How to Break into Consulting at Bain—Tips from the Global Head of Consultant Recruiting
For business school students gunning for a career in consulting post-graduation, Bain & Company is on an exclusive shortlist of the most elite consulting firms in the world. Considered the third “B” in “MBB”—the acronym used to refer to McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Bain—the Boston-headquartered firm boasts 53 offices in 34 countries around the world. Bain employs more than 7,000 people and counts as its clients leading Fortune 500 companies, as well as nonprofit and government organizations. And business continues to be booming.
We caught up with Keith Bevans, global head of consultant recruiting, last week, who confirmed that the 15-percent annual growth rate the company has enjoyed for the past 20 years shows no signs of slowing. When we spoke with him in March 2017, Bain was hiring a little more than 400 consultants a year. “Today, that number is closer to 500,” he tells us. “We are coming off another strong year, and we continue to see really strong growth,” he said. “We look at things more in terms of a three-year horizon, not how next year looks compared to this year,” he says. “The outlook is very strong for the business, and we are looking to bring in closer to 500 new consultants this year.” He added that while the company primarily targets top-20 schools for MBA recruiting, it ended up hiring from about 60 different schools when he last pulled the data. “Our hiring is concentrated at the best business schools, but the truth is we are looking for the best talent we can find from all sources,” he says.
Bevans is a Bain lifer. He started as an associate consultant out of MIT, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. He left Bain to get his MBA at Harvard Business School but returned upon graduation and has been there ever since. For much of his career, he was a client-facing partner in the firm’s Performance Improvement practice, with a focus on processes to improve effectiveness and efficiencies. Now he’s putting that expertise to work for his own company, and he couldn’t be happier.
His allegiance to the firm is clear, and it’s based in great part on his intimate understanding of its culture, which he describes as steadfastly collaborative and supportive. And he’s not alone. Bain frequently tops the “Best Places to Work” lists for Glassdoor, Vault, and Consulting magazine, with employees praising its “great people and culture” and calling it “an incredible place to learn” and “the best place to start your career.”
It’s people, too, set Bain apart, Bevans agrees. “They are very smart, very passionate, maniacally focused on making a difference in whatever they are doing—and they wrap all of that in a layer of humility, which I think is very rare to find.”
MBA graduates are a big and important part of the company’s hiring, and many start out as interns in the 10-week summer associate program between their first and second years of business school. “It’s definitely an important on-ramp,” he says of the internship program, adding that it’s also a valuable opportunity for both Bain and its interns to determine fit. Notably, 90 percent of interns return to work for Bain full time, Bevans adds. And there’s not a maximum cap on intern hires. “Our summer program is limited only by how many great students we can find,” he says. “We don’t have a target—rather I like to think of it as a minimum. If we find more great people, we will always go over whatever we set out for.” Which means there also are opportunities for second-year students who may not have targeted Bain or consulting in their first year.
That’s because interns alone are not enough to keep up with Bain’s growth. “It varies from year to year in terms of how many of our full-time hires are former summer interns, new full-time hires, or former consultants. But the internship program never fills up the whole group.”
Don’t miss Clear Admit’s exclusive interview with Bevans below, in which he talks about the firm’s commitment to employee training and support, goes into detail about Bain’s MBA recruiting process, shares where he looks and what he looks for in MBA hires, and more. Our thanks to Bevans for making the time to share more about Bain with the Clear Admit audience.
Corporate Recruiter Q&A: Bain & Company’s Keith Bevans
Clear Admit: What sets Bain apart—not only among other consulting firms but also as an employer or company overall?
Keith Bevans: There are a couple of things about Bain people that set us apart. In my role, I have had the opportunity to travel to offices around the world hiring people, and what I have found is that Bain people are passionate about both the work they are doing and the things they are doing outside of work. They really jump right in with both feet. When you align that around our goal of having our clients be successful, you can really see the passion Bainies have for their clients—it just oozes out of them. We are having a big impact on our clients, and we are hiring people who are really energized by that.
With that as our starting point, we put them in an environment where we really do act like one team and do everything we can to support them in their professional life. From our global training programs to our onboarding program to the career counseling we provide—it’s all aligned around helping them be successful and be the best they can be. Bain people are people who want to have an impact.
Relative to other firms I think we are different in the sense that we have a very collaborative culture. We also have tremendously deep expertise in every major sector of the economy, and we bring that to our clients. “We’ve studied this and analyzed this, but why don’t we marry that with your expertise?” we’ll say to clients. We are not trying to prove that we are smarter than our clients but to work collaboratively with them to position them to succeed.
CA: How important are MBAs in your overall hiring? How many MBAs do you hire each year, both interns and fulltime? Are you continuing to grow at the 15 percent rate you’ve enjoyed for so many years?
KB: MBA talent is a big and really important source of talent for us. For the last 20 years, we have been growing on average at a rate of 15 percent per year. That makes for a phenomenal slide when I put it in front of recruits. We are looking to hire almost 500 consultants this year, and that growth comes from the top business schools in the world. The bulk of our targeted efforts focus on top 20 programs, but we have hired from almost 60 different MBA programs around the world.
With our growth, our primary focus is to make sure we are finding the most talented people out there. The breadth of schools from which we’ve hired shows that we are continuing to do innovative things through the Bain Passport and Webinar series to connect with students wherever they are. Our intern program this summer is once again—for the fourth or fifth year in a row—the largest we have run as a firm. It is definitely an important on-ramp, if you will. And 90 percent of the MBA interns who come for the summer return to Bain afterwards. We find the best, bring them in for the summer, and very often they start their careers with us.
As for the 10 percent who don’t return—most of the time it’s actually more of a mutual thing. Maybe they tried consulting and decided it’s not a fit for them. And here’s another example of the supportive part about Bain: Even the interns who don’t come back often get support from the people who worked with them at Bain. They help them identify what parts of the internship were the right fit and what roles might be a better match, and then they help connect them with people who can help. After all, they are still Bain alums and still part of the Bain family.
CA: What do you look for in your MBA candidates? Specific backgrounds? Work experience? GMAT score? Anything that is definitely NOT a good fit for Bain?
KB: On the MBA side, I like to say there are three things we look for when we are meeting candidates. First, we are looking for, “Are they smart?” That is a function of some of the quants—like GMAT score—as well as where they went to undergrad, what they majored in, and are they doing what they need to do to excel academically. We want candidates who have proven they have the raw horsepower to be successful in an environment that is very analytic.
Second, in terms of professional experience, we are not only looking for people who are former consultants. We are looking for people who can be successful in a corporate environment and can engage with people. In terms of leadership, we are looking to see, “Can they make it happen?” For instance—if you are organizing a conference and bad weather causes your keynote speaker to cancel, can you figure out what to do? By the same token, the data is never as clean as you hope it will be. We are looking for candidates that have had that kind of experience where life happens and they’ve had to adapt on the fly.
So, we are looking at are they smart, do they have professional experience that shows they can make it happen and be successful with clients, and the third important thing we are looking to assess is can they give and receive coaching and feedback?
Also, it’s a two-way process. The candidate needs to understand the job and understand why Bain is different. Being in an environment that is collaborative with clients means necessarily that we are collaborative with each other. At Bain, you are not the lead singer. As candidates go through the recruiting process, they get to know what it takes to be successful here. Sometimes when people get to meet us, they opt out because they are looking for something a little different.
CA: How do you prioritize the training and development of your employees? Can you provide some examples?
KB: One of the things we do when employees start—it is very similar for undergrads and grads—they go through a week of in-office training to help them understand the way our computing works, the high-level tools we use, etc. Toward the end of the week they have a conversation with the staffing manager, who will ask about their long-term career goals and what they have come to Bain to learn and go over the different opportunities for staffing. Coming out of that, they will be put on a case.
Several weeks in, they also will go to one of our global training programs. We have one of these programs running for all of the new employees in a given cohort, and everyone who is starting at the same time will take part together. They will be put in a group with four to six other peers all from different offices, and a trainer will work with that group throughout the whole week. They will do a simulated case and learn how we do analysis—and they will also meet other Bainies from offices all around the globe. We do that about every 18 months in people’s careers.
It’s a big investment—getting the whole global group together regularly. But the result is that not only are you part of an office, you are also part of a smaller community of peers. I went through the process myself, and today there are four of us who started more than 20 years ago—the others are in Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. We have been through every one of the trainings together and are still friends to this day.
CA: Can you talk a little about Bain’s home-office model?
KB: That is something that is very unique to Bain. When you join Bain, you join a community—a home office. The home-office model doesn’t mean that you are only working on cases that the partners in that particular office are selling, but whenever possible we try to staff the entire team from your office. From a relationship and support standpoint, it means that Dan and Jeanette might work together on a case, they will see each other in the office and at the holiday party, and they will continue building that mentor-mentee relationships. This is different from other firms where you might work together for four or five months and then vanish off into the vastness of company.
Our model requires that your relationships extend beyond the case, and we have tuned all of our processes around that. When you look in North America in particular, we have a smaller office footprint but we have larger-scale offices. For example, we have one New York office—not three or four offices in the tri-state area. That also means that your staffing manger is in your office and is someone who knows you personally. That personal attention is very valuable. I see our home-office model as providing all the benefits of being part of a global firm with the added benefit of being on a team of people you will build relationships with over several years.
CA: How do you support work-life balance among your employees?
KB: The way we think about that is interesting—let me unpack it a little bit. We don’t think about it as “work-life” balance. Any one of your readers who is focused on work-life balance is admitting to themselves and saying the work is going to be really terrible, and therefore they must have some kind of hobby outside of work. Why would anyone want to work at a place where their life force is being drained from them? That’s not the right way to think about the job.
It’s about sustainability. We train people to think about sustainability. Think of it as a two-by-two matrix. On the x axis you have “work” and “life,” and on the y axis you have “gives energy” and “drains energy.” I would much rather work with my team than do yard work—I really enjoy coaching the junior team. At Bain, we think of it more in terms of doing the things that give you energy and make you excited and passionate and doing fewer of the things that leave you feeling drained. I know that several companies do tout their work-life balance programs, but that’s telling—that they are so concerned about having life outside of work suggests that the work is taxing.
CA: What are the entry opportunities for those starting at Bain with an MBA and how do typically careers unfold?
KB: Typically, people will start with Bain as interns—which we call our summer associates—or as full-time consultants when they graduate. The summer associate program is a 10-week internship, and 90 percent of those who take part return to Bain full time. The consultant role is roughly two years, and then they become case team leaders. This gives them the opportunity to show they have developed their skill set adequately to become full members of the management team as manager within three years. Then they’ll continue to advance from manager to principle to partner.
Along the way, Bain’s is a generalist model. Our belief is that the right foundation for you to be an expert and a senior manager down the line is to see a lot of different industries. As you get into your second year as a manager, you will start to specialize, whether it’s in retail or technology, performance improvement or strategy, or some combination. Often people will choose an industry and a capability—say they want to do retail and digital—so they will pick the intersection of the two. This allows them to work with the staffing manager to get those roles, so that they are seeing a lot of companies and understanding business at a higher level.
There are also a lot of other things we are doing that you will see people take advantage of. For example, we have programs that allow people to take a two-month leave of absence to recharge a little bit, aptly called “Take Two.” We have people in their second year as consultants who will use the Take Two opportunity to take an externship and go work for another company—perhaps a nonprofit. Also, given the demographics a lot of our consultants are working to start a family, and our parental leave policies are very favorable for people who want to do that. We offer an eight-week medical leave for birth and another eight weeks of parental leave for either parent—and that applies to all types of new parents, whether birth or adoption. So, we have time to recharge, time to expand their families, time to explore different industries, all baked into the career path of the consultant.
CA: Which schools do you actively recruit from, any additions / subtractions to this over the last few years? How do you decide that a given school is the right place to recruit?
KB: I may not be as specific as you would like in answering this. I would say that based on where our offices are around the world, we are recruiting actively at the top 20 business schools. By that I mean that we are actively running events and our associate consultants go to these schools to get their MBAs. And then we use the Bain Passport and Webinar series to reach other students, whose campuses may not be close to an office.
Now that the Bain Passport and Webinar programs are a few years old, they have become a very important part of our process. We are finding that students who are at schools where we don’t recruit as actively are also very well informed about Bain. Those outreach programs are now very well established and a very important channel for students frankly everywhere in the world. There have been several calls I personally have done that have had several hundred people dialed in.
The Bain Passport series is people from Bain offices around the world talking about their region and the business they are doing in their market. The topic list for the Bain Strategy Webinar series, meanwhile, is continually refreshing based on current student interest. One year we got a lot of questions from students about how our home office staffing works, so we decided to get some current Bainies on the phone to share their background and do a live Q&A. We hadn’t anticipated that being a need, but we are always trying to make our sessions as useful as possible. Another recent interest has been in around advanced analytics and what Bain is doing in digital. Here, too, we created a seminar to highlight that. So it’s not just like we have these 10 pat seminars that we repeat every year. We really work hard to share content that’s relevant to what students are most interested in in any given recruiting season. It’s not just the 2018 version of the top 10 topics.
I will also point out that we review every single application that comes through our website at www.bain.com/careers. Our offices are really excited to see those people come through. And when we looked at the most recent data, we saw that we are hiring from about 60 different schools.
In terms of additions and subtractions, given our growth, the real question is just, “Where’s the next school and how can we work more schools into the rotation. What usually happens is a couple of really talented alumni come in from a given school and say, “I know there are a lot more talented people there you aren’t getting.” And so we try to get them. It’s really not a source of debate.
Of course, the largest schools tend to have more people. Harvard Business School, INSEAD—they will always be big schools for us because when you look at the size of the program and the percentage that go into consulting, that’s where the people are. Our draw from the top schools has remained very strong, and we are continuing to grow at 15 percent a year.
We do know that big tech has been hiring a lot of MBAs, and we do look at the employment reports from all the top schools to make sure that we are getting the best. What we’ve seen in the most recent reports is that tech is growing in double digits as an industry, but consulting has also been growing across those schools. The financial sector, meanwhile, is shrinking. Even amid upticks in tech hiring, we are continuing to grow at the top schools, which has been great for us.
We’ve kept pace with tech, I think, because students are learning that big tech is very competitive and that it’s also very difficult to be a successful entrepreneur straight out of school. If you join big tech—Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc.—it’s like Microsoft in the 90s. You have to work your way up. Students are realizing that the skillset you get in consulting allows you to join the tech sector in a way that you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. That is the same realization that students came to in the 90s regarding Microsoft.
CA: Are there certain schools whose graduates seem to be a particularly good fit for your company? Why?
KB: Ah, the age-old internal debate. (Chuckles.) No actually, I may be biased given my alma mater, but when you travel the Bain system, you see there are common threads at a lot of the top schools. We hire the same type of person from different cities and countries and schools. They tend to be very smart, very passionate, maniacally focused on making a difference in whatever they are doing—and they wrap all of that in a layer of humility, which I think is very rare to find.