Interviewing Consultants – ‘I vs. We’
One of the most challenging things to do when vetting potential consultants is to differentiate between action and words. Many consultants can spin a yarn about projects that they were on and make it sound like they were an integral part of delivering success. But the question I always want them to answer is this – what did you actually do to contribute to the success of the project? Because of this, I like to apply the “I vs. We” principle when interviewing consultants.
While you may be trained to discount people that talk about themselves too much – in this case I think it’s a meaningful indicator of a consultant’s actual capability to contribute. And after all, isn’t the interview the time to promote yourself? Yes, I know that there’s no ‘I’ in Team. And sure, you can give credence to your team members and talk about how the success of a project was a group effort. But at the end of the day, I want to hire you – not a bunch of people I’ve never met.
The Consultant Interview
Having an approach that works for you as an interviewing is important. And being consistent in that approach will help you mentally compare and contrast individuals on a level basis. With that in mind; when interviewing consultants I have a few rules of thumb that I apply.
Trust Your Recruiters
I generally rely upon my recruiters to leverage good candidate sourcing methodologies and trust that they have covered the basics with candidates before I meet them. I don’t waste much time going through the motions of asking Consulting 101 questions or about tactical things like ‘What is the difference between a Risk and an Issue’. Instead, I trust that the candidate wouldn’t be in front of me unless those questions had already been asked and answered satisfactorily.
Keep It Simple
Some organizations use a methodology where they prescribe a bunch of different questions across various focal areas that were divvied up among interviewers. And while on paper this seems like a good idea, it also cramps the natural interviewing style of the individual. Sure, if you don’t have much experience interviewing people then some coaching will certainly help. But if you’d interviewed dozens, or even hundreds of people – you generally don’t want to be told what questions to ask. Define your own personal approach and the top 5 things you want to learn about the candidate in the interview. And stick to that.
Understand the Person
I have found that too much time is spent on understanding whether an individual has the tactical skills to do the job vs. understanding who the person in front of you actually is. Spending time with an individual and asking questions to better understand their life priorities and what do they do outside of work is sometimes more telling than whether or not they can do the job.
I also prefer to take people out of meeting rooms and into public settings – without telling them in advance that I’m going to do so. This way, I can see how the candidate behaves socially and get to know them better at the same time. I can also see how they adapt to a change in expectations and the interview environment (both critical consulting traits). If they can’t handle the change of pace well then I know that they may likely have challenges on a client site.
(Amusing side note – I once took a candidate on an impromptu interview using this methodology and within 10 minutes he: a) Told me that his specialty in the Army was ‘killing people’, b) commented on how the homeless were taking over the city, and c) body-checked me while saying ‘boo-yah’ about something he was excited about. He didn’t get hired.)
Qualities to Look For When Interviewing Consultants
One of the most important things I look for when interviewing consultants is their ability to adapt and innovate. Both are essential in the world of consulting and if you can’t do both then you may not be in the right line of work.
In determining if someone is an innovator or ‘do-er’, I can get a better understanding of whether they have leadership potential or if they’re going to be an order taker. Sure, there’s a need for both but it really depends on the type of role and the experience level I’m hiring at.
So what did you actually do?
When I ask this question I look for the candidate to come back with tangible activities that they were actually accountable for and that were meaningful contributions (i.e., updating status reports is not ‘meaningful’ per se). If they can do this with any level of confidence and while demonstrating relevant skills, then you may be onto something. If the candidate replies with things like “well, the team and I did this” or “our group did that” – then you might be talking to someone who was a cog in the wheel vs. the driver.
The MacGyver Principle
I’m also a big fan of hiring street smart vs. book smart people. I don’t know how many candidates have shown up with certifications such as PMP emblazoned on their resumes who, after a bit of questioning, couldn’t project manage their way out of a paper bag. It’s fine to be able to study and pass a test but you need to both ‘talk the talk’ and ‘walk the walk’.
For this reason, I apply what I like to call ‘The MacGyver Principle‘ to interviewing. I ask questions about problems consultants have solved, where they’ve been thrown for a loop, and how they adapted to changes in expectations – both their own and their client’s. I want to get an understanding as to how adept they are at rolling with the punches and coming up with solutions to problems vs. being crushed by them. If they can demonstrate this capability, then they are on the way to getting hired.
The Smartest Person in the Room
Last, but not least, I try to discern the ego levels of consultants and how they act as members and leaders of teams. Of course, I want to hire leaders and people with opinions who aren’t afraid to share them. But I also want to be on the lookout for people who railroad others into accepting their opinions and suggestions vs. winning consensus. There’s a huge difference between a team that begrudgingly goes along with the plan with resentment vs. one that buys into the plan wholeheartedly.
If I get the sense that the candidate needs to be the smartest person in the room in order to succeed then I’m a bit more hesitant to hire. A bit of ego and arrogance can be good in a leader; but too much will often lead to mutiny and sink the ship.
The Proverbial ‘Culture Fit’
It may not seem like the most important thing on paper but in my experience; this can be the one thing that makes or breaks a candidate. I’ve seen very well-qualified people not get hired because they couldn’t pass ‘The Beer Test‘. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it basically begs the question ‘Can you envision yourself having a beer with this person because you want to, not because it’s your job?” If yes, hire. If no, no hire.
Fair or not, likability is a huge factor in the hiring process in consulting firms. You may be good at what you do, but will people actually like working with you? Ask yourself “Will other consultants like working with this person? Will clients like working with them?” If the answer to either question is ‘no’ then move on. They will likely cause you more consternation and trouble than they are worth because at the end of the day, people want to hire and work with people that they like.
There’s nothing worse than bringing on someone who nobody wants to work with as it’s not fair to them, your team or your clients.
Your Next Interview
Whether you are the interviewer or interviewee – using the principles outlined above can help you no matter what side of the table you are on. If you are interviewing consultants, remember to focus on the person, their ability to deliver and how they will fit into your firm culture. If you are the interviewee – come in and own the interview by demonstrating what you have done, who you are as a person, and how you work with your peers and clients.
Hopefully your hiring endeavors will improve by applying this logic and you’ll be able to separate the good from the ‘not-a-fits’ in a more predictable and personal manner.