You’ve made it to the first interview with that hot consulting firm. Now you sit, waiting for your name to be called, pondering the questions that will be thrown at you. You wonder what skills you should emphasize and what past jobs you should highlight. Then there’s the ultimate question that you keep turning over in your mind: ”What can I say that would separate me from the rest of the candidates?”

According to veteran consultants and hiring managers, this ultimate question is not an easy one to answer. Being well prepared for several rounds of interviews and for having your skills scrutinized, however, will surely give you an edge. Here’s what you can probably expect when you enter the jaws of the interviewing process.
The first installment of this series on landing a job with a consulting firm covered resumes and getting a foot in the door. The final article will address following up after the interview round.
Hiring strategies
Every consulting firm has its own strategies for hiring new employees. It’s likely that each firm, depending on its size and market, has a set of characteristics in mind that the winning candidate should possess. “We look for a strong sense of initiative, an understanding of today’s marketplace, people who have an eye for the trends and can think through the issues very quickly, and individuals who are self-confident enough to deal with the ambiguity of today’s electronic economy,” said Kreg Bryant, director of recruiting in Andersen Consulting’s resources market unit.

As part of its interviewing process, Andersen Consulting makes use of case studies as a means to evaluate potential hires. “We utilize case studies where we go through structured problem solving using our client’s real-life situations,“ Bryant noted.

Other firms try to evaluate certain aptitude levels. “Razorfish makes sure to cover two core competencies,” said Nora Branchoni, director of human resources for Razorfish in Boston. “The first one is behavioral. Razorfish’s goal is to determine whether a candidate’s actions and behavior in the past fits in with the culture of the company.”

The other evaluation is of the candidate’s skill level. “We want, down to the detail, past projects and experiences,” Branchoni said.

Firms like Razorfish also expect to see a high level of enthusiasm in candidates. “Some people really get into it and are at the whiteboard drawing diagrams of past projects,” Branchoni explained.

When it comes to ensuring that it hires candidates with the most current skills, Razorfish relies on a group of technical skill leaders. These skill leaders provide updates to the recruiting team on what skills they want each quarter, along with suggestions for ways to probe candidates for their understanding of those skills. “We want to make sure that our employees know when to implement a certain technology and whether or not they can replicate it in different situations,” Branchoni said. “They must have the aptitude to serve a number of different clients with varying needs.”

Team interviews
It’s become common for firms to take a team approach when interviewing candidates. Firms now have candidates meet with several people at different positions within the company. Andersen, for instance, applies the team scenario not only to judge how a candidate interacts with various individuals, but also to determine whether he or she responds well to groups. “We ask candidates to tell us about a time that they were in a situation that required them to coordinate activities with other individuals,” Bryant said.

Razorfish has candidates meet with a member of the human resources team, then with a potential peer. For example, if a candidate was interviewing for a developer position, he would spend a day with a developer, “to give them a day-in-a-life perspective of that position,” Branchoni explained.

The time element
Time is usually a major issue when a position is being filled. As a result of the constant race to beat the clock, firms are streamlining the interviewing process. Razorfish holds two rounds of interviews: the first with human resources, the second with project managers and partners. “This second round gives candidates a better feel of the company’s values and what we want to accomplish for our clients,” Branchoni said.

Andersen also tries to keep the interviewing process down to two rounds. “There are times that we have secured a new employee within three hours,” Bryant said.

Other firms, however, prefer to take the process more slowly.

“A candidate will go through one-on-one interviews with every person on our management team,” said Don Justice, practice leader of educational services in the Louisville, KY branch of Panurgy—an e-business, client/server development company. “We want to see how well they know the various technologies and how they interact with different types of people.”

Cut the bull
Experts say candidates are lucky to be interviewing for positions at a time when jobs are plentiful, because they don’t have to play games. Consulting firms welcome candidates who are up front about the assignments and compensation they expect from a position. “In this market, candidates are in the situation where they can lay all their cards on the table and ask about compensation packages,” Branchoni said, because it reduces time wasted. “We are very open about what we think and where we see that person in the company. This open line of communication ensures that everyone is on the same page.”

Andersen’s hiring philosophy is that candidates today are more serious about their job search than ever. “[They] are strapped for time and feel as though they are investing time to talk to us,” Bryant said. Being familiar with time restraints, Andersen tries to answer questions and offer as much information to the candidates as possible.

Achieving project success for clients, however, must be the number-one goal for a potential candidate. Such a mindset will come through in an interview, observers say. “We have to see from a candidate their desire to work and deliver on a daily basis. Clients have to feel comfortable putting the future of their business in our consultant’s hands,” Branchoni said.

“The ideal candidate has to have the capability and a strong desire to do client service work in a technical environment,” Bryant added.
What did you do or say at your last interview that put you over the top and won you the job? Post your comments below or send us a note.