewed directly with Bill Bain. Now, he was up against a whole lot of MBA candidates, and was really concerned that he wasn’t coming from an Ivy League business school. So at the end of his interview, he he told Bill Bain, I’m worried about whether or not I’d get in, and I’m worried about not having an MBA. And Bill Bain’s response was, Well, neither do I.
So for me, that was an interesting one. And apart from that he’s written, as I mentioned, the brilliant book “7 Powers.” And it’s really one of the best books that takes you through a lot of the strategic elements that are important when you’re helping advise a business that expects to exist into the future and continues to endure. So highly recommend that book as well.
I love that. I’m not familiar with that book, I’m gonna have to take a look. And even moreso it is interesting, since since you are not an ex-Bainee, right? You are an ex-BCGer. And we’ll hear more about your pathway to that firm a little bit later. But one other personal question I wanted to ask you, and I can hear a little bit of it in your voice. So you’ve spent some time in South Africa, would love to hear a little bit more about that, and your favorite part of living there.
Sure. So I’m actually 100% Born and bred in South Africa. So I have a little bit of that, I guess I have a lot of South African accent. You know, as I hope most South Africans will probably say, even most of those who have immigrated for various reasons. There’s a lot to love about South Africa. So I guess I’d distill it into one one element. And that’s the people. South Africa has a brilliant culture of coming together, especially in adversity.
And there’s probably the best way to see this is wherever there’s something crazy or terrible going on in our country, you can just log onto social media or Twitter, look at the trending hashtags, and just see our South Africans just make absolute fun of the worst situations. And that’s really a function of, of the culture of coming together, being supported, irrespective of the history we’ve had in South Africa. Coming through into democracy in the 90s, that people love to come together in our country and that filters through to every part of life, whether it’s work, and different cultures coming together.
You can imagine at BCG, especially where you have South Africans, you have people from outside of South Africa, and you have case teams of people from different backgrounds all coming together then just enjoying a really great culture. So yeah, it’s it’s the people that makes South Africa really special.
Are you still located there? And what are you doing these days.
I am still in South Africa. So I’ve actually moved around. I was born and grew up on the eastern part of South Africa close to the East Coast. I then studied at university on the west coast in Cape Town at the University of Cape Town and then moved up to BCG that was headquartered up in Johannesburg, the northern part of the country.
I spent some time at BCG, I’m now actually working with South Africa’s leading fintech payments company called Yoco. I advise them on two key things. One is directly business strategy and corporate strategy. And second, the new to a different part of my career, which is corporate development and M&A. So advising them on the next big venture that we should go into within the country as well as beyond South Africa.
Well, I’m excited to hear more about how you got there, and the journey and the pathway that you’ve taken. So let’s take a couple of steps back. Before you went to BCG, what’s a quick introduction of your background pre consulting?
Sure. So I was fortunate to enter consulting straight out of university but there were a few steps before that. I majored in finance and accounting at university. I interned both at an auditing firm and was initially on the path towards becoming a chartered accountant, but through an internship decided that that wasn’t for me, and also went through various programs for investment banking.
But once I learned more about consulting realized that that would actually be my niche, and I was fortunate enough to first intern at BCG. And following that, I then received a full time offer to join the BCG Johannesburg office as a junior associate.
So you broke in as an intern. Can you extract some insights for those looking at a similar pathway and wanting to break into a top firm? What can they do to set themselves apart?
So there’s two important elements, and I and I really underscore this when I run through candidate preparation interviews. The first is, and I almost like to describe it this way is that cracking the case is almost like just getting through the door. Right? So that is almost an, I guess the the way talent is in the world and the competitive this around getting into top tier consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain and BCG is that cracking case is really just the bare minimum.
Really what gets you the job is a little bit that comes out of the case interview. But it’s actually more on what happens around that case interview some of the questions before and after. So step one is you have to crack the case and you’re really good at that. And that’s what Management Consulted helps you do as a listener. The second part of it is how you’re able to draw on personal experiences, especially if you’re a grad who’s was interviewed, but also past professional experiences. If you’re an experienced hire, to show how you are able to approach problems in the world, whether it’s business related or even maybe personal in nature.
Combine that thinking as well as working with people to be able to solve a problem. And maybe I’ll give an example. And I give an example, actually, from someone that I interviewed. So I always try to tell candidates when you interview, there needs to be something about you that when the partner at the firm concludes the interview that he must be able to quickly remember you and be like, he’s that guy.
So for example, I was the fintech app guy. In my final interview with a BCG partner, he was actually from the Netherlands, we probably spent the bare minimum, we spent about 15, 20 minutes on the case and actually spent a lot more time chatting about an idea that I had to build an app to help people in lower income segments. So you know, LSM groups save money very easily. And it’s an idea that I had university that you almost have this little wallet, almost the same as getting scratchcards for airtime on your phone, you almost load up this wallet. And from there, you can buy really simple and easy to understand investments like retail government bonds, as a way to open up access to investments.
And that’s really what we chatted about. What was the problem? And almost, you know, showing off a little bit of your structure through that. You’d like to use the star framework. So we ended up chatting a lot about that, and I’d hoped that by the end of that interview, he’d remember that, you know me as the app guy or the guy who thought about that. And fair enough when I did get the internship offer, and I asked for some feedback, I got constructive feedback. And one of one of the items was he liked the innovation and that entrepreneurial flair that I brought.
But by way of example, with some candidates, I’ve coached a doctor who told me a fantastic story about some of the challenges he faced when helping a woman give birth. And other story is a former Army vet. So there’s different experiences that you can draw on and showcase that and find a way to incorporate that into an interview. Part of that element, as well as maybe you don’t have the most exciting story that you could share.
But there’s something that you can show off and it’s sort of limited and you need to this time that we’ve just gone through this, or we are in some aspects going through this period of COVID. And COVID has disrupted businesses in many aspects. And a lot of the case interviews, especially if you take from case interview books, they’re based on business as usual, and how you’d usually crack business problems under usual circumstances. But with COVID, it actually introduces additional levels of complexity. And if you smart about in an interview, you actually can start bringing what you experienced through COVID into that problem solving process and showing off that skill.
A simple example is, if you’re building out a problem, for example, you advise on whether to enter a new market, and you produce your product in country X, and you now want to export to country y, an important consideration would be the increasing cost of shipping that’s almost skyrocketed and gone up tenfold since the start of the pandemic, which is significant difference in a, a significant incremental cost versus pre COVID.
And something that isn’t usually built into your typical consulting casebooks. So yeah, I guess a little bit of a longer version, set yourself apart through your business problem solving process.
Absolutely. I love how you talked through, there’s no one perfect profile for someone to get into these firms. And that it’s not only about the case interview itself. Now, as someone who is from South Africa, recruited and worked in South Africa, but now has coached people from all over the world and worked at a global firm as BCG, what’s your perspective on the nature of the interview process? And what I mean by that is, is it really different in South Africa versus Europe versus the US? Or is it pretty much the same process if you’re interviewing for a global firm?
So I’d say it’s fundamentally the same process. And the reason why is I guess in South Africa is a little bit of a hack. I was fortunate enough to interview with Bain, McKinsey and BCG. And most of the time that people who interviewed me actually, I’d say, 90% of the time, people were not from South Africa. They were actually consultants, principals, partners, from offices outside of South Africa, from as far as the east. So part of my two final round interviews, one of them was with a partner from Japan, to Amsterdam, and Netherlands, Ivory Coast, London.
So I’m just thinking through some of the people that interviewed me, but really these people from all over the world. But the process fundamentally is the same. What I like to tell people is that sometimes the specific consulting firm differs in really niche areas up. And sometimes the office itself specializes in a specific niche area. So for example, Bain London office would be considered to be a specialist in the private equity industry.
So you might see that the people who might interview you there would have a case more focused towards that specific industry. But you know, at the end of the day, that really is dependent on the specific consultant or partner. And I’d say yeah, the people generally like to, the people who interview generally like to draw on their own consulting experience to build out a case interview for candidates.
I really appreciate your perspective on that. The global firms use a global process, but you do have to dive in and understand the lines of business of that particular firm, the specialty areas of that office, etc. So that’s great. Thank you for sharing your perspective there. Now let’s look back and think about your time at BCG. Could you describe for our listeners, what’s a typical day in the life of a consultant?
I was at BCG pre-pandemic, so this might have changed a little bit, but I do keep up with a few colleagues. From a meetings standpoint, I think it’s probably a little bit different. But a typical day-in-the-life of a consultant usually starts out with a daily stand up early in the morning with your case team, usually at the client site.
This is where consultants as well as client counterparts from various different work streams come together to discuss progress made from the previous day, action items or priorities for today or the week going forward, and any roadblocks or issues that any one workstream or one consultant might have that they need support in from someone else. You usually discuss things that are on pause or on hold for now.
You then proceed to work side by side with the client counterpart. This involves various things, like working side by side to pull data – so, sometimes it’s data collection and sometimes it’s data analysis. Sometimes you’ve prepared work from the previous day and you’re validating this with the client counterpart and running through various analyses and frameworks and that sort of thing to help gain buy-in from your client through this business problem solving process.
So it really is gathering information from your client and using that valuable time with your client, who is the very important party in these cases, to build out a solution that will really be impactful and will be lasting.
You then take that information, package it up, write up your notes, and send summary emails for whatever calls that you’ve had. That’s a big role for consultants – making sure that you’re very detail oriented when asking the right questions and trying to get to the right answers, and packaging it up in a way that’s easy to understand.
You then, towards the end of the day around 4 or 5 PM, pack up and head back to the office if you work in the same city as the office or back to your hotel. Then, you usually break for dinner.
After dinner, you meet up again to discuss outcomes from some of the calls earlier in the day, some of the emails or the data that you’ve packaged, and next steps. This would usually involve some deliverables which may be due that evening. Consultants are known for working a little bit into the evening, depending on the case. If you’re able to wrap up your day at the case a bit earlier in the day, then you can head back to the office and finish up earlier. But most times, it actually happens a bit later in the day.
But the evening is when you package up some work usually shared internally. It gets reviewed the next morning, and as is typical for a lot of managers, they usually like to have their mornings clear to get some time to review your work, pass in some comments.
Usually this passes up the chain towards the Partner and you have to wait until the next morning for the Partner’s feedback. When that information comes back to you, you package it and incorporate it into your next day of analysis and slide writing.
A typical day and the accumulation of days usually culminates in a few key steering committee meetings. This is usually the peak of your consulting cases when all your consulting insights are packaged and presented to a key group of people, usually from the consultant side as well as the client side. On the big day, we either hear the go-ahead and full alignment or back to the drawing board.
Yeah, there’s always something else coming, right? And that project cycle, once you’ve done it a few times you can get the sense of the way that it ebbs and flows over time. But in what you just talked through, I heard a lot of collaboration across the team, a lot of ever-changing work, dynamic days, some long days. Thank you for sharing about that from your perspective at BCG.
Now let’s think about what made you leave the firm. Why did you decide that it was time to move on? What did you move on to, and how did your consulting skills help you succeed there?
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Sure, so I was actually very fortunate to have really good managers at at BCG. And something that I really pride myself in is building networks around me. I think that’s probably one of the very important skill sets and opportunities that you have as a consultant is building a very strong network of highly skilled top achievers, people who are almost the best in their game, whether it’s in the consulting side, and you get specialists in specific domain areas or even specialists, even industry.
So I built a really good network while at BCG, and very early on. I had managers who trusted me and believed in me and coach me through this. And towards the end of the year, actually, I was I was working through cases that I guess I wasn’t necessarily enjoying, I think consulting has its space for people and they create some people set specific targets for how long they want to be in consulting. Some people want to be in consulting for that. They just love the elements that go into it.
But I always sort of had a timeline in mind. And considering that I came from a background in finance, really started becoming interested in the world of investing. And that really piqued when I worked on a private equity due diligence. And post that case, I was discussing with my manager that it would be awesome to be able to get into industry. And it was an opportune time when his fellow classmate from Duke actually had started a private equity firm a few years before and was actually hiring. So, you know, my manager was a was a BCG, a Duke MBA, his colleague was also Duke MBA, but a former Bainee. But nevertheless, they still remained friends.
And he recommended, hey, if you’re keen to reach industry, maybe this is something you just chat to my friend about. Might be something, maybe not now, maybe even in the future. So I decided, you know, why not keep the exploratory call and maybe it’s something I can further sink my teeth into. And from there, it was actually, we, I got on with my later bosses like a house on fire. We both had this consulting skill set, and this way of communicating.
But, you know, this perspective company and future colleague would describe a very innovative model for private equity in Africa that I thought was fantastic, because it leveraged almost a consulting-like framework, and applied that, along with some capital to small and growing businesses in Africa. And I thought, wow, this is fantastic. And if you remember back, I spoke a little bit about that entrepreneurial flay, and, you know, getting onto the ground and getting operational and helping grow businesses. So I very excitingly took that opportunity. It was a three year program.
And it was really part of the firm’s pilot fund to show that it could bring young people from consulting, pair them up with entrepreneurs who have just started or are beginning to grow their small businesses, and bring the best, the brightest and the best in Africa to work within small and growing businesses that wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford them using a private equity model.
And that was fantastic because I had gained experience to 10 small and growing businesses in various industries within fast moving consumer goods, agribusiness, and a little bit of tech, build amazing networks, raised a ton of money for these SMEs while helping them grow and leverage a ton of my consulting skill set to be able to grow them. So let me go into that a little bit. The most important skill set that I think most people would describe from consulting is actually your ability to communicate, it’s a very underrated skill.
The communication spans across a few things. It could maybe just start with how you write an email. And I remember this from my BCG training is you can actually use the pyramid principle or the SCQ framework, situation, complication, key question, even in an email. So it starts even from the way you write an email to the way that you send out a calendar invite, believe it or not. And it then lives within the way you analyze and solve problems.
And there’s a term that I love, and I appreciate it more and more every day. And that’s something called MECE, mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive. And that really is about when you try to understand an issue, making sure that you understand it from all relevant angles. So it’s a few frameworks and a few skills. So skills like being able to take a very structured approach to problem solving, being able to communicate for results, and pairing that up with, you’re really going deep into a problem and analyzing it.
And when you have an SME that’s struggling to allocate its time between should I be building out my admin function, or should I be focusing on sales and business development? Well, when you’re an SME, and you really just failing to deliver the next day, well, it’s very clear priority. If you think of the BCG, 2×2 MECE matrix size of the prize and effort required, well as sales of sits up at the top right quadrant, so I was very fortunate to be able to bring those skill set into SMEs.
Yeah, and I guess then to run that up, once I completed the three year, what is called the operate investor program, I then saw an opportunity to join Africa’s leading fintech payments company called Yoco. They were recruiting for a really interesting role really looking also for former MBB consultants, to help build out a corporate strategy and corporate development function within the company. And it really brought back a lot of to the having joined, it brought back a lot of the memories back from consulting because we really went back to almost consulting and corporate strategy 101 to build out a corporate strategy to a well funded.
And then now, you know, working on expanding the company really looking at corporate development, and M&A and borrowing a lot from my previous role as an operating investor to really assess the right opportunities and find the right opportunities to acquire and really assist that build or buy strategy for the company.
Mm hmm. I so many things I love about what you shared there, Yusuf. The point about communication, pyramid principle, MECE, and the utilization of other frameworks and strategic problem solving. A little shout out to Duke Fuqua, love it. I teach, I teach there at the business school, and I have a Duke MBA as well. Love it.
And yeah, to hear your journey, not only that first step out of consulting, but then how you were able to kind of use that as an additional launching pad and continue to move your career forward. For those who are already thinking, maybe I want to get into consulting and then perhaps I want to do some sort of work in finance after that. Any advice that you have for folks that are already thinking they may want to transition into finance? I know you already spoke about networking. But anything else there about how they can set themselves up for success?
There’s a reason why if you look at most roles that involve anything around corporate strategy, M&A, or investment banking, when you look at the job specs, they usually have two requirements: former consulting or former investment banking. Why is that?
Well, it’s actually because of the training that you get in those environments. So my advice is, apart from your network, you really need to make the most of what you’re being trained to do.
What it really comes down to is being able to apply a very structured and logical process when you’re trying to address a problem. This involves frameworks around Pyramid Principle communication, communicating for results, and being MECE.
Now, when you think about the world of finance, it comes down to resource allocation. Where should I be allocating limited financial resources to be able to maximize shareholder or stakeholder return? Sometimes it comes in the form of: Should we be acquiring something? Should we be merging? Should we be raising additional capital?
But the cap that you have on isn’t necessarily focused on a single domain. So it’s not necessarily just focused on digging through data. It isn’t just packaging that data and presenting it in front of people. It isn’t just getting buy-in from different stakeholders.
It’s actually all of the above, and a career in consulting – and sometimes investment banking – exercises the part of your brain that helps you do all of those things: collecting data, synthesizing it, packaging it, presenting it and getting the buy-in of people.
That’s a very unique skill set, that for good or bad is only really taught and developed in consulting firms or in investment banks. And because it’s such a unique place, because you’re not just doing it for anyone, you’re doing it for the biggest companies in the world, for some of the most successful CEOs in the world.
Those are the people you’re advising. Those are the people you’re presenting to, which is why consultants have to be so meticulous and detail oriented and MECE, because you’re preparing these things for people who have really important jobs and have to make really important decisions.
It’s for that reason that they trust that advice, and it’s that skill set that becomes very important to develop if you want to go from strategy consulting into the world of finance or investing.
I love those recommendations, lean into the training, really absorb it, apply it while you’re at one of these firms being a consultant because that’s what’s going to be expected of you, as you move on. So, in addition to your current work in fintech, you are a coach with us here at Management Consulted. And as such, you help clients prepare for interviews at the world’s top consulting firms. What’s the process that you run your clients through to prepare?
First, I like to understand the client’s context. What program are they applying for? Are they applying for an internship or a full-time role? Are they interviewing for a graduate position, an experienced role, or an MBA consultant role? This really develops a baseline of what’s going to be expected from you when you go into that case interview.
From there, I assess where you are in terms of your case interview preparation.
Here, it’s understanding where the client is in terms of the number of reps that they’ve been through. So one, how many cases have you been through? What have you really practiced? Are these more on the qualitative or quantitative side? From here, what I’m trying to understand is, have you practiced cases? If you have, where your weak areas, where would you like to improve?
Two, if you haven’t done that many cases, now we’re going to be building up that baseline and really assessing what you need to be focusing on, what you’re good at, what you might be struggling with, and what you need to improve along the way.
Parallel to that, it’s also getting an understanding of how comfortable the client is with two things: their resume (or CV), as well as their cover letter, because both of these elements inform what happens before and after the case. Usually, I run through the client’s resume to see how well they’re able to communicate in a structured way, because talking through your resume (“Walk me through your resume”) isn’t about going through each of your positions. It’s actually about telling a story. And if you’re able to do that with your CV, you’re actually showing off some good skills to the Partner that you’re interviewing with.
With your cover letter, that’s an opportunity to double-click into specific experiences, which is what I usually do as well. Keep that on the side, let’s come back to the case interview.
Once we have a baseline understanding of where the client is, I have a set of cases that I usually work through that address different things. One, they’re across the spectrum of difficulty and two, they’re across the spectrum of qualitative and quantitative, both incorporating core things like being able to develop a framework, understand key facts to develop a framework, go into one, two, and three levels of insights and of detail when presenting solutions to a case.
So it’s really about picking the right case for the candidate at that level, and then throughout the different coaching sessions, establishing what the areas for development are, incorporating that into the next case that they are working on, and then along the way, doing two things: developing their case interview strength, and at the same time, building up the candidate’s confidence.
The reason why I incorporate this very important element of confidence into the case interview preparation process is that when you’re interviewing for a consulting firm, one, you’re being tested for your case interview skills. But two, you’re also being tested that if you’re hired and within a month or two, put into the situation where you are in a live case with a client and presenting a recommendation, even if you have the right answer – it isn’t necessarily about that – if you’re presenting the answer with doubt, and you aren’t confident in your ability to communicate it to convince people, the client is not going to trust it, no matter how rigorous and robust your analysis is.
The interviewer really wants to see how confident you are, so that even if you stumble here and there, you remain confident in your ability to present and have conviction in it. That’s an important element that I like to build with clients through this process.
I love how you talked through those extra elements of resume review, behavioral interview prep, confidence, executive presence. These things are all part of the package of what the firms are looking for.
Piggybacking off of that a little bit, in your experience, what are one or two qualities that most successful candidates possess?
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Coming back to what I mentioned, the qualities that candidates must present is being confident throughout the process. Now, this must not be confused for arrogance. It means that, when you walk into that interview room, or when you dial into that Zoom call, it’s having the confidence to not be overwhelmed by who the person interviewing you may be.
So this might be a Partner, even a well known Partner that’s been on TV or whatever it might be, but it really is sitting up straight and being confident, smiling, engaging in some chitchat, and showing that you’re not just there to show how well you can case, you’re actually there to meet someone, to get to know them better, and see whether you want to work with them for the next couple of years. So that’s one very important quality.
The second is being able to solve a problem with a little bit of humility. The reason why I say that is there’s a phrase that we used to use at BCG when we thought about recruitment (I supported quite a few programs with recruitment). We tried to synthesize the character of the person that we’re looking for, and the phrase we came up with was “humble overachievers.” Whatever connotations it may have, it really did come down to that.
Is this person smart and confident and able to do the work, but are they able to do it in a humble way? Probably one of the best ways to show that humility is saying, “Hey, this is the recommendation I have, but subject to validation of some more inputs, or communicating or socializing whatever these recommendations are with the rest of the client side.” Or maybe even passing this up to some expert at BCG and getting their expert input into this. That’s also a very key character that consultants look for.
And sometimes it’s even the small things like if you’re walking into a room, and you see the Partner on a call, just knocking on the door and giving him that minute to take his call before walking in. If he receives a call it’s saying, “Hey, if you need to take a minute, take your call.” It’s showing that you’re not just worried about yourself and your own interview. If something else comes up, you’re willing to be accommodating.
Humble, considerate overachiever. I really like that! I’m going to use that classification moving forward. Yusuf, we really appreciate you taking the time to share. How can people work with you?
The best and the easiest way is to reach out via the Management Consulted platform. So when you’re ready to get started with training, feel free to book a session with me on the platform. I’m usually available Wednesdays and Sundays depending on where you are in the world. For me in South Africa, it’s usually in the afternoons and evenings, so you can reach out to me directly via the platform.
Perfect. Yusuf, thanks again for your time.
Thanks so much, Stephanie. And have a great day further.