By Ian Xiao

This blog is part of the new UTCA blog series “Ask a Consultant from…” that aims to introduce insightful information on various topics regarding management consulting to our members.

In this blog, I had the privilege to interview Alex Fung from The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and listen to his opinions on how to be a successful consultant and a competitive applicant. In addition to a recap of our dialogue, I have shared some of my thoughts after the interview and hope they will be helpful as you travel the journey as an aspiring consultant.

Alex graduated from Ivey at UWO and has been with BCG for about 8 years. Currently, he is a Principal and Associate Recruiting Director at the firm.

Here is the dialogue of our conversation:

Ian: Alex, what truly makes a successful consultant at BCG besides the basic qualifications of leadership, analytics, problem solving, and communication skills?

Alex: There is a long list of qualities that will help you become successful as a consultant in general. At BCG, individuals display a broad range of different strengths. Three examples of qualities that can help make a successful consultant are drive, creativity, and perseverance.

Drive means taking initiative to contribute to the team and the client.  This can include getting up to speed quickly on a new project or proactively identifying potential roadblocks in the project down the road and how to address them.

Creativity is another quality that can be valuable in consulting. Creativity can help to understand a problem from different perspectives, and to get the team to think about solutions in multiple ways.

Perseverance is also critical because consulting can be a demanding job. Many times you will face difficult situations and problems during a project and it helps to have a strong will to overcome these challenges.

Ian: What is your most memorable project at BCG and how has that impacted your view of management consulting?

Alex: I have been with the firm for a while and worked on several projects, and many of them shaped my career in different ways. If I had to pick one, it would be a post-merger integration for a consumer products company. Our client was operating in a market where new entrants were becoming extremely competitive and the merger was able to create new opportunities for growth. I was proud of how much the client valued our contribution and the critical role we played to make the merger successful, across all aspects of the client’s business.

Ian’s thoughts: There are many friends of mine who want to be management consultants because they enjoy the thrill and praise of making a “magical” impact on business. But this reward may require a lot of hard work that consultants put in on daily basis. It is much more than just cracking cases on paper while data is delivered to consultants in a nice package. The process of gathering data may be one of the most difficult parts.

I have heard stories from consultants at top firms who have worked in a flooded basement to recover century-old data, sit in crowded and sweaty hospital in a developing country to observe their daily operation for a week, and station in mining factories in the middle of nowhere for 3 months. I am not sure if these are the worst cases and I can’t tell you how it actually feels because I haven’t done it, but it’s good to remember that there can be challenging projects in any consultant’s career.

Ian: Many of our members are trying to break into management consulting and I want to get some insight from you as a current recruiter. First of all, based on your experience, what are the most important things that a candidate should recognize when they apply?

Alex: The first thing to recognize is that there is a broad range of people who come from different backgrounds to work in consulting and many of them are very successful. We typically look at three sets of experiences – contribution to extracurricular involvement & leadership, work experience, and academics. Most people in consulting are quite well-rounded.

In the application process, I would encourage applicants to fully highlight their most important accomplishments, but to do so in a concise way by prioritizing them in a one-page format.

For students who are not in their graduating year, they should seek experiences that will help them develop their skills – both to build on areas of strength but also to address potential gaps.

Ian’s thoughts: It is value to have experiences on your resume that demonstrate a track record of accomplishment and delivering impact. Be careful, it is not about your ability of obtaining empty titles. You can easily get glamorous titles by joining many executive teams, but true impacts are made over time with focus, drive, and perseverance! Without any true impact, there may not be a solid enough story to tell in the interview. So please plan well in your school year and commit your effort to the right cause.

Ian: What is the most common thing that candidates could improve on in interviews?

Alex: Two areas that I have observed are demonstrating confidence and being thoughtful and concise in responses. Confidence is a key factor to build rapport with the interviewer yet candidates are often more nervous than they need to be. Being prepared for the interview can partly help address this.

I also encourage candidates to work on being thoughtful in their responses. If needed, it’s better to pause and then articulate an answer that conveys the right message in a structured way, rather than just spilling out an immediate answer that comes to mind.

Ian’s thoughts: Based my conversations with many consultants from the firms and friends who were recruited, all of them demonstrate a strong self-confidence without being arrogant!

Why is that? I suspect no client wants to work with consultants who are arrogant or lack self-confidence. Relationships and trust are important in the consulting industry, but arrogance repels relationships and lack of confidence can impact credibility. For aspiring consultants, I think these are pitfalls that deserve closer attention in addition to preparing to crack the case in the interview.

To wrap up, some of the key messages that I took away in the interview with Alex are the following:

1)    To become a successful management consultant, it helps to have drive, creativity, and perseverance while also demonstrating analytics, problem-solving, leadership, and communication skills.

2)    Management consulting is a rewarding job but it does take hard work.

3)    To be a successful candidate, it helps to be well-rounded and to be able to demonstrate a track record of accomplishments and impact.  It is also important to display an appropriate amount of confidence and to convey your messages in a thoughtful manner.

For any questions regarding this post, please feel free to contact Ian Xiao at [email protected] Your feedbacks are crucial to make our blog series successful and stay tuned for more posts in the near future.