One of the biggest motivations, if not the biggest motivation, for applying to graduate school is career enhancement and achievement of professional goals. For many MBAs and some other graduate students, consulting has irresistible appeal. Today it is my distinct pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk Keith Bevans, Partner and Global Head of Consulting Recruitment at Bain & Company.
Keith earned his BS and MS in engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. Except for his two years at HBS, Keith has been with Bain since 1996 both as a client-facing consultant and most recently as head of global recruiting.
Can you briefly outline the hiring process at Bain for consultant positions if one is coming from a graduate business school? [1:52]
We first engage with students as part of our Experience Bain programming which is a series of live and virtual events over the summer, before students even arrive on campus, to give them a sense of what we are about, what consulting is about, and what consultants actually do.
In the first year of business school, we are not typically allowed to talk to students in the first 4-6 weeks. So in Sept./Oct. we have a large kick-off event, introducing students to Bain, to some of our consultants, summer associates, and our projects, and they meet a lot of us during that same time. We go through the recruiting process in Oct./Nov. and then interviews are in January. That is how first-year recruiting works.
The same thing happens for second-year students but most of them opt out of summer events since they know us already. For second years, right at the beginning of the semester in September we start recruiting, with October interviews, and offers given out by Thanksgiving.
If someone gets in touch with you the summer before starting business school, are they aiming for an internship that summer or thinking about fulltime employment at the end of that two years? [3:45]
Sometimes both. A lot of times what we find is that summer events aren’t recruiting events, but education events. We want people to learn as much as they can about us early on, so if we are not aligned with their career goals, then they can focus on things that are a better fit once they get to campus. Most are looking for that summer internship, and about 90% of the people who work for us in the summer get an offer and return. So the summer program is a very important onramp. It gets your foot in the door and sets up the strong possibility of an offer.
In an excellent interview on your bio page on the Bain website, you outlined the four qualities Bain looks for in recruits: Problem solving ability, client-facing skills, teamwork, and certain personal characteristics including humility and leadership. Can you unwrap those requirements a bit? Why are they important and where do you find them in the recruiting process? [5:18]
The answer starts with what we are about at Bain. We are about creating client success stories and people success stories. Problem solving ability is about the ability to break down a problem into discreet parts to prove or disprove a hypothesis on each part to come up with an overall answer for what to do next.
It’s not enough to be smarter or more credentialed, or just more self-confident than the people you’re working with. To be effective as a Bain consultant you need to have people skills to inspire clients and be able to present your analysis in a compelling way. Those are the client skills. Bain consultants work alongside our clients – we don’t do it “to” our clients, we do it “with” our clients. We are looking for people who demonstrate the inclination to work with people that way. We can see that in interviews.
With teamwork, we really do work in teams at Bain. The most successful partners are the ones that team the best. If I’m working with a CEO and an acquisition is a goal at the conclusion, it behooves me to find someone at Bain who is an expert in M&A. Teaming is absolutely a necessary component of being successful at Bain. With humility and leadership, we are not looking for people to pound their chest and say, “I’m the smartest person in the room you should all listen to me!” We are looking for people who understand they have a lot experience and the weight of Bain expertise behind them, and that combination can get us places we can’t get on our own.
How does the recruiting process differ for MBAs and other graduate recruits whether they be earning Masters of Management, JDs, PhDs, or holders of masters in engineering like yourself or other masters degrees? [9:19]
The process is quite similar, especially with advanced degrees the process is almost identical, with us looking to bring them in at the same level as an MBA hire. We do run specific events for PhDs, which are one-day or one-week programs to expose the candidate pool to consulting at Bain. For some we can just talk about how Bain is different from other consulting firms. For PhD candidates who are not as familiar with consulting, we talk about the industry, but the process itself is quite similar. We do look at each individual application on the overall merits. If we think someone is a good fit for Bain, we encourage them to go ahead and apply and we’ll figure out the right entry point.
There is an assumption that consultants have a business background, but what matters most to us is problem solving skills, and the fundamental skills to be successful as a consultant. It’s ok if you don’t know how to read a balance sheet or an income statement, because everyone has a week of training in the office to learn the basic tool kit, so everyone has the same baseline understanding.
Then we have global training programs for undergrads or MBAs. Over the course of a week you will work through how we think about analytics, clients, teams, and this happens +/- every 18 months in your career, so you’re getting trained just in time in addition to all of the online tools. Bottom line, we are looking for the raw materials, and we can turn them into something great.
Is there a way for a young professional or graduate student to prepare themselves for a career in consulting? [15:09]
It is important to focus on experience, and have a vision for your career. Think about what you want to be doing 10-15 years down the line. Get a sense of what you like doing, and what you don’t like doing. That helps you understand where Bain might fit in.
With students on campus, it is not helpful to take particular classes for consulting – we will teach you what you need to know. For people working, focus on doing jobs that have impact.
We are all about client success stories, and we want to see that you are results oriented. We encourage people to think about the types of experiences and exposure they want and how they will grow as business leaders at Bain and beyond Bain.
Tactically, get to know all the consulting firms. We are a corporate strategy consulting firm, and we are across all sectors and industries – it’s whatever clients are worried about, and our clients are leaders of their companies. There are other consulting firms that focus on specific parts of the value chain – for example, salesforce effectiveness, IT, or manufacturing. If you are super passionate about a specific thing you might want someplace else. What is not helpful is to say, “I get bored with my internships and I like mixing up my projects every few weeks so I can see a lot of stuff. I don’t know what I want to do so I’ll be with you guys.”
What is the internship experience like at Bain? Is it open to non-MBA grad students? [19:26]
We have two summer internship programs – an associate consultant program essentially for college juniors, and a summer associate program for MBAs in their summer between first and second year.
For the MBAs it is a 10-week program. Typically what you see is in the October timeframe a kick-off event, with an application due in the December timeframe, interviews in January, and everything wrapped up by February. The 10-week program starts with one week of training, a few days in the office, then global training in Cape Cod. The next nine weeks are on a real project.
I have more work than I have people, and when I have the opportunity to have talented MBAs come in and join the team for nine weeks of work, I plug them right in. I put them in front of real clients and expect them to have real impact. In the final week they do a presentation to the leadership team and I sit in on the ones in Chicago and am blown away by the impact interns have on clients in nine short weeks of work, one year into their MBA program.
Our goal is to be very selective on the front end, and to give offers to every one of our summer associates. We do make offers to about 90% of our interns, and the overwhelming majority accept them. Internships are a great way for students to get to know us, and for us to see what they can do. Every summer associate is one less person I need to hire for a full time job, but we end up doing a lot of second year recruiting as well. We consistently grow 14-15% a year, so I can hire as many summer associates as I can find, and yet we are still always looking for more people in the second year.
Is the GMAT or GRE or LSAT or any other aptitude test used as a screening tool before inviting to interview? How about GPA? [23:06]
We do look at the GMAT score. There is no minimum, but we do have a sense of what a strong score is. The truth is, most students in MBA programs often have the GMAT on their resume. We do have a fair amount of applicants with a GRE or LSAT and we can convert that to an equivalent GMAT score, so by no means is a GMAT required to apply to Bain.
With regard to GPA, most schools don’t let us ask about grades, and most business schools don’t encourage students to put it on their resume. At the undergrad level we do ask to see it for associate consultant positions, but for MBAs we are not asking for it – we figure if you are good enough to get into a top business school, that is good enough for us as well.
If invited to interview at Bain, how should Bain wannabes prepare? [25:00]
First know that it is a process, and it takes time. You need to understand what consulting is, how firms are different, and why you want to do it. It is really difficult to fake it, since it is such a demanding process.
Prepare for case interviews. Now, there are many students who try to cram, like doing 10-15 cases per week. That’s way too much. You are in school, you are a student. Take time to reflect. Don’t blow through as many cases as possible. Think of it as a slow and steady process. Do a case, think about it, be a student, relax mentally, do it again.
Be familiar with the frameworks and how to apply them, but don’t make it a pattern matching game, of “I’m going to ask you a question, you are going to tell me Porter’s Five Forces, and I’m going to say, ‘Wow, he should be a consultant!’” That’s not how it works. Nerves play a factor, and sometimes people want to say it before they forget it.
Prepare by knowing your stuff, be confident, relaxed, and well rested so we can talk as two business people.
Business Insider recently named Bain as the best place to work in 2017, and Glassdoor as the second best place to work. And those aren’t Bain’s only honors as an employer. What is Bain doing right that makes it such a great place to work? [29:16]
I’m biased due to my role, but it starts with hiring really smart, passionate people who want to make a difference, positively impacting all the communities they are a part of. The second thing is our leadership is committed to making Bain a great place to work.
Leadership creates the atmosphere so that great ideas have the opportunity to be heard, implemented, and thrive. That is a big part of how we approach things, so a lot of the innovations we are doing, like office social events or different training or experience sharing sessions, our leadership has set up a culture where someone can say, “Hey, I’d like to do a brown bag lunch on this,” and they can go ahead and do it. Leadership is vocally supportive of those types of innovations coming from people. Lastly, we do really great work. People want to be part of an organization really making a difference, and we are.
What does work-life balance mean at Bain? [31:55]
What most people are asking with this question is, “How can I do job in a sustainable way, thriving both personally and professionally while working in such a demanding job? How can I do more stuff I like doing and less that I don’t like over time?” I think you can blend the two, try to find the job and company that allows them to be a whole person. At the end of the day you have to make some trade-offs, but early on in your career, aim high and look for a job that allows you to do both, that values having a family-friendly work place.
At Bain we tend to promote from within, and if we burn people out that is a business problem. We help people do their work in a sustainable way. We have Take Two (a two month sabbatical), case team surveys, and flexible work options, so we do offer a lot of things to give people the chance to recharge.
If I’m not a U.S. citizen, can I be a consultant for Bain in the U.S., or do you only place international students in their home countries? [39:45]
If you are a top student, we are looking for talent everywhere in the world for all 55 of our offices. We are growing and looking for the best people wherever we can find them. In almost every case, recruiting is immigration blind until the end of the process.
Let’s assume Keith is not American but wants to work here. When we are at our best, I would want to give Keith an offer – “Here’s your offer to work in Chicago. We know you need to get a visa, and if you don’t get through the visa lottery you will start work in the office where you are authorized to work.” We know it is a very anxiety-ridden process and if I can take some anxiety out of it with, “Here’s Plan A, but we’ve thought about Plan B,” that is what we are trying to do.
We also don’t want an office with a disproportionate risk related to the number of people we hire. If I hire 10 people for an office and seven people need visas, I can’t afford to have just three people show up to work, so we do monitor for that, but we are not screening at the application stage or even round one interview stage for immigration status. We want the best and brightest, and if they can’t work in the U.S., we do everything we can to support their transition into the work force with us.
Students should apply, go through the process, and we’ll figure things out at the end.
What do you see going forward in the future in consulting? How do you see consultants’ roles, needed characteristics/skills, etc. changing in the next 5-10 years? [43:02]
When I started there was a premium on finding the information – if you had the information, you were the only one. Now, everyone has information at their fingertips. What makes you special now is the discernment when looking at that information – which of the 25,000 results Google returns in under a second has the right info, and how can you reconcile the top three sources that say something slightly different? So I think the discernment skill is going to get more important for consulting over time.
The tools consultants use are also evolving very rapidly. When I started it was a lot of Excel and PowerPoint, and now that’s what it takes to just be in the room. There are a lot more sophisticated data analytics tools, and availability of data.
I think the biggest change we’ll see is the multi-disciplinary nature of the expertise in the room. When I think of the work in digital, analytics, there are experts in the room today in areas that didn’t exist a couple years ago, and that will only proliferate. I think with design thinking and machine learning, for example, there will be people on case teams and out of MBA programs that have a wider range of expertise than we’ve seen in the past.
If you are a manager 5-10 years from now, you will be managing teams that look very different than the teams you were on coming out of business school. There will be a couple MBAs, a couple undergrads, but also maybe someone with a master of science in analytics, or an app developer, or a digital designer on their team, adding value in different ways, and trained differently. I think that will be really exciting to watch as it unfolds.
A question more about your personal background, you got your BS and MS in engineering from MIT and then went to work at Bain. You also decided to earn an MBA from HBS. How have you benefited from your HBS experience given the outstanding education, credentials and work experience you had when you arrived at HBS? Was the MBA a requirement for advancement? [47:25]
The way it works at Bain is you don’t have to go back and get your MBA. I worked for four years at Bain before going back to business school – I was an associate consultant for two years, a senior associate consultant for a year, and then was promoted to consultant before going to business school. So I was already past the threshold without getting an MBA. We have several managers and partners that don’t have their MBA. Firm-wide that is fairly common.
In my case, it was a personal goal, and what I took away from it was a much broader perspective on business. Subject matter-wise, after four years at Bain I’d seen a lot of industries and functions, worked with many senior leadership teams, and there weren’t a lot of things I saw at business school that were brand new to me, but there were several areas where I was not as deep – like a classmate who’d been in retail, or a banker, or an entrepreneur. I would say I was proficient in pretty much everything we worked on, especially supply chain where I had spent a lot of time, but I was not an expert.
The value I got was the personal growth from being there, and really getting to know my section mates. Hearing someone who had been a Navy Seal talk about leadership was a very different perspective and one I hadn’t had prior to that. Talking about what it’s like to grow a company and prepare it for sale, I had some experience with through my work, but hearing from someone who had built and sold three companies before coming to HBS was a very different perspective. Learning about how they thought about solving problems was great personal growth, as opposed to working on it one client at a time.
Being immersed in it every day was tremendously important to me. It was also important for me with b-school to spend more time as a husband. My wife has a master’s degree in engineering, so it was nice to have some time as a couple. We started our family at HBS, and my son was born in Boston. The entire experience was a great chance for me to reflect on what I wanted to get out of my career and what success would look like more holistically, and I wouldn’t have traded that for anything.
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