Preparing for a Case Study Interview
Lesson 20 Module 6
What is a Case Study?
The case interviewing style is particularly common among management consulting firms, law firms, counseling and social work organizations, police departments, and other organizations that place a premium on understanding your thought process. This includes IT roles, especially those heavily involved in technology projects.
Most likely, the case will be the final part of a screening or hiring manager interview.
Case studies and their use in the interview process can be quite involved and a complete course could be devoted to this topic, however that's not necessary in most cases to get a solid foundation in how to process. Therefore, this lesson covers what you'll need to build that foundation.
13 Typical Case Study Discussion Scenarios
The case interview consists of presenting you with a typical set of "facts" that you might encounter in a real-life work situation and observing how you analyze, conclude, and act or recommend actions to be taken.
The facts presented can range from a brief snapshot ("Suppose a client came anxiously into your office, hoping to find a solution to a desperate cash-flow problem caused by an unusually severe seasonal slowdown in his business") or an elaborate maze of information including charts, graphs, numbers, and correlations—some relevant and some perhaps not.
Your job is to become the professional in the situation, making further inquiries to clarify the facts, developing and presenting a framework for thinking about the issues, and then working within the framework to come to conclusions.
"Let me tell you about a project I've been working on," says the dark-suited partner, smiling ominously. "Our client makes ring laser gyro-based inertial measurement units for fly-by-wire aircraft. They've been losing share recently and they want us to figure out why. What do you think?"
Of course, you haven't a clue. You don't even know what a ring laser gyro is. That's exactly the point here: You're not supposed to guess the right answer; you're supposed to ask the right questions. Don't worry about industry jargon. Start by asking questions like: "Who are the client's competitors and which ones are gaining market share from us?"; "Is the client losing share to all customers or just to some customers?"; and "Are the customers choosing other gyros because they're lower in cost or because they work better?"
The consultant is looking to see if you can think logically, absorb all the information he's/she’s throwing at you, and not get sidetracked or discouraged by blind alleys ("No, our client's gyros are just as good as everyone else's!"). Above all, stay calm.
Some people try to use clever consulting techniques (such as Five Forces, a framework for analyzing the profit potential of an industry, or the Four Ps, an analytical tool used in marketing) to help structure their approach to the case. These techniques work when they're relevant to the problem, but it's safer to use a common-sense method than to show off. It's also a good idea to jot down brief notes. All consultants worth their salt continually take notes.
Interviewers want candidates who can think and perform complex analyses and be pleasant while doing it. Unfortunately, your interviewer may be a brilliant consultant, but there's no guarantee he'll be any good at conducting a case interview. Faced with a rambling consultant, try to get the discussion focused. Above all, don't get discouraged: Consultants love "tire biters."
This is the interview where the consultant wants you to estimate the number of golf balls in America and then calculate 752 x 13 in your head. These questions are common in first interviews (sometimes referred to as "brain screens"), when consultants want to weed out candidates who aren't budding Mensa members. They're also used to test applicants whose degrees aren't in science, economics, or engineering.
Refuse to be flustered. Most problems are easier than they seem. To solve them, you must make assumptions and sensible guesses. In the prior golf-ball example, estimate what proportion of the U.S. population plays golf and how many balls average golfers have in their club bags. As with case studies, how you think is more important than producing right answers (Nobody knows how many golf balls there are in America. In fact, probably nobody cares).
A seemingly easy interview is often a deadly trap. Your interviewer immediately puts you at ease, telling you how impressive your reasoning skills were in the previous round. "Your resume is superb," she says. "So, what would you like to know about us?" Sounds like you've landed the job with twenty-five minutes left in the interview. Is it time to ask how soon you can expect to make partner?
No! It's another test. You have just been given control of a block of time. The interviewer wants to see how well you use it. This is equivalent to the moment in a meeting with clients when the consultant stands at the white board with a pen and two hours before lunch. What are you going to say? Boring questions about the consulting firm's history or ambitions will get you dinged.
It's far better to say something like this: "I'd like to spend about ten minutes each on three topics. First, your company's training programs, what are they, how seriously are they taken, and what skills they are designed to teach? Second, how do the day-to-day duties of an associate at your firm differ from those at competitors X and Y? Third, I'd be interested to hear how you came to choose this company, how your own career has evolved, and whether it's been what you expected. Shall we start with training first?" Done right, this sort of structured approach will get you a job offer every time.
You're in a room with three equally nervous applicants. You're given a fat packet of information: lots of tables, data, and text about a business situation. "Read it," they tell you, "then work as a team to answer the five questions at the end. Write up a short report and decide which of you is going to make the presentation. You have thirty minutes. We'll be watching."
It's another impossible assignment, fairly typical of real-life consulting. It tests your ability to work in a team. Can you lead the group in a direction you believe is important? Equally, can you take direction from your peers? During this exercise, avoid being domineering or a wallflower. If you can, display a sense of humor. Listen carefully to your teammates and build on what they say, rather than turn discussions to your own ideas. In these exercises, teams are judged as one, doing well or poorly together. There are no individual winners.
What do we mean by a framework? In the cash-flow situation stated above, the framework might be an exploration of the bigger picture ("What has your sales history been over the past two years?"), then a look at potential causes, the testing of hypotheses, and finally consideration of short- and long-term remediation possibilities.
If the case presented requires formulating actions in order to implement a strategy, the framework you use might be a two-by-two matrix, in which you classify possible actions in terms of their relevance to the strategy (high or low) and their difficulty of implementation (high or low). The high-impact, low-difficulty quadrant would be the first area to address.
The interviewer is generally more interested in how you explain your assumptions, your reasons for selecting the framework you use, and how you say you would go about operating within that framework than in whether you arrive at a "correct" answer (Tip: There usually is none). Your objective should be to show how you think, and that you think in a clear and reasoned manner.
Naturally, if you have access to the particular framework favored by a given organization for dealing with its clients, you will have an edge. You might, for example, find out that consulting firm X always assumes that a prospective client's set of facts is incomplete or distorted in some important way and that the first task is to challenge the would-be client's own assumptions. Discussing the organization with your networking resources will help you to formulate an appropriate framework.
A fair number of case questions cover operations issues. Broadly speaking, "operations" refers to all the things involved in running a business and getting product out the door.
In a manufacturing plant, this would include the purchasing and transporting of raw materials, the manufacturing processes, the scheduling of staff and facilities, the distribution of the product, the servicing of equipment in the field and so on. In its broadest sense, operations would even include the sales and marketing of the company's products and the systems used to track sales.
Where strategy questions deal with the future direction of the firm (such as whether or not to enter a new line of business), operations deals with the actual running of the business. It is a particularly fertile ground for consulting work, and for case questions. Some of the most typical case questions of this type are those that require the candidate to explain why a company's sales or profits have declined.
Consultants like to ask operations questions because they allow the interviewer to see whether the candidate understands fundamental issues related to running a business (for example, the relationship between revenues and costs, and the relationship and impact of fixed costs and variable costs on a company's profitability). In addition, operations questions require the candidate to demonstrate a good grasp of process and an ability to sort through a pile of information and home in on the most important factors.
Operations case questions are more complex than market-sizing questions or brainteasers. Not only do they typically require basic business knowledge (or, in place of that, a good deal of common sense), they also frequently require the candidate to think like a detective. In any case, a successful analysis of the question requires the candidate to think clearly and efficiently about the question.
Operations questions usually have lots of potential answers. The first step in identifying a good answer (and demonstrating your analytical firepower) is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Once you have zeroed in on the main issue, you'll be able to apply your energy to working out a good conclusion to the problem.
Frameworks were made for cracking operations questions! They will help you sift through lots of data and organize your answer. A useful framework can be something as simple as saying "If the airline is losing money, it has something to do with either costs or revenues," and moving on to talk about each of these areas in turn.
The goal here is action. The hypothetical client is usually facing a critical issue: revenues are falling, costs are rising, production is crashing. Something needs to be done. As a consultant, you will be hired to give advice. As a candidate, you should be sensitive to the fact that your analysis must drive toward a solution. Even if you still need more data before you're able to make a final recommendation, you should acknowledge that you are evaluating various courses of action. Better yet, you should lay out a plan for next steps.
Business-strategy cases are the granddaddies—and demons—of the case-question world. Consultants love to use these questions because they touch on so many different issues. A good strategy question can have a market-sizing piece, a logic puzzle, multiple operations issues, and a major dose of creativity and action thrown in for good measure. Moreover, a complex strategy question can go in many different directions, thereby allowing the interviewer to probe the candidate's abilities in a variety of areas. Again, strategy-case questions can run the gamut from complex, multi-industry, multi-national, multi-issue behemoths to a localized question with a pinpoint focus. Common types of strategy questions include advising a client about an acquisition, responding to a competitive move by another company in the industry, and evaluating opportunities for a new product introduction.
Depending on the nature of the question, the interviewer can use it to assess anything and everything, from your ability to handle numbers to your ability to wade through a mass of detailed information and synthesize it into a compelling business strategy. Of all the different types of case questions, these are also the most like the actual work you'll do on the job (at least at strategy consulting firms). One other thing the interviewer will be checking carefully: your presentation abilities.
Because business strategy questions can involve many different elements, they can inspire fear in the weak of heart. On the other hand, although it is true that strategy questions can be the most difficult, they can also be the most fun. This is your opportunity to play CEO, or at least advisor to the CEO. You can pull all of your business intuition and your hard-nosed, data-driven research to work and come up with a plan that will bring a huge multi-national corporation into the limelight—or not. Does it matter that you just crafted a story about why a credit-card company should go into the Italian market when your best friend who interviewed immediately prior to you recommended against going Italian? No, not really. Unless, of course, your friend did a better job of exploring the case question.
While analyzing a really juicy strategy question you might be able to draw information and jargon out of almost every course in your school's core business curriculum. Don't succumb to temptation! Your interviewer will be much more impressed by a clear and simple story about how you are attacking the question and where you are going with your analysis. The best way to do this is to apply a framework to the problem. Just as with operations questions, this means setting out a plan of attack up front and following it through to conclusion. One other big benefit: having a clear framework will help you organize your analysis.
Successful consulting is as much about asking the right question as it is about providing a good answer. Likewise, your solution to a strategy case will be much better if you've focused your energy on the right issue. To help you get there, don't hesitate to ask your interviewer questions. In the best case, he may help you avoid a derailment; in the worst case, he'll understand your thought process as you plow through the analysis.
Even though the strategy case you are examining was the subject of a study that lasted several months, you probably have about 15 minutes to provide your answer. Therefore, it's essential that you start by looking at the most significant issues first. Besides, this is a great discipline for future consultants. After all, the client will probably be paying for your time by the hour, so you'll want to make sure that you are really adding value.
Case Interview Conclusions
Management consulting firms want to hire only what they consider to be “top talent.” Therefore, major firms remain very choosy and candidates can expect to sweat during the interview process. The interviewer's goal is to find out if you have the smarts and if you'll interact well with clients. It's your job to prepare in advance for the tricky techniques interviewers use to separate posers from performers.
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