Hiring on a Case-by-Case Basis

Bain & Company prizes the ability to solve problems. "Leave your frameworks at the door," partner Chris Bierly advises potential recruits

Chris Bierly is a partner at the Boston office of Bain & Company, a global management consulting firm. Bierly says that Bain is looking for students who demonstrate that intangible "spark," which he describes as "a demonstrated passion for making things happen."

Bierly joined Bain as an associate in 1986, when he graduated from the University of Virginia. In 1991 he earned his MBA from the Harvard Business School, and returned to Bain as a consultant immediately after graduation. Bierly oversees national undergraduate recruiting efforts. And for the past 14 years, he has managed associate-level recruiting, the entry-level position for undergraduates, for the northeastern U.S.

Bierly recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Jeffrey Gangemi. An edited excerpt of their conversation follows:

Do you target specific schools for recruiting?

We conduct intensive on-campus recruiting at about 40 different schools in North America. We target the Ivy League and other leading schools. Aside from the larger universities, we also target some of the small liberal-arts colleges, like Amherst College and Williams College, for example, as part of our annual recruiting.

Do you have a summer internship program for which you recruit? And to what extent is it a feeder for full-time hires?

Yes. The summer internship program is very much integrated into our associate-consultant recruiting program. Most of the people who spend the summer with us receive offers to join us full-time, and most of them accept those offers.

Is the interview process for full-time hiring different than that for internships?

The timing is a little different. The marketing effort for both begins way back in the early fall. The interviewing for interns takes place in February and March, whereas the full-time interviewing occurs in October and November.

How important is networking?

It's not so much proactive networking as much as it is responding to the opportunities that are there in front of you. If you're at one of our 40 core schools, you will have ample opportunities to get to know Bain & Company. And it certainly helps to come out and participate in some of our events and presentations before the formal interviewing process.

What is the formal interview like?

We do two rounds of interviews on campus, and candidates meet two to three interviewers in each round. The interviews are a mix of case and behavioral discussions, but the emphasis is on case interviewing. The cases are not riddles; they're real client problems (see BW Online, 1/5/06, "Speaking the Language of the Interview"). We want to hear how you think and how you would begin to break down the kinds of conversations we have around here. It's a good mutual test.

What's the best way to approach a case interview?

The best way to approach a case interview is to get a good night's sleep, come in with an open mind, actively listen, and then actively engage in a relaxed conversation with the interviewer. Leave your frameworks at the door. It's useful to go to our Web site and learn what a case interview is, so you have some sense of what to expect when you walk in the door. Some students choose to do a practice interview.

What undergraduate majors do you like to see?

We hire people from every possible major and background, so specific skills coming in don't matter much, because we have intensive training programs to bring everyone up to speed. We certainly hire business majors, and they lend something to the class in the skills that they possess on day one, but probably 80% of the people that we hire do not have any kind of formal business training.

We're looking for some pretty exceptional people with a passion for making an impact. That begins with analytical skills.

That's the foundation for success within our business.

What's the culture like at Bain?

Bain is a high-energy place to work. We're looking for bright, passionate, committed people who want to make a difference (see BW Online, "Meritocracy Inc."). We really want to help our clients be successful, and because we often work in teams, it's a supportive culture. Bain is a place where the associate consultants know each other, like each other, and want to help each other succeed. This is one of the most supportive work environments that I've ever seen.

In the recruiting process, what determines a successful candidate?

We prize people who very much enjoy working on a team and have excellent communication skills. We're looking for people with a real spark -- folks who are highly motivated, internally directed, and have a demonstrated passion for making things happen. You can see it on their résumé in the kinds of things in which they are involved. While in an undergraduate setting, they're not just students, but they're leaders in the colleges or universities where they go to school.

What's the work schedule like?

This is a demanding work environment. There really is no typical workweek, because the challenges in the business are so varied. But it's not about face time. It's about getting things done in an efficient way, and the individual is granted the freedom to manage his or her own time, as long as he or she gets things done. Efficiency allows our people to not only work in a demanding environment, but also do things outside of work. For example, over half the people in the Boston office are actively volunteering on various projects in the local community.

To what extent do candidates have a geographic choice in where they'll be placed?

They drive that. We ask people when they apply to tell us if they have an office preference. At the end of the first round of interviews, we ask people to make a decision about what office they'd like to be considered for, in North America as well as abroad. From that point forward, we're interviewing them for that office.

What are some deal-breakers?

It's a mistake to try to approach the case-interviewing process in a prepackaged way. A case interview should be a natural, free-flowing conversation about a problem, much like we'd have in our own hallways here when helping our clients. When students come in with a framework, it often translates to poor listening and a conversation that feels artificial.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.