Tag Archives: Grad-scheme hunting advice

Competency Corner – Commercial Awareness

A Little Knowledge goes a Long Way

A significant part of business rests on the notion of credibility. Credibility then leads to trust which leads to deals and ends in riches. Although you will need to exercise some social aptitude in winning over your interviewer on a personal level, the main thrust of this article concerns itself with how to establish credibility through commercial acumen and how to tackle the often onerous task of research.

In recruitment parlance, this is the Commercial Awareness competency.

1-3 hours spent researching a company and current affairs is mandatory for interview success. But although this may seem like a fruitless and maybe even futile endeavour as there is simply too much to know, there are some guidelines which can be followed to make this genuinely effective and efficient.

The Company

  • Many consultancies have quite complex organisation structures. Know the main services offered. Simplify them and don’t bother drilling down into the numerous sub-divisions (unless you’re applying specifically to one specialism). A quick sketch will suffice to order your thoughts and make it stick.
  • Jot down some client names and client examples of projects – the detail is usually unnecessary. 5mins spent memorising 5 client names and project types (outsourcing/ shared services programme/ IT implementation etc.) will be very impressive when rapidly regurgitated. Make sure you know at least one project in some detail to cover if you’re asked to elaborate.
  • Find out how the company is doing, whether they have ambitious growth plans or have made any sales or acquisitions lately. Search for the firm in one of the news sites, BBC or Times Online etc. Also have a look at consulting news.

Current Affairs

  • Consultancies tend to have a couple current business concerns/ issues highlighted on their home page. Skim through these. You now have a good overview of the current commercial landscape. Use these as an anchor for your broader reading.
  • The Times Online is a wonderful resource. The ‘need to know’ heat map is quite useful too. Skim the titles to develop a broad picture and formulate some generic phrases to summarise eg. The Financial services sector, specifically retail banking is still quite volatile [insert headline – for eg. RBS is blah blah blah].
  • Make sure you know at least one major news story in detail. A merger or acquisition is usually a good candidate for healthy discussion in interviews where you’re asked to talk about this kind of thing, as you may then be asked to suggest how xyz consultancy could help.

You’ve spent a couple hours doing research, now try and group all the info and headings into themes or sectors or big issues. You’ll be surprised at how learned you come across when you produce the fruits of your research in an interview.

A couple news articles and some neat packaging is all you need to create a credible impression. Initially of course.


Dealing with Rejection – 3 Easy Steps

You will be rejected. The worst thing you can do is just accept the fact and shrug it off. You need to confront the rejection and own it. Once you recognise your weaknesses and shortcomings you will then be able to positively address any gaps or weak points in your knowledge, experience, skills and technique.

Phase 1 – Ego Recovery

Although it is far easier said than done, you need to deal with rejection and move on as quickly as possible. Half a day to a full day seems to work for me during which time I do something to take me away from the whole affair – a few rounds of modern warfare on the PS3/ gym time/ food all seem to do the trick. Once you’ve calmed down and rediscovered your self-worth, it’s then time to analyze and improve – attack refreshed.

Phase 2 – Gather Feedback

Always take the opportunity to gather feedback even if you were successful. What did you do particularly well and were there any areas that you could improve upon. If you contact someone from HR over the phone, be sure to probe them on their feedback. If they say you lacked problem solving experience, ask for specifics: was it a poor example, what were they looking for etc. Ask them how you can improve.

Phase 3 – Keep Notes

Finally, you must meticulously record your experience and the feedback that accompanies your performance. After 3 months of intense job-hunting I had compiled a small pukka pad of notes around competency questions, company info, case studies, team exercises and tips for improving my performance. It may be tougher to confront your rejection rather than brashly shrug it off and forget about it, but when you’re preparing for your 5th interview you will sorely regret not having made those notes.

Just remember, failure is a necessary stop on the path to success:

“I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
– Michael Jordan

Source: Famous Failures

Interview = Client Meeting + Consultative Selling

Beyond Reaction

Don’t come away feeling like you weren’t able to show your best. Treat the interview as you would potentially approach a client meeting, cold-call or sales pitch. Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and what you want to demonstrate to the interviewer that will make them want your product, you.

As a recruitment consultant coaching and guiding experienced professionals for interviews with the Big 4 especially, I would often tell them not to rely on being asked the right questions but rather react accordingly and aim to have two or three main examples or anecdotes or selling points that you want to leave the interviewer with knowing regardless, so that the dreaded feeling of ‘yeh it went ok, but I’m not sure if I really had a chance to impress them’ is averted.

Indeed, sometimes the sentiment post interview is so indistinct and inconclusive that feedback from a candidate struggles to get beyond ‘it went ok, yeh it was fine, it went ok’. At least even a ‘it was a grilling, I was really under pressure and I’m not sure it went so good’ is preferable to the devastating mediocrity of ‘ok’.

Too many times I’ve had this feedback and indeed felt this myself after interviews where things have progressed smoothly enough and there were no big cock-ups or faux-pas yet there is a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction that persists. Maybe it’s because the interviewer didn’t ask challenging or sufficiently probing questions or perhaps because one’s answers were too narrow and lacked depth.

Especially within consulting and arguably more towards the higher end of recruitment, interviews are often about sussing people out, understanding how they work and what kind of person they are and whether they will fit in and be a real ‘value-add proposition’. [This was a favoured stock phrase of a colleague of mine].

It is not enough to be responsive; act with initiative

You almost need to treat the interview as a client meeting and the interviewer as a potential client (minus the flip-chart or powerpoint). This means three things:

  1. that you’ve researched the company and know exactly what competencies and attitudes they’re looking for; if you have spoken to contacts or employees, then you may also know what really impresses them
  2. you have compiled examples from your experience that emphatically demonstrate these sought-after qualities
  3. you know exactly what your strongest areas are, relevant to the competencies and whittled down to 2-4 points, that you will aim to communicate during the meeting

Eg. I list my strengths as: building strong relationships; communication; team-work and problem solving. So when a question like, what can you bring to the company, or what are your strengths comes up, that’s an ideal place to tick some very important boxes easily.

In order to sell well, don’t be afraid to regurgitate your in-depth knowledge of the company in preparation for the delivery of a relevant and precise competency answer. This is ideal for questions around why you want to work for xyz or why consulting etc. Sometimes a client needs to be reminded about what they want or what they’ve said on their website so that when you give it to them it’s all the more pertinent. For example: from my research into xyz it’s clear that you place a keen emphasis on client relationships and this is something I’ve greatly enjoyed in my previous roles where I’ve delivered to various stakeholders and built relationships with a diverse array of people at all levels, therefore this is an extremely appealing aspect etc etc.

Finally, NEVER go into an interview or an answer half-heartedly. You need to sell passionately because PASSION SELLS. And above all, be confident and KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SELLING.

KPMG talk about Dressing the Part

Perhaps not quite as good as my article Stylin’ & Profilin’, since KPMG N. America talk about ‘slacks’ (whatever they are), but the fact that a Big 4 has produced a video on the topic is a fantastic affirmation of how important it is to take looking good seriously (but not tooo seriously):

Cold-Calling for a Job

The Cold Call

The cold-call, typically the preserve of obnoxious hard-nosed salesmen: double-glazing, insurance, ad sales, mobile phones; all wanting to pressure you into a purchase. However, the cold-call is not always bad, it’s simply a label denoting speaking to someone unannounced who you have no pre-existing relationship with. How else are you going to get people to know you and get to know people?

[One chap a colleague of mine phoned reacted somewhat brashly retorting, ‘if i want a curry, I’ll phone my takeaway ok I don’t need them bothering me – ergo I don’t want you bothering me’ – (or something to that effect). A fitting reply and excellent perspective would have been – ‘If you were hungry and a takeaway unknown to you delivered a delicious curry unannounced wouldn’t you be a happy bunny?’. [Think of yourself as that delicious curry that could satisfy a ravenous employer with a penchant for asian cuisine.]

Why bother?

1. Gathering information

In How to Make Graduate Applications 36% More Effective, I discuss how you can gain valuable insights into a company and market which you can then use to produce strong online application answers and impress at interview by contacting current senior level employees who more often than not are happy to promote themselves to ambitious lively young graduates.

Furthermore, you can understand how competitive the positions are and ask specifically what they’re looking for when they read a cover letter or application in order to decide whether to call someone in for an interview. When I applied to PA Consulting I understood early on that my chances were very slim as they were looking for a very relevant degree (engineering/ science) and ideally relevant work experience since the program I was applying to was heavily oversubscribed with 300 applicants for 3-5 places! A phone call like this, makes job-hunting life a lot more manageable and effective. The graduate recruitment manager was very helpful in telling me what skills they really want to see and gave me a bit of a pep talk about selling my self.

2. Finding out if there are vacancies

Some companies don’t always update their websites with current vacancies ironically perhaps because they get so much interest they don’t even need that level of advertising. Sometimes, they recruit predominantly through word of mouth and via referrals. You may even be able to find out if indeed they are planning to recruit in the very near future, such that positions aren’t advertised yet, but as soon as they come live, you’re there ready and waiting. Maybe you can even sneak a quick one in direct to the hiring manager.

3. Influencing the process

A call to HR before submitting an application may be extremely productive because you’re then not just a piece of paper and words, you’ve given them a voice and markers with which the recipients of your cv and application will undoubtedly use to form an impression of you. A great enthusiastic productive conversation can incite someone in HR to read your submission with purpose. I say this, because as a recruitment consultant, I would often speak to candidates who would call in before they submitted their cvs, and I would come away thinking that they were extremely strong individuals whom if had I just seen their cv, I may not have thought to call them and discuss things further.

Sometimes, no matter how good someone sounded on the phone, even if I knew they could be an excellent consultant in xyz firm, if they didn’t fit the spec on paper, I simply couldn’t present them for a role because clients were supremely fussy when it came to experienced hires. For graduates however, the story is slightly different, as all they’re really looking for a lot of the time is someone who has a good brain and can communicate well.

How to deliver a cold-call

1. Speak to the right person

It is obviously very important that you find the right person – don’t speech off to a receptionist or deliver your sales pitch cv to an admin person, however don’t treat anyone disrespectfully either. Find out who the right person to speak to is regarding your query by looking on the company website and using linked in to find names and job titles. If you want insider info for application forms, the senior the better – directors and partners. If you’re addressing cover letters or want to find out if a company has plans to recruit, ask to speak to the person who heads up graduate recruitment or recruitment in general.

If you’re asked what it’s about, be honest, tell them you’re applying or thinking of applying but wanted to get the name right and/or find out more about the business. Be friendly, tell them your name, use their name – if they like you they’ll put you through.

When I applied to BDO Stoy Hayward, I actually revealed all to the office manager as she sounded like she held all the keys. I treated her with respect and she arranged for someone to call me back! And someone actually called me about 2 hours later!

Finally, a QUICK TIP: try to speak to someone particular to the office you’re applying to – you might end up meeting and working with them!

2. Introduce yourself

Practice a neat concise intro with niceties. Use the person’s name: John, hi good afternoon. Give them all the info needed for them to decide if they want to talk to you in the first 20 seconds: My name’s Bob, I’m a graduate/ post-grad/ undergrad and I’m thinking of applying for the super duper role and was hoping to understand xyz, would you be able to spare 5 mins of your time, it would be much appreciated. As soon as you say you’re a grad, normally this sets people at ease, because it’s NOT a sales call!

Be polite, be friendly, be enthusiastic – engage the listener.

3. End with a positive note

Ask your questions, insert your knowledge when relevant keeping it very brief and always staying alert to the fact that this person probably has a hundred more important things to do, and respond to their answers appropriately so it feels like a proper conversation.

Thank them profusely: I really appreciate you taking some time out… it’s been a huge help… I know you’re probably incredibly busy, but I am very grateful etc etc.

Add some cheek/ charm: Hopefully I might meet with you in the near future… Hopefully if all goes well and everything matches up, I’ll look forward to speaking with you again etc. [insert personal touch far charm-ier than me]

Maybe even ask to add them on linked in And/ OR after the convo, simply send them an invite, again thanking them for taking the time to speak with you. This will hopefully make you more memorable and go some way to potentially building a relationship if appropriate and relevant.

Also, if you had a particularly fruitful conversation and see that it might have value, ask if it would be ok to mention that you had a conversation with so-and-so.

Remember, ‘S/he who dares…’

The Ultimate 10-point Strategy

10 steps to landing a grad scheme.

Graduate job-hunting is incredibly difficult. Application forms are laborious and the entire recruitment process for many consulting firms is incredibly time-consuming and mentally draining, often spanning 1-2 months and beyond. Consequently, it makes sense to formulate a strategy to make this terribly stressful and emotionally turbulent time in a graduate’s life as efficient and productive as possible. I therefore present:

Consultinggrad’s 10-point GCS Realization Framework

(GCS – Graduate Consulting Scheme)

1. Understand Consulting

Of course the first step is to understand exactly what consulting is, its general subdivisions such as technology/ business/ strategy and finally who the main players are, eg:

“We help leaders make distinctive, lasting, and substantial improvements to the performance of their organizations. We tackle their most difficult issues and serious challenges.”

“One firm – a powerhouse of a commercial enterprise that does the right thing for our clients, our people and our communities.”

“Accenture collaborates with clients to help them become high-performance businesses and governments.”

Generally, firms aim to improve client businesses by increasing efficiency, improving performance and driving growth, by addressing business challenges and problems. Wonderful.

2. Write a cracking CV

Write a good cv with the mindset that you are now embarking on a quest to become a consultant. CV Rationalisation may be a good place to start, but also understand what competencies these firms are looking to identify so you can describe your experience and achievements in the right language.

3. Sign up to websites

Milkround is great for pulling up a list of consultancy companies currently recruiting. Gradfutures does very much the same thing. Set up a Linked in profile as well as you may come to love this social networking site as much as I do when gathering info on companies and making useful contacts across the industry. (Links are in the Blog Roll menu on the right)

4. Organise your objectives

Identify all the companies and schemes that you can and would like to apply to, then group them in terms of similar styles and capabilities ie. technology; strategy; business; accounting – (KPMG, PwC, Deloitte, EY; Bain, Booz, BCG; Accenture, CSC, Capgemini etc.). I would advise you keep a spreadsheet so you can track your progress as you may find that it quickly becomes difficult to manage. Eg.

5. Application stage i – online form

Apply to each of the firms making sure to keep a record of the competency answers you write for each as it will make subsequent forms easier and quicker. This is key to making sure you’re being as productive and efficient as possible. I found that after completing 2-3 application forms, I was mostly cutting and pasting from my stock-pile of competency answers. Yes, you will find some firms have some unique questions but you’ll be surprised how changing some syntax and the odd word can produce a suitable answer. Which reminds me, make sure you replace company names!! KPMG’s tremendous market credibility is not something you want to talk about in an application for PwC!

6. Application stage ii – Tests

Brush up on your GCSE maths skills (% increase/ decrease, ratios, currency conversions etc.) and get some practice in with the sites listed under the Testing section.

7. Application stage iii – Competency Interviews

Formulate and revise all your competency examples. Most of these firms have very similar competencies such as teamwork, communication, building relationships etc. so once you’ve done the work and preparation for one interview, you’re part way their already for the next, and so on. For help on competencies, take a look at the competency pages on the right in the menu.

8. Application stage iv – Assessment centres

Well done, give yourself a pat on the back for getting this far and take comfort in the fact that this is the final hurdle. You should be comprehensively clued-up on your competency examples and have researched the firm to the nth degree so that any further interviews will be a breeze. Tests similarly should not pose too great an issue. Check out Group Exercises for help on this portion of the assessment.

9. Offers

Compare and choose your future career. The usual things to consider: a) training and career progression b) salary and benefits c) company credibility and culture

10. Celebration

Smoke a fat cigar/ buy some shoes

Final Words

It pays to keep your job-hunting concentrated, as work and effort applied to pursuit of a job in one consultancy can be quickly shifted to focus on another. In this fashion you work efficiently and with greater ease than if you approached job-hunting dis-jointedly. It takes a great deal of effort to psyche yourself up only to be psyched out to then have to psyche yourself up again. It is exhausting, mentally and emotionally. By adopting the Consultinggrad 10-point GCS Realisation Framework you focus on creating as many opportunities as possible that will tend to mature at relatively similar paces. This allows you to focus on each stage of an application with as much undivided attention as possible.

Since you’re going to be helping companies improve performance, increase efficiency and accelerate growth, you might as well start closer to home.

‘Know your enemy’ – Interview success the Sun Tzu way

‘It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.’ – Sun Tzu

It is fairly obvious that it is imperative you know your cv intimately and that you have compiled a mental catalogue of neat structured examples to demonstrate clearly defined competencies.

However, this is only half the battle

But what of knowing your enemy? Certainly you have reviewed and researched the company’s website and done your homework, but to sustain the metaphor have you given the same level of thought to your opposite number, the individual warrior who will confront you directly in battle? I am of course talking about your interviewer.

Sure, for assessment centres, companies are likely not to know much in advance who exactly will be assessing you or perhaps will be unwilling to tell you. However, for individual interviews you are likely to know who to ask for at reception or should at least inquire as to who you will be seeing. For my interview next Friday with a technology consultancy I know exactly who will be interviewing me, and I know what practice area he sits within and what his background is.

Therefore, I have an inkling as to what he might quiz me on, what he is most knowledgeable about and therefore what he might find most interesting to discuss. I’ll certainly swot up on his specialism slightly more than the other two areas I’m being interviewed for. In this way, I should hope to control the interview a little more than if I go into it without this information.

Additionally, I have some relevant questions prepared particularly since I’ve found out my interviewer used to work for a company I recently had an assessment centre with. Possible rapport-builder?

Intelligence gathering

  1. Company’s website search of interviewer’s name
  2. Google search (people’s favourite)
  3. Linked in (I love linked in)
  4. Facebook
  5. Any relevant contacts you have

Of all the sources above, Linked in is always my first port of call as it, in my opinion, has the best quality professional profile information out there and has served me well on more than many occasions.

Now go win a hundred battles.

Relevant posts: Linkedin grad guide-get networking