Saturday, June 23, 2007

How to answer in an Interview

I see that before business school, you worked at Fix My Business Consulting
for 3 years. Since consulting firms are so focused on developing
their analysts and associates, I’m sure you participated in a fair number
of performance reviews during your tenure. What did your last performance
review say?
Associate candidates in MBA programs are almost sure to confront questions about their
performance reviews in their previous full-time jobs. At the undergraduate level, a likely
variation on this question would be, “If I were to call up your summer internship supervisor,
what do you think she would tell me about you?” Before your interviews, give some serious
thought to what your reviews said and whether your areas of improvement will be red flags to
an investment banker. As always, it’s best to be honest, but introduce a positive spin wherever
you can.
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Bad Answers
Candidate 1: It basically said that I just needed to keep doing what I was
doing—that I was a real asset to all of my teams and to the firm in general and
that they didn’t want to lose me. The only real area of improvement was that I
tended to work a little bit too hard and that I should try to spend more time
out of the office.
This answer doesn’t really tell your interviewer anything, other than that you’re determined to
evade the question. Even if you really were a consulting deity, you should at least be specific
and thoughtful about your particular areas of perceived strength.
Candidate 2: In my last review, my manager pointed out that my performance
was always exceptional, but they questioned my enthusiasm and my commitment
to the job. Candidly, my heart wasn’t really in consulting. I didn’t like the
fact that I never really got to see the results of my work. Once I spent a year on
the job, I knew that I’d be better suited to a career in investment banking. I prefer
the faster-paced environment, the collaboration and camaraderie with my
colleagues, and the transaction-oriented nature of the work.
This candidate is not only evasive, but is using one question as an opportunity to answer another
one. In addition, a response like this will leave your interviewer wondering whether you’re likely
to jump ship after a year of banking. There’s nothing wrong with having your sights set on a
career change, but address your reasons for pursuing it when you’re asked, not when you’re asked
to describe your last performance review.
Good Answer
Candidate: Let’s see. Well, at FMB, performance reviews centered around several
different competency areas. There were probably seven or eight competency
areas, and I’m not sure that I can remember them all, but the primary areas of
focus were insight generation, product creation, teamwork, project management,
and client engagement. I was a business analyst, so for me, those areas measured
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the quality of my analysis, research, and deliverables, as well as my ability to work
with each of my project teams, juggle several simultaneous projects, and interact
effectively with clients.
Well done! This candidate outlines exactly which metrics her performance assessments depended
on. Even if you can’t provide as detailed an overview as this candidate, try to give your
interviewer some sense of what constituted exceptional performance at your previous employer,
especially if your previous employer wasn’t an investment bank.
Candidate: In terms of my last performance review, it said that my strengths
were content mastery and work product quality. It also mentioned my strengths in
new analyst coaching and mentoring, which I was particularly pleased with.
So far, so good. She’s outlined her response in “bullets”—her response is pithy, concise, and
lets her interviewer know where she’s going. In addition, she starts by discussing her strengths—
remember that the question was not, “What constructive criticism did you receive on your last
performance review?” Take the opportunity to highlight your strengths as well as your areas of
Candidate: I was fairly comfortable changing gears and moving from one
industry to the next—basically, I could immediately get smart on the company
and industry that each new project involved. By the end of each project, I
would generally feel as though I was an “expert” in that space, and my team
leader would often call on me to share that content expertise with teams on
subsequent engagements.
On the product side, my team leaders were typically pleased with the clientreadiness
of the analysis and written work I produced. I was intensely detailfocused,
which I think served me well in consulting. Senior consultants want
junior people to focus on the “micro” issues without a lot of guidance so that
they could focus on the more strategic, “macro” issues.
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Amen! Senior bankers do, too! Attention to detail and self-sufficiency are important
“capacity” data points to mention as areas of proven strength.
Interviewer: You mentioned that you were particularly happy with the positive
feedback you received on your coaching and mentoring efforts. Tell me more
about that.
Candidate: Well, everyone says it, but the learning curve is pretty steep when you
go to a top consulting firm right after college, especially if you have little prior
experience with the work. There’s just so much new material to learn, and you’re
expected to learn it quickly if you want to add value to your client teams. The
first couple of months on the job were pretty difficult for me—I was hearing a
lot of this material for the first time, and I had never really built an Excel model
before or used PowerPoint. During those first couple of months, I felt like I was
just trying to keep my head above water. I was always asking questions, and I
couldn’t really envision that I’d ever be the person answering them. By the time I
was a second year, though (and to an even greater extent during my third year), I
had a pretty good sense of what I was doing, and I was asked to do a lot more
coaching and mentoring. It was satisfying for two reasons: Being asked to mentor
or coach affirmed that I had navigated the learning curve fairly well and could be
entrusted with coaching responsibility. Second, I just liked the process of coaching
and mentoring. It was satisfying for me to help new consultants though their
first year, especially since I could relate to what they were going through.
Remember that particularly for associate candidates, interviewers are looking for people who have
demonstrated managerial aptitude and who are likely to be exceptional mentors and coaches. It’s
one of the key distinctions between associates and analysts. Associates are expected to manage
teams of analysts and provide coaching and mentoring (official and unofficial) when necessary.
Interviewer: Well, it sounds like in the end, you were able to add substantial
value to both teams and clients, even if those first few months were a little bit
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rough. But in addition to the areas of strength that you described, did your
performance review describe any “areas for opportunity”?
Candidate: The big “development area” for me was team leadership—my
manager thought that I could be more assertive and proactive sharing my
thoughts in internal and external meetings. I think this was a result of those first
few months on the job that I described. Because I was trying to find my footing
during the first half of my first year, I wouldn’t really speak up in internal client
teams and meetings. I was basically trying to learn by observing and absorbing,
and also trying not to make some sort of obvious rookie mistake. And then I
guess it became difficult to break the pattern; even though I was developing
content expertise and getting better at the technical and analytical parts of the
job, I had gotten into the habit of not taking as much of an explicit leadership
role in team meetings.
Interviewer: That’s understandable to some extent. I can understand how team
leadership might come up on your first performance review, but why do you
think it came up on your last performance review, after you had been at the
company for a few years and developed more technical expertise? What steps did
you take to address the feedback the first time you got it? What steps are you
taking now?
Investment bankers expect that you’re not only conscious of your development areas, but that
you’ll continually work to improve them. If you’ve gotten constructive criticism more than once,
be sure that you’re ready to provide a credible reason why and provide evidence that you’re
working on it.
Candidate: I think that in any profession, there will be elements of each job that
come naturally to some people and not to others. For me, I loved the process of
learning about companies and industries that I didn’t know a lot about—I really
enjoyed the research component, and I loved all of the interviews that I did with
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companies’ management. That’s probably part of the reason why my performance
reviews emphasized my ability to develop real expertise within a given company.
On the other hand, team leadership takes a little more effort for me. First of all,
I’m the type of person who learns by watching and observing and asking questions—
I tend not to speak up proactively unless I’m confident that I can add value.
Plus, it’s hard to remind yourself to speak up in a consulting scenario when you’re
an analyst—you’re the junior-most person, and your job involves so many details;
sometimes, the discussion is so “big picture” that you tend to speak up only when

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