Friday, June 20, 2014

When consulting case interviews don't work

It is a glorious spring Sunday, the day before commencement at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Among the many alumni returning to the campus is billionaire Chinese financier Zhang Lei, 41, who is a familiar figure here. In 2010 he announced a gift of the propitious amount of $8,888,888 to Yale School of Management, the largest donation made to the business school from one of its graduates. ...

I ask how he came to be a student at Yale. Born in 1972 in Zhumadian, a village in Henan province, central China, Zhang doesn’t come from a wealthy background. He scored the highest marks in the province on his college entrance exams and so won a scholarship to Renmin University in Beijing, where he studied finance.

He wanted to go on to graduate school abroad but didn’t have the money. “The reason I just applied to graduate schools in the US was simple – they were the only ones I knew that gave scholarships,” he explains in lightly accented US English. “I received a scholarship from Yale. Unfortunately, when I first came to Yale I did not even realise that the scholarship I got was for only one year [of the three-year course]. I urgently needed to find work. So I got a job at the investment office.” ...

He tells me that at one point, desperate for an internship, he had an interview with one of the management consultancies in Boston. It was an ill-fated encounter. Short of funds, Zhang had asked the firm to pay for his train ticket in advance rather than being reimbursed later, as is the norm. “They asked me about a case study about how many gas stations should a certain company ideally have within a certain region. I asked, ‘Why do people need gas stations?’

“When you think about it, it is not a foolish question. What is the function and can it change? Is it, for example, a good place to do grocery shopping? Can it be replaced? Become obsolete, say, because of electric cars? But this person looked at me pityingly and said, ‘Perhaps you don’t have the intellect to be a consultant.’ I had many first round interviews but I rarely was invited for the second round.”
--Henny Sender, FT, on culturally biased interview questions. Kind of like the time I was asked to estimate how many loaves of bread were sold each year in Indiana, and the interviewer couldn't hide his contempt for my evidently ridiculous guess of how many loaves of bread a white family eats in a week.