Each year, I interview dozens of candidates for consulting careers, and these recommendations should cover all first interviews with all consulting businesses. Committing one of these interview failures does not guarantee that a candidate will not advance to a second interview; however, candidates who commit multiple of these (particularly concurrently) likely won’t be asked back. Keep in mind that a firm that hires candidates that meet one or more of these failures is not necessarily a bad company; after all, the B and C players need to pay their rent, too.
When I open an interview, I explain to the candidate that I only have six questions, and I would like to spend the first twenty minutes of the interview getting to know them. After that, they should take the remaining ten minutes to ask me any questions that they like about me, the firm, or the position. I set this social contract at the start of the interview because consultants regularly need to set an agenda with clients during their workday. They also need to respect those ad-hoc plans provided by customers.
Failure #1: Narrating your resume
As a candidate, you should assume that the interviewer has read your resume in advance of the interview. Otherwise, you would not have been invited to an interview. Considering the self-imposed twenty-minute time limit, it is a waste of valuable time reciting your career history. This is the single most common error in first interviews, and it is easily avoided.
Failure #2: A lack of career goals
Not everyone will answer this question by telling me that they want to run a consulting company of their own. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of CEOs or consulting companies. However, candidates who cannot articulate what they are interested in learning or pursuing leave the impression that there’s no impetus for them to change. It is unrealistic if your goals are for tomorrow to be as good as today if you do not plan on learning new skills, pursuing new directions, and exploring new ideas.
Failure #3: No self-awareness
I ask candidates to tell me something that they are not good at, or something that they would not be interested in doing professionally. This question is intentionally uncomfortable, and most candidates will try to turn the question around by explaining how they turned a former weakness into a current strength. Candidates who claim they have no flaws, even when pressed, and are good at everything are demonstrating a lack of not only self-awareness but also self-confidence in themselves. As an interviewer, I would like to see people hired into jobs where people can be challenged and succeed. This means understanding if the candidate has any insurmountable weaknesses related to the position.
Failure #4: Only listening to half the question
During the first interview, I intentionally ask a two-part question. It is not a difficult question, and some candidates will ask me to repeat the question to make sure that they answer it correctly. I ask this question to check if the candidate is listening and can follow precise instructions. An applicant who answers only half the question, or who ignores the instructions and goes off in a different direction is demonstrating a lack of listening skills. Listening skills are essential in consulting, as consultants often receive highly specific instructions or information from senior managers, clients, directors, and others.
Failure #5: Not checking in with the listener
I love stories from candidates as they can be engaging and illustrative. The best stories are “who I’ve helped” stories, as described by Mike Bosworth, as they are short and carry an emotional impact. However, being an engaging speaker during a phone interview involves checking that the listener is listening. It is a bad sign if you speak nonstop for 3+ minutes without so much as a cough, chuckle, ‘uh-huh’ or other sounds from the interviewer. Either their phone is on mute, or they are bored, and it is worth asking, “Does that make sense?” or a similar leading question to engage the interviewer.
Failure #6: Not respecting time limits
At the beginning of interviews, I explain that I have six questions and that I would like to spend twenty minutes on those questions. I also provide verbal clues throughout the interview, such as, “That brings me to my third question,” or, “That’s great to know, and I have just two questions left.” Candidates can choose how much time to spend on each interview question, and I might ask a follow-up question or two, such as “Tell me more,” or “What’s an example of that?” if time permits. Candidates who find themselves at the twenty-minute mark having answered less than the six questions are often long-winded and demonstrably unable to follow the agreement made at the onset of the call.
Failure #7: Telling irrelevant stories
As an interviewer, I should not find myself wondering what position the candidate is interviewing for. Regrettably, this happens often enough that I stop interviews part-way through to check in with the candidate and see if they know what position we are discussing. I have had candidates for managerial positions explain their love of Visio and user interface design, candidates for advisory consulting jobs telling stories of algorithms they have coded in Java, and other irrelevant stories. In several cases, the recruiter had screwed up and told the candidate that they would be interviewing for a different position, and I have agreed to reschedule those meetings. Otherwise, if you are telling a story, it should be related to the point you are making and relevant to the position. You also shouldn’t sound bored by the story you’re sharing; stories need to advance your case that you’re the best fit for the job.
Interviews are inherently challenging and stressful for candidates, and everyone makes mistakes during an interview. Avoiding these seven common mistakes will not guarantee you a call-back, but you are more likely to be rated favorably by the interviewer than a candidate who has no stated goals or humility, and who tells boring, lengthy irrelevant stories.