Using Case Studies to Recruit Talent

It’s a question nearly every manager has asked at some point in their career: How do I recruit the very best talent from around the world? Want the answer? Look to the experts.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 12.28.21 PMIf you’re in the management industry, you’ve likely heard people say that if you want to recruit the best talent, you hire McKinsey & Company. If you want to work with the best management consultancy in the business, you try to get hired with McKinsey & Company. But are they really that great? Well, whether or not you agree, there are a few things that set McKinsey & Company apart. First, year after year, the company ranks first or close to first among management consulting firms worldwide. Second, graduates of top business schools strive to work for McKinsey. Thirdly, over the years, the company has developed a recruitment process that consistently manages to find and keep great talent. What may come as a surprise, however, is that while McKinsey once relied on obvious candidate markers of excellent (e.g., an MBA from Harvard University), today, less than 25% of the company’s consultants are selected from this predictable pool of applicants. Indeed, they now hire MDs and PhDs from across fields of study. So how do they find the right candidates, even as they wander away from traditional safe bet options, like MBAs coming out of top-ranked business schools?

Strategies for Recruiting Top Talent

First, there’s the online application, but in contrast to many large firms, the McKinsey application process is very brief (a few standard background questions about education and identity), a resume and optional transcript and cover letter. Then, there’s the interview process. Again, the interview is not especially out of the norm. Third, there’s the case study portion of the interview process. Ask anyone whose been through McKinsey search, and they will tell you that the case studies are really what set the firm’s recruitment process apart. Candidates are asked to complete not one but several case studies, responding to a range of question (often in response to specific data sets). They are expected to perform this analysis on the spot and under pressure. While onerous from an applicant and hiring committee perspective, the process has a distinct advantage—recruiters get to see would-be consultants’ thinking processes up close and in a real, high-pressure situation. This makes it easier to identify who can troubleshoot complex organizational problems in context.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 12.18.35 PMSo what do candidates think about the case study approach to candidate selection adopted by McKinsey and several other top consulting firms? By and large, job applicants prefer the approach to more traditional approaches that tend to rely solely on what one has already accomplished before they arrive at an interview.  As one recent interviewee revealed, despite not getting an offer, “I went to an on-site interview, which was about four hours. It consisted of two parts. The first was a non-technical interview asking about experiences, with a small case at the end. The second was a large case interview. I did not receive an offer, but I liked the people and thought they did a good job of making the interview comfortable and following up later.” Other interviewees appear to agree that despite the challenge, the case study approach is by and large a positive one. “They really did everything they could to help you be successful rather than trying to catch you out or trick you.”

How and Why to Adopt a Case Study Approach

When recruiters focus on case studies not past accomplishments (or “pedigree”), organizations increase their chance of finding top talent that might otherwise be overlooked. Most notably, the case study approach enables one to assess the following critical strengths of any manager or managerial consultant:

  • The ability to break a complex problem into its smaller parts
  • The ability to generate creative solutions to problems of all sizes
  • The ability to ask smart questions (questions that lead to potential solutions)
  • The ability to engage in logical reasoning
  • The ability to quickly read and interpret data sets
  • The ability to translate interpretations and actionable recommendations
  • The ability to communicate in a concise and persuasive manner

While extensive on-site interviews involving case studies may be more expensive (bear in mind that a rigorous case study approach can take up to 4 hours and entail extensive development work), in high-stakes and well compensated jobs, the return on investment is obvious.

August 22, 2016   Updated :November 16, 2016      

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