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Interview Like A Consultant

Oct 23, 2020 Posted by Steve Levy

This might be one of those TL;DR posts but I guarantee that it will change your ability to interview like the true super hero you are…

Everyone knows the standard regurgitation interview practiced by nearly all recruiters and hiring managers – these are the ones for which you prep for stellar questions such as “What are your strengths and weakness?” and can last for as short as five minutes, and far too often sound just like the people I interviewed the day before, the week before, or even the year before. When you finally meet me, you're likely to conclude that I’m a reasonably engaging person but the last thing I want when I interview people such as yourself are soulless bobbleheads. You're far better than that!

The inherent problem with interviews is that by playing it by the book (could be a parachute book) you’re simply one of the twelve blind men touching then describing the elephant (it's a classic parable); interviewing like a consultant allows you to be all twelve people and come away from the interview having fully described an elephant to your future hiring manager or that recruiter.

Prior to coming to M&T Bank, I was essentially a consultant for 25-ish years and learned that when meeting a potential client for the first time, I invariably interviewed them by asking consultant-like questions. The take-home lesson here is that by incorporating consultant-focused interviewing principles into your strategy, you’ll see your interview “open up” into a more fruitful conversation – rather than a stress inducing, stomach grinding activity.

When a company hires a consultant, there are three overarching questions that the company uses to gate the person selling their expertise:

  • Do they understand my business?
  • Will they offer me a unique point of view?
  • Can they demonstrate how they can deliver “economic value”?

To truly make an impact as a consultant or an employee, you’re going to have to address these three areas. No matter the position, at some level, you’re going to have to understand some element of the business; you’re going to have to offer solutions that make higher-ups say Wow; and above all, you’re going to have to demonstrate your impact on the balance sheet. Doesn’t matter if you’re a co-op student or the new CEO, these questions need to be answered for that offer to be extended.

Incidentally, my first exposure to even the lowest person on the totem pole having an impact on the bottom-line was when I read Jack Stack’s The Great Game of Business, his story about SRC and one of the drivers of open-book management. SRC’s story and results proved that everyone in an organization has bottom-line impact; the challenge for you during the interview process is always to find that connection.

Now…what are the questions for which you require answers?

  • What are the problems of the company that you hope to resolve/solve?
  • What are they presently doing to resolve/solve the problems?
  • What has been previously tried and why did these methods succeed or fail?
  • What resources – internal and external – will be available to resolve/solve the problems?
  • Do they have a vision for the work that you will perform?
  • What are the time constraints to resolve/solve the problems?
  • What budget has been allocated to resolve/solve the problems and what factors would cause this budget to deviate?
  • What risks are you and the company willing to take in resolving/solving the problems?
  • Who are the customers and how do they measure satisfaction?

Notice that I haven’t numbered these because I can’t tell you exactly when these questions should be asked during the interview. Each recruiter and hiring manager has their own blueprint for how they want the interview to proceed but I can tell you that at points in every interview you’ll have the chance to ask every question.

Let’s break each one down a bit more:

What are the problems of the company that you hope to solve? Easiest question to demonstrate interviewing like a consultant. Whereas the job description you read that sparked our interest in the first place was task oriented, you’re hired to solve problems – and these are only rarely detailed on a job description. You’re going to have to fish for them with questions like… “I’m very curious about the underlying group or organizational issues that I will be asked to work on if we both agree that I should join the company. Can you describe the most pressing short-term – inside 90 days – and longer term – perhaps 12 months out – problem that I would be responsible for solving?” Whatever is given as an answer, drill down and ask questions about things that are unclear to you. Offer up mini-solutions but as you drill down, re-visit these mini-solutions and update your points of view.

What are they presently doing? This can be woven in with the first question: “My first impression is that you should consider doing [something]; where are you at this point in time in identifying and implementing a solution and what are these?” This is another opportunity to play consultant and drill down into their response. If their path towards a solution is one that doesn’t appear obvious, ask them how and why this path was selected. Your goal here is to understand how the managers, people, and culture blend (I write "culture" because you might be able to gain insight into their "innovativeness").

What has been previously tried and why did these methods succeed or fail? Fact: The company might have a mixed history of attempting to find a novel solution to a problem; a major goal of any interview is to identify and assess their past successes and failures. There isn’t one company on the planet that hasn’t experienced peaks and valleys – so don’t believe it when someone tries to sell you that all is hunky dory; since failure teaches, be prepared to ask, “What did you learn from your failed solution?” and be ready to offer your own frank assessment of how you might have fared.

What resources – internal and external – will be made available? Will you be an individual contributor with a team of three (Me, Myself, and I) asked to build the entire program or will you be part of group similar people? Will your external resources be limited to what you can search for online, or will you have the tools and brainpower of an external resources? Each will color how you approach a solution and engage in a conversation with the hiring team.

Do they have a vision for the work that you will perform? Careful here folks – because if they do, then they might already have a plan of action in place and your input might not matter. Ask that this plan be described and drill down in the areas where you’re unclear of the underlying assumptions, logic tracks, tools to be used, etc. Would you be willing to work here under these circumstances? You’re going to have to be honest with your core needs because if you and the company and/or hiring manager aren’t in agreement (keep in mind that it's okay to be uncomfortable with the path to be taken), you can be sure that future roads will be very bumpy.

What are the time constraints? Based on your questioning and the paths taken during other parts of the interview, you discover that the company is convinced they can roll out a new system in a period of time that makes you uneasy. Ask questions like, “That seems to me to be quite aggressive. What are your assumptions? What if something unforeseen happens? For example, what if…” If you’re not comfortable with the critical path requirements, I’d suggest you let them know while still offering alternative points of view.

What budget has been allocated and what factors would cause this budget to deviate? Vendors will frequently sell a wildly over-architected solution when a little elbow grease would suffice. Getting a handle on how the budget for a project was created will offer insight into how the existing team thinks about allocating people and product. Asking about factors would cause these allocated resources to change will provide you with roadmap of sand traps and steep embankments that were considered…or not. If a discussion of budget deviation produces “Hmmm” and “We didn’t consider that” then you have an opportunity to discuss the items or scenarios that might derail a project and impact your ability to succeed.

What risks are you and the company willing to take? This area is one that is probably based more on personal ethics than risk management. I like running up stairs – you might prefer the elevator. We still arrive at our destination but we differ in how we do it. As you drill down into the problems and solutions you also want to begin forming your sense of how receptive the company might be to outside-the-box thinking and solutions – if that’s you. “I might approach the problem like this but I’m uncertain as to how you would react to it; would it be too over-the-edge for you or the company?” Better to ask, engage, and discuss than to be labeled an outlier in your thinking and lose the chance to continue on in the hiring process.

Who are the customers and how do they measure satisfaction? Consultants know that their performance is gauged against both a dashboard that is quantitative and subjective. Subjective satisfaction is more about alignment with goals and while good scores (AKA smile sheets) feel good, frankly, they're limited. The quantitative portion is easier to assess – it either happened or didn’t happen – but more difficult to nail down due to the uncertainty around business and life, lack of knowledge, or frankly, the inability of a hiring manager to actually draw a line in the sand. From your perspective as a potential employee, to be successful means you really need to know what makes the customer of your work happy. Never leave an interview without knowing what this is and how it's measured.

In the end, consultants collect data before proffering a solution…an educated solution. How frequently have you left an interview without knowing the real parameters of the role? A consultant is not afraid to ask questions that on their face, sound simple or just plain silly. Your level of experience should never be a barrier; in every interview, your goal is to be curious, inquisitive, and engaged.

Finally, think again about the parable of the twelve blind men touching then describing the elephant…as you’re leaving the interview, do you know enough to be able to know it was an elephant?

About the Author - Steve Levy is a Technical Sourcing Lead at M&T Bank