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How to Break into Consulting at Bain—Tips from the Global Head of Consultant Recruiting

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CA: Describe your MBA recruiting/hiring process.

KB: We have a series of programs that are under the umbrella of “Experience Bain.” Those programs start in late spring. Our pre-MBA programming is all about marketing and education. We are not extending offers before people get to business school. Rather, we want them to get to know what Bain is about. The biggest program is called “Connect with Bain.” It is an opportunity literally for people around the world who are working in a city where we have an office to register and take part in events planned during the summer to help them learn what we are about. There are also a lot of different Experience Bain career networking events that people should start looking out for in early April.

On-campus recruiting for first-year students typically starts sometime in late October with marketing events, which offer students the chance to meet more people from the firm and do some student case practice. The application deadline is usually around December, with interviews in January. In fact, I’m headed into the office tomorrow for a full day of interviews. That process is usually completely wrapped up by the end of February. For second-year students, the recruiting process really starts right away when they get back to campus in September. I find that surprises a lot of people. Most of the recruiting process for second-years is winding down by the end of October.

CA: How often do you seek out candidates directly who haven’t shown specific interest but who you think might be a particularly good fit?

KB: I think what we end up finding is two things happen. A little bit of what we are doing with the pre-MBA experiences is giving people broader exposure to the range of work we do. We find that many people don’t assume that any consulting firm is doing a lot of work in tech—or that consulting might be good for someone interested in entrepreneurship.

We are also targeting people who are interested in specific topics—showcasing, for example, how the work Bain is doing is changing the way retailers are connecting with customers. A lot of our programming is geared toward people who have a passive interest in a topic that may or may not be consulting, but didn’t realize that’s what consultants are doing—that they could come to Bain and become a retail supply-chain expert or that they could come to Bain and it would help them be a better entrepreneur two years down the line. Also, we find that a lot of alumni are introducing us, saying to people, “You should come to this event or dial into this webinar.” We really like when that happens because in a lot of ways, those are the types of people who can fall off the radar.

CA: What opportunities do students have to interact with Bain before they even head to school? Pre-MBA boot camp? Participation in events offered by Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), the Toigo Foundation, Forté, others?

KB: We actually participate in a lot of those types of programs because diversity is very important. Diverse teams get to better answers. You also need diverse teams to have credibility with clients. How can you tell a retailer you know what their customers need if you don’t look like their customers? Furthermore, our growth dictates that we need to be focused on diversity. I need to go to a campus and get all the best people on campus—and I can’t get them if they feel like we are not a great place for women, for people of color. So it’s not only the right thing for us to do but also a strategic imperative to continue growing. We are active participants with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), Forté and others—because that’s where there are a lot of great people who haven’t necessarily have the same exposure to Bain. Those folks may not feel like consulting or corporate is the right role for them, but through these programs they get to see what some of our alumni are doing after they leave—the amazing things that people go on to do after Bain—and it’s eye opening.

CA: How many interviews will a candidate most often go through? What advice can you offer in terms of the best ways to prepare?

KB: Tactically, on most of our campuses the process is two first-round interviews, both case, on campus. The second round is three interviews, two case interviews and a resume discussion. On some campuses we might just do one round. The best way to prepare: We put a lot of content on our website that talks about what Bain looks for and how to prepare for the interviews. What I would say though, just broadly, to your audience is that it’s about doing a little bit of prep over a longer period of time—not about taking their holiday break and doing a case a week over several weeks. The idea is you want to do a little bit of practice over a longer period of time so you have time to reflect and continue learning. They are also in business school, learning as they go, and you just know more after a couple of months in business school. It’s also always better to practice out loud with someone else.

The best approach I have seen was a group of students who would get together for brunch every Saturday—one would give, another would receive, and the other two would eat. And then they would switch. This kind of continued practice for the interviews allows them to get comfortable talking about situations and industries and problems they may not be familiar with. We are not looking for industry expertise but instead how they would approach a business problem, how to break it down, can they still figure out what matters.

CA: How important are internships for fulltime recruiting?

KB: Our summer program is limited only by how many great students we can find. 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 any goal we might have set. That said, there is a limitation in terms of how many great experiences we can provide in a summer. We can never fill the full-time class with all former interns—there are just not that many fantastic internship opportunities we can provide. 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.

CA: What advice do you have specifically for those recruiting in their second-year?

KB: What we realize is there are a lot of students in the second-year recruiting pool who are new to the consulting interview process. Maybe they came in sure they would do a startup or investment banking, or they come in already obligated because of a fellowship or scholarship to work somewhere else for the summer. We do meet a lot of people in the second year who are new to Bain. If they are interested, they should reach out to the on-campus rep toward the end of the summer, and they should know that the process starts right away when they get back to campus. The second-year process starts earlier than a lot of others. They can’t some in and say, “Alright, it’s December, what do I do?” It will be too late.

CA: Is there anything you would like to see more of / better in MBA recruits? Particular coursework that is important, either for an intern or full-time MBA graduate to complete in order to do well at the firm? Data analytics? Case method?

KB: I wouldn’t focus people on specific coursework or any particular topic. Business school is a tremendous opportunity for you to pursue the different interests you have for a career in the business world. What we look to find is underlying problem-solving skills, a passion for making a difference for clients, and humility. So they should pursue their passions in business school, because that approach is the same passion I want to see when they come to Bain. It is important that students think about the differences between the different consulting firms. What are they doing to determine what makes Bain a better fit? Just as a lot of readers may have a lot of business schools they are choosing from—their experience might feel very different if they don’t choose a school with the values, the support, and the people around them that are a good fit. The same is true of your post-MBA career. There are a lot of good places to work, but for you one place might be better than another.

In terms of the internship, we are not big on “made-for-TV” moments at Bain. We take our interns and give them real problems, put them on real teams, and have them work with real clients. It is not a staged opportunity for them to learn about Bain. It is a real situation where they are expected to have a real impact. In this way, it really gives us a chance to see what I was talking about—how are they at dealing with problems, engaging with clients, working as part of a team?

At the same time, it’s a chance for them to see if it’s a good fit for their goals. It’s a good opportunity for us to determine the fit in terms of skills and goals, but it’s very much a two-way street. We are very selective with our internship program, and that explains why so many are able to come back full time. I don’t think all firms employ the same approach.

CA: What trends are you seeing in MBA recruiting? Anything especially noteworthy or surprising?

KB: There are a couple of things that we find students are especially interested in—some will sound very familiar to you. Lots of students what to know what we are doing in digital and technology. We also get a lot of interest in our home office model and how staffing works. When you join Bain your business card says Bain but you are also joining a specific office and becoming part of a group of people who are invested in your success. We also get lots of questions about global experiences—students want to know about the kinds of opportunities they will have to work abroad and see the business world outside of their home region. And, of course, there are concerns about visas.

Finally, one other topic that continues to be one of the most popular ones for current students is hearing Bain alums who have been gone for five to 10 years talk about their career journey. Students seem to really enjoy seeing how people made the decision to join Bain, how Bain was valuable in developing their career set, and then how supportive Bain has been to them when they opt to leave. I think the alums who participate in these series also say a lot about Bain. Keep in mind they are taking time away from their families, usually in the prime evening hours, to talk about a job they had years ago. It’s great for recruits to hear what they are doing now, but it’s also a great indication about how strongly those Bain alums feel about the support they have received from Bain that they make time to participate.

Business is business, and there will always be a shiny new object that attracts attention, like big tech right now. But I think recruits can quickly see how an eventual career in big tech would benefit from the skillset we can give them at Bain. And the good news is that even against double-digit growth in technology hiring, we are still popular and growing and the pendulum is starting to swing back. Of course, the rankings are influenced by the employment reports, so when you have a lot of people who are unemployed because they chose to pursue entrepreneurship straight out of school, for example, that turns out not to be the best answer.

We also find that people are asking much smarter questions about how this career fits with their longer-term career goals, which I think is healthy. When they do, we talk about the experience and support they are going to get—through the Bain Executive Network (BEN) and Bain Career Advisors (BCA)—to help them consider both their next steps at Bain and potential steps they can take outside of Bain. Those two groups, BEN and BCA, are there to help all Bain employees, from associate consultants through partners.

Everyone comes to Bain with a five-year career goal plan. But then someone will get a phone call about a job they weren’t really looking for and find that though they were thinking about staying to be a manager, maybe they want to take this opportunity to work in digital and technology. We are having that dialog with our people in a way that is consistent, because people want to have an informed discussion about how to navigate their careers. We are not looking at it through a lens of, “How can I convince you to stay?” but rather “How can I help you be the best business executive you can be?”

CA: What impact do H1-B visa regulations have on your hiring? What hopes for or concerns do you have about potential shifts in such regulation?  

KB: The short answer is the answer hasn’t changed since we spoke back in June 2017, and the message hasn’t changed. We are continuing to look for the best people. If there is a risk of them not getting authorization, our Plan B is to have a mechanism in place to hire them through their local office. Of course, we have to make sure that we are not going to be disproportionally at risk. We would be in trouble if 50 percent of our recruits needed work authorization and didn’t get it. So we are looking to make sure we aren’t taking too big a risk.

I will also point out that it’s not just an H1-B issue. In fact, there are several markets where they are looking to hire citizens of their countries primarily. South Africa, Spain, and Australia, for example, all have different challenges, both legislative and non-legislative, in hiring from abroad. If unemployment is very high in a given country, the idea that you would go outside of the market for hiring isn’t popular. And in some markets you can get work authorization, but there is a two-year limit on it. If we want to continue to grow in double digits every year, I have to invest in everybody that we hire and get them to manager if they have it in them. If I am trying to grow my business in different markets, I need to hire people who can stay for more than two years.

That said, we do what we can to support candidates who are in a difficult situation. Students who know they need an H1-B will get an office for the United States, but they will also get an indication as to what the fallback office will be if they have to wait. That’s been a big focus for our team. So maybe your offer is for Chicago, but if you are not able to start in Chicago right away, you will start in Amsterdam. What is unknown for us right now is if they will have to start their career in another country. It is unclear to us—and many others—just how the process will shake out over the next few years.

CA: What’s one area where you think Bain still has work to do in terms of being the best employer it can be?

KB: I think that a lot of the things we are doing show our continuous innovation. Fifteen or 20 years ago we were one of the first firms to offer to extend health benefits to domestic partners—it was just what we felt was the right thing to do for our people. Same with making the change on parental leave and offering employees the opportunity to take two months to recharge. We are continuing to inject better ways for people to do their work sustainably. Also, digital now accounts for about 40 percent of the work we are doing.

Those are all some of the things I know we are doing. Where I think there is the biggest gap is in telling our story and really letting people understand why our home-office, generalist model is different and why it is the best way to start your career. I think we still have an opportunity in terms of communicating that and conveying that in a way that people who may not have considered consulting see Bain as a potential place for them.

CA: Any concluding thoughts?

KB: I think the fact that Bain is such a great place to work can’t be overstated. What students are looking for now is a place they can go and thrive, as they should. If you are going to take two years out and invest six figures into your personal development, you owe it to yourself to go somewhere where you can do just that. There are a lot of places you can go after business school to just work, but there are not a lot of places you can go and thrive. Once recruits get here, they find that all the great things they are learning and the great people they are working with just continue to reinforce that culture.

I know that there are plenty of students who target McKinsey and BCG along with Bain. Of course, there is a subset of students who look at it very rationally and say, “The more hooks I have in the water, the more fish I am going to catch.” So they apply to MBB and beyond. But here, too, I would urge students to really get to know the types of people and the culture you would be working in at each firm. There is a lot of reflection that goes into understanding where you can thrive—and I firmly believe that simply getting a job is not an aspirational enough goal.

Personally, I didn’t even apply to one of the MBB firms because of what I learned about the culture during my interactions during the recruiting process. And I withdrew from the other when I got an offer from Bain, because to me Bain was differentially better.

Students know where they would be best set up for success. Of course, nobody applies to just one business school—that just doesn’t make sense. But I do think students who target all three MBB firms should take advantage, frankly, of articles like the one you are writing and then triage. They should not waste their time and energy by going to a place where they are not positioned to thrive.