Mock MBA Interview | MBA Interview Prep with Brian Birdwell

We’re back with another live MBA mock interview with feedback for 2023! Settle in, because this massive video gets into how to introduce yourself, timing your answers, those classic behavioral questions and the storytelling skills that we specialize in at Career Protocol. The focus of this MBA interview is Columbia but the advice will be applicable anywhere!

YouTube video

Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Tip 1 – Timing

2-4 minutes is a good benchmark for most questions

Tip 2 – Preparation

Be ready with stories, but don’t over-rehearse

Tip 3 – Story Structure

Don’t over-dwell on inspiration – include your goals and plans

Tip 4 – Grammar

Stick the landing!

Tip 5 – Pausing To Think

10 seconds is fine, 100 seconds is not

Brian: I'm Brian, I work at Career Protocol as a Senior Coach, and before that I spent too many years as a GMAT, LSAT, and GRE instructor and professional, and I have been working with Lakshay here in round 1 this season. Lakshay, you want to introduce yourself?

Lakshay: Yes. Hi, everyone. I am currently working with McKinsey as a Senior Analyst, and Brian has really helped me get up my GMAT score and I’m really excited to be interviewing with Columbia now.

Brian: Okay, well, so we'll pace these out, and then we'll ask a few of the questions, and then we'll sort of break out and chat about them a little bit. So, Lakshay, can you walk me through your resume, please?

Lakshay: Sure. So, I graduated in 2018. I did my major in electrical engineering. I was very passionate about renewable energy at the time, but through the course of the internships I did during college, I realized I was more inclined towards the business side of things, which is why I joined a market research firm right out of campus. I worked there for about six to eight months and then moved to McKinsey to take up a data analytics role. Currently, I'm part of the Growth Maps team, where we help clients — retail and CPG clients — identify, quantify, and then target new growth opportunities. For example, we did a menu architecture project where we helped a QSR giant decide which products to keep on their menu, how to price them, what are the kind of promos you can run etc. And on the retail side, how do you negotiate with the different vendors that you work with? How do you position products in your store? So that's kind of been the centerpiece of my work so far. Now, I've been very fortunate. At McKinsey, I got the opportunity to really live the “Make your own McKinsey” philosophy. I started off in the consumer shopper insights team. So, quick two- to three-week stints, got to work across a lot of industries such as consumer, tech, tourism, retail, all of that. Or as I like to say, I worked on everything from newspaper to toilet paper. So that was quite exciting. Then once I got an understanding of what I really liked — which in my case is retail and CPG — I got the opportunity to really double down on that, join the Growth Map team where the projects are longer so I can drive more impact. And, yeah, I've been loving it! I’ve been with the firm for about three and a half, four years now and now I’m really excited to be here applying for my MBA.

Brian: Okay great! All right, you react first. Tell me, what do you think?

Lakshay: I think it was a bit long, but I think I covered the career progression all right.

Brian: Yeah, it probably wasn't as long as you think. I didn't time that one — I'll time some of the future ones — but it was certainly like, that's probably about right in the sweet spot. Any shorter than that, and you risk cutting out some of the details that sort of make it come alive and then any longer than that and sure, you would have been rambling. I thought, you know a lot of people don't need to go to undergrad or go that far back, but saying how you started in engineering and that you found an interest in business was very quick and it was a good detail to add some spice to what I knew about you. And then you arrived at McKinsey, and then you were currently working at McKinsey. So you arrived at McKinsey, six months later you arrived at McKinsey, and then you're currently working on the Growth Maps team. And I was thinking in my head, I was trying to remember the feedback I wanted to give. Right? So I was kind of thinking, like, wait, tell me about your journey at McKinsey! Tell me about not just getting there and what you're doing now, but tell me a little bit about the progression! But then at the end, you circled back around and did just that. So I thought that worked just fine, where you say like, okay, this is what I’m currently doing, and then this has been my journey. In any situation, I think that’s going to work just fine. You might consider trying to swap those, organizationally. Tell me about your journey and then end with a couple of recent highlights, right? Or a couple of things that you've been recently excited about, I've been really excited about these two projects. I love the “from newspaper to toilet paper” line. That's awesome and funny, and it hits! That's really great, I hope you remember that one. And then I guess at the end, you sort of did what I'm doing right now, the “Uh, eh… and now I need to stop talking…”, and I think that’s really natural. I think in an interview setting, a lot of people are going to do that. It’s always totally fine thinking about where you’re going to land and the landing spot you picked “And here I am, I’m really excited to be applying for an MBA.”, I like that as a landing because you're just passing the baton to your interviewer and you're setting your interviewer up to say “Well, yeah, why do you want an MBA and why Columbia?”.

Lakshay: Okay so why an MBA, right? So with my MBA, I basically want to make two pivots. One is from analytics to consulting, so building some general strategy and management skill sets during the two years. And second is in terms of the clients that I work with. So far, the majority of my work has been with large incumbent players, and now having done a recent beverage launch from an idea stage to the retail shelves, I'm really interested in working with startups. So in terms of clients and then also in terms of the nature of work that I do. I feel an MBA is the right plan for me because I want to understand three things. One is understanding how to solve the unique challenges that the new businesses face. Second is the interplay between startups and VCs. So, when to raise funds and what is the right valuation? And third, the fundamentals of managing and scaling companies. So those are the three things that I am looking at and I feel Columbia is the best place for me to do that, primarily because while I think there are so many reasons why I want to go to Columbia, they broadly fit into three buckets. The curriculum, the real-world learning opportunities, and also the community. So first, on the curriculum, I feel the idea of not having a fixed concentration and having that flexibility to really tailor my MBA experience. So for example, for me, given my background in microeconomics and statistics, the ability to take advanced courses there and then really double down on the resources and electives of the Lang Center for Entrepreneurship is very appealing to me. And so far, the majority of my experience has been market research, product pricing, and growth strategy, but now building that foundational skill sets of financial modeling, digital marketing negotiations. Professor Singh's operations management class will really help me when I work with emerging businesses. Also taking courses such as Foundations of Innovation and Design Thinking will help me push my creative thinking to translate ideas into viable products. And then, of course, taking some leadership courses to really enhance that skill set when I think about managing teams and scaling organizational capabilities. I feel doing that at Columbia is unique because we have a lot of practitioners that come in and it's easy for me to kind of get the best of the best who are also very active in the startup scene within New York. So I think that is one of the key advantages from a curriculum standpoint. Second, in terms of the real-world learning opportunities, the Theory-to-Practice approach at Columbia. I feel, from a startup perspective, there's the Columbia Startup Lab where I can work with startups, there's the small business consulting program, and also the ventures that my fellows will be working on. So helping them in designing products and services will enhance my ability to evaluate product market fit, redefine business models and all of that from an entrepreneur's point of view. And then on the VC front, doing VC fellowships with a CPG-focused VC firm like WorldInvest or Springdale Ventures, preparing my investment thesis with professors like Angela Lee who are kind of the pioneers in the space and very seasoned, and then investing in social enterprises with MyColumbia. I think that will give me the right exposure to translate my classroom learnings into hard skills and understand the mechanics of investing and uncover the subtle nuances of the VC space. And again, being in New York, the access I have to more than 10,000 startups just in New York, the access I get to founders and VCs via Speaker Series conferences or programs like Executives in Residence is unmatched. So I’m really excited to be taking this next career leap at Columbia. And finally, on the community front, I think when I was researching business schools I felt, okay, probably all business schools are collaborative, right? But as I was speaking to students and alumni at CBS, I could really see the difference where people generously helped me with not just my MBA application per se, but also gave me helpful career advice as to how I can think about pre-MBA internships, what are the kind of podcasts I should be following etc. So being an international student, traveling all the way from India to the US and having that support group, I feel is very important to me. And of course, the social backdrop of the New York City, the vibrancy for a foodie and a theater buff like me, having the Broadway shows and Central Park picnics is very exciting. And lastly, I feel there are a certain number of clubs like the public speaking group or the MCA, where I see myself leveraging my prior experiences and adding value. So overall, looking at the full picture makes me even more excited about the two years of learning and opportunity that I have in front of me. So really excited to be here and can't wait to get started!

Brian: Okay, great! All right. How long do you think that was?

Lakshay: That was very long.

Brian: It was, and where would you trim?

Lakshay: I think maybe the courses and maybe the experiential learning opportunities.

Brian: Yeah, I think some of the courses in the curriculum part. I think the curriculum part you could cut that by 75%, probably, and just get to the heart of the flexibility of the curriculum. When you talk about your background in microeconomics, you could take advanced courses there and double down on the others. And then you mentioned a specific professor, professor Singh's course. You may not need that kind of detail for the curriculum class because you're going to have the other details. When you talked about Angela Lee being a pioneer and some of the other opportunities, I think those details actually sort of pertain more to the kind of experience that you're after than just the classroom experience in this context. So, if I was going to advise you to trim, I would advise trimming in that curriculum part and just say, first of all, the curriculum and aim for twenty-five seconds, thirty seconds on the curriculum description. Just like “The flexibility will allow me to prioritize, double down on the stuff I really want to get out of the Lang Center, and be efficient with my classroom time.”, in this context. You said more — I know this, your audience doesn't know this — but you said more specifically about the courses and whatnot in your application, so that'll be communicated for your interviewer. Probably getting to the juice because then you said your second thing, you were like, resources, and I was like, “Oh! I thought you were just doing that? Oops! Okay, yeah, now you’re going to do resources.”. So on the audience end, those two are so similar. I think that you want to say first the curriculum, just having the flexibility, boom. Be done with it. And then, okay, let's talk about real-world resources and then let's talk about the community. That would probably get you in the pocket. That was about five and a half minutes, where it was. So if you're looking to trim, we always say, like, about three minutes for some of these questions, but my philosophy is this is kind of two, right? “Why MBA?” and “Why Columbia?”. So technically, I asked you a double question, and so it should be longer, in my opinion, because of that structure. And it's like one of the most important. I mean, “Walk me through your resume.” is incredibly important to get your interviewer just accommodated to your professionalism and your background but as a representative of this community, considering whether they want to support you in your attempt to join that community, I think if you're going to go long, going long and telling them all the amazing things you're going to do at Columbia is probably the place to do that. So don't get self-conscious about it. I would be more concerned if you gave a six-minute answer to “Walk me through your resume.” than I would be to this double question. I think if you cut the curriculum part to be super brief and just get to the heart of what attracts you about the curriculum with no specifics and save your specifics for the real-world resources or the experiential learning, as you called it, and then a little bit about the community, because that's your personal experience also. That's something anybody can come in and talk about the curriculum. And I want your audience to still be engaged when you get to your personal experience with the community, when you're like “They were so supportive and that's really important to me, traveling from overseas, I'm going to need that.”, I thought those were really great points, and you just want to make sure that your listener is still really with you to hear those parts of it. Your overall presentation and vibe is so good. Like, I know that you've been practicing, but I can tell, and I'm really appreciating that as an interviewer in this mode, I can tell that you are prepared, that you have worked for this and you thought about it, and you're still making it come to life. You are not a robotic, you're still appearing very warm and human. I don't know if your smiles and things are rehearsed or if those are just well-timed. I don't know how much of a theater buff you are, but it doesn't matter, it's coming across really well. I think your whole vibe is coming across as prepared, but also sort of warm and spontaneous. So, take that for whatever it is. Don't change anything. Do that exactly just like that. Except trim that curriculum part. That would be my advice there. Okay! Well, let's hop back in. I want to jump back in right where you just ended and I want to say what excites you about startups? Why startups?

Lakshay: So, I recently did a beverage launch where we were working with a global coffee chain and with the pandemic, people stopped going in store, so they had to pivot to bottled beverages. It was an interesting project because we were essentially working with very limited resources and also the fact that beverages as a category is in itself very competitive. So I think we did a couple of innovative things. From the very onset, we followed a very lean approach, incorporating customer feedback in the formulation iterations to really understand what is the mix that we want to land at. So something which is low sugar, which meets the consumer demand at the moment, right? But also, in terms of testing out the price, how are customers reacting to different price points before actually launching the product at scale? And I think one unique thing that we did at that point was, in order to make sure that we had a certain edge in the space, understanding, leveraging their existing data to triangulate customer hotspots so that we can ship the product directly to them from our bottling facility. I think that gave us the unique edge over other traditional retail-only players. So the thrill of taking something from an idea stage to actually seeing it on retail shelves was very exciting. We did the launch and it was successful. We did it in the next two big coffee markets, the UK and Japan. So when you're creating jobs at the height of a global recession, when people are losing jobs, I think that and also taking something this far really inspired me to work with startups. And also, the Indian ecosystem at this time is really buzzing. We have more than one hundred unicorns and we've seen 4x growth in terms of the capital that's flowing into the country and the startups. So this is where I want to be.

Brian: Okay, all right. So, react to your answer there.

Lakshay: I think my pace was a little bit all over the place at the beginning because I was in my mind thinking “Where should I start?”. It wasn't a planned question, so that was something. But also, I think I did not give the answer the structure that I had prepared. So I think giving it the structure like “These were the challenges, two challenges, three challenges. These are the two, three things that we did.” would have helped and maybe I should have segued into long-term/short-term goals, but I don't know.

Brian: Yeah, I think so. For that question, I thought that the early part of your response was more tailored to a “Tell me about a time you solved a problem for someone.”, or a general “Tell me about a time…”. It was more tailored to that sort of behavioral style where you're going to tell one specific story about it, and from the interviewer's perspective, I was just really trying to ask a follow up question about your motivations that I think were more related to your goals. I think getting to that area probably would have been a more connecting kind of direction to go. I got a bit lost in the specifics of repricing this product until you told me thirty seconds in or forty seconds in you were like “I'm seeing this idea become real on the shelves.” and then having this kind of impact amidst the pandemic or challenging circumstances was exciting to you. I think for a question like that, “Why startups?”, it's really getting to your goals. Like, what is it about this that's drawing you? And so I think you can just sort of cut straight to, while the bulk of your experience has been with incumbent players and large organizations, you've had some opportunities to get a flavor, right? Like, this was an example of ideating and going from idea to this and having that impact and that's a unique set of challenges that excites you. And then I think getting into how the Indian ecosystem is buzzing and I like the sort of abbreviated version of that that you sort of gave for this context, and it's what you want to be a part of, you know? You said “This is where I want to be.”, but I want to know more about why. Why do you want to be there? What's driving you? What's exciting you about India's startup ecosystem there? So I think for that question, rather than taking the sort of behavioral “here's a story that relates to it”, for that kind of follow-up question, it really is just about what you're interested in and what excites you about those particular challenges that they have and how that relates to your excitement about your long-term vision for what you want to do. And then you have a choice there. You can just give me the sneak preview of that and kind of pass the baton back to me and as the interviewer, give me the chance to say, “Oh, tell me more about your goals. Tell me more about your long-term goals.” or “Tell me more about that long-term vision.”. By saying “Why startups?”, when you've just expressed that this is your motivation for getting an MBA, is to learn more about how to accelerate them or help them function, they're giving you the leash to just answer the goals question straight away, right? In a way, you could be like “Well, I'm just really excited about startups. I love those unique challenges. I love ideating.” and then going through all the technical stuff that you love doing, the kind of data and information that you have, and that you love the impact that startups have on people. This is something that I know about you, right? That you've had the opportunity and here you could mention some of you could mention the Pickle Project or the solar startup and just summarize them, not tell deep stories about them, but say, actually I've had the opportunity to be involved with some startups, some small-scale startups, and I love entrepreneurs! I love entrepreneurship. I love the impact that it can have on communities. And then that's your perfect segue into your long-term goal of returning to help spread that buzz of innovation that's happening around. I think what you did isn't wrong and that was very concise. That was just over two minutes. I would just say, in a word for that question, more personal, because it's about you and your motivations. Just like, why does this appeal to you? What do you love about it? Does that resonate with you or what are you thinking?

Lakshay: Yeah, I mean, at least in my head, I did pass the baton to you and try to keep that short to see if you wanted to get to go but fair feedback.

Brian: No, you totally did, and you said you did. You left it on a cliffhanger. You said “Okay, so we've got 100 unicorns, the ecosystem is buzzing, and this is where I want to be.” and then I'm like “Well, tell me more about where you want to be.”. You certainly did that. I think it was really just the beginning, diving straight into that specific story without the context of just like, these are the problems that excite me, or this is the impact that I love seeing. I felt like we were just directly into the details of this particular story without context. So maybe it's even just telling me a bit about this is why you're going to tell me that story upfront.

Lakshay: Makes sense.

Brian: I mean this is all nitpicky. None of this is like, catastrophic like “Oh my God!!’, it's totally great. But now you've really piqued my interest here, what are your goals? Long-term and short-term?

Lakshay: Yeah, so in the long term, I want to return back to India. So I think one big problem in the startup ecosystem right now is that the tier two and three cities, the smaller cities, account for 50% of the active startups, yet less than 10% of the VC fund flows to these smaller cities, and I want to help bridge this gap by joining a VC office, an incubator like the Google Startup School or a government role with the Ministry of Entrepreneurship. So that's the kind of long-term impact I want to have, and I feel for doing that, working in startup consulting. So all these big consulting houses have their startup focus now. Like McKinsey has Fuel, BCG has Digital Ventures, so on and so forth. So, working in a startup consulting for about three to four years, really getting that hands-on experience of working with startups, also in the US where the market, I believe, is more developed. So there are a lot of best practices that can be brought back to the country. So I believe that will prepare me for my long-term goals and I feel the MBA from Colombia is kind of the key for me to unlock that journey.

Brian: Okay. All right, tell me about this one. What's the react?

Lakshay: I think I could have mentioned a plan B for the short-term goals, and I could have maybe talked a little bit more about what I will do in my short term to kind of learn and kind of prepare myself for the long term. So I think that those are two or three things in my mind.

Brian: Yeah, it's certainly not required that you give a plan B here because it makes perfect sense, you already have an analyst role in McKinsey and you want to go into consulting to learn something specific. I wouldn’t say you need to give a plan B in this context. That was very short, that was a minute and 15 seconds or something. So that was definitely your shortest response yet, and I do think if you're going to go longer, go longer about why consulting and what it is about how you're going to go from the skill set that you have and what you're going to add to it as a consultant that's going to prepare you to return to India and play this role. You could talk more about your long-term goal as well, but I think for the thrust of this particular question, sketching out the idea of, okay, you want to play a role as a bridge from VC fund flow going to these larger cities, and you want to divert into these smaller cities where there's quite a lot of action and a lot of opportunities are being missed. If you're going to express anything more about the long term, I think for you it's really just about expressing your excitement more about this buzz, that there's this wave of innovation, there's going to be a zillion people online in India soon, that the conditions are ripe for an explosion of innovation, and that’s really exciting to you and you want to be part of that. And the role that you want to play in that is sort of diverting some of the infrastructure to where more of the action is. I think if you’re going to say anything more, it’s just that sort of aspect of it. And then get into more of why the short term. It's great that you mentioned there's two major consultancies that have these startup arms now, and what is it that you're going to do there before going back that's going to prepare you. And you know the answer to that, I think just giving your interview more of like, yeah, I really want to see both sides of the relationship. I want to get a chance to see some successes and some failures in the ecosystem, build a network, build a reputation, all these sorts of things that go into what you're going to accomplish there before returning. And so you had another minute that you could spend talking about why consulting is the next best step. Do you want to try it again?

Lakshay: Sure!

Brian: Let's do a replay. I think I wanted for this mock to just really kind of charge through it and charge through the questions just kind of one by one, but let's do one replay just for fun. It's hard to answer the same question twice in a row, so I'm setting you up here. This is a really challenging thing to do. If I were practicing with a friend or something, if practicing with a family member, I would probably want to do another question first and then return to the goals question for it to be free rather than doing it back-to-back. So that's me personally. I'm setting you up a bit here. Okay, but let's try it. So, speaking of that, tell me a little bit more about your goals, long-term and short-term.

Lakshay: In the long term, as I mentioned, the startup ecosystem is really buzzing in India, and with top firms taking initiative and increasing digitization, I think there's a lot of activity that's bound to happen, much like any other developing economy. The first leg of growth was driven by startups in logistics and e-commerce, but now as the ecosystem matures, we're bound to see more innovation that happens and I feel that is where I want to be. I think one big problem that I've identified is the smaller tier two, tier three cities account for more than 50% of the active startups, yet less than 10% of the VC fund flow is currently in that direction. So I want to, in the long term, bridge this gap and help small-town entrepreneurs really have that kind of support around them to accelerate growth and innovation within the country by joining a VC firm or an incubator like Google Startup School or a government role with the Ministry of Entrepreneurship. That's where I want to go in the long term and I feel a good stepping stone for me is working in startup consulting for three to four years. So all these big consulting houses, like McKinsey has its startup focus called Fuel, BCG has something called Digital Ventures. So I feel that working there for three to four years would really help me make that transition. Working hands on with founders will help me get some operational experience that I don't have currently. Working on executing strategies and closing market gaps will kind of, again, strengthen what I've learned through experiential learnings in college, but really do that in a proper risk environment, which was risk-free during college. So having that real-world exposure in a market like the US which is much more developed as a startup ecosystem, I feel there are a lot of best practices that I can learn and there's certainly a lot of activity that's happening in New York within retail and CPG, the space where I'm interested. So doing that for three to four years and then making that transition. And I think one added advantage of returning back to McKinsey is that I’ll get to work with investors on conducting due diligence, sizing potential markets, and benchmarking companies, benchmarking startups. So I feel that will kind of give me real exposure to startups, help me network, and stay up to date with the latest trends. And yes, I feel Columbia is kind of the missing piece that will help me unlock this journey.

Brian: Okay, alright! So considering that I set you up for a big challenge to having to do the same exact question back-to-back and repeat, you're so good off the cuff. You're a great improvisor, which is awesome that you can sort of trust that instinct if you go blank and you forget your plan or you forget your outline or your preparation. I trust your improvisational ability and just your excitement and you're clearly knowledgeable about what you're talking about and you've done your research. So I think you can trust yourself to survive and thrive in a situation where you’ve forgotten your plan or you've gone blank or something. So I think that gave some additional context that was helpful for the long term, a little bit more detail about what inspires you about returning and then a little bit more of the nuts and bolts of sort of getting into operations experience, making marketing plans, and the notion of risk. You can't substitute that, you can't fake that. Managing those relationships and participating in that risk on environment is part of it and you brought out the unique aspects of the US startup ecosystem and how it's a bit more developed right now so you'll be able to take best practices back. It was a stronger justification or exploration of that, to me. What did you think about that version?

Lakshay: I still feel the short-term part could have been more tight, more structured, but I think from a covering base perspective, I did touch broadly on all the points that I wanted to. So I feel the story connects, but yeah, obviously can do better.

Brian: Yeah okay! Alright well, let's move on. You mentioned the theater club and one other earlier. I can't remember which one. Tell me a bit about how you're going to get involved at Columbia.

Lakshay: Yes. So I think there are two unique places that I can get involved. One is the theater club. So, every MBA student or alumni that I've spoken to, I think one common thing that everybody said is, you won't even realize how quickly the two years fly by and if I look back at my four-year undergrad, I feel that's certainly true. My fondest memories are either tied up in an old laptop or worse, never captured. So I want to change that this time. So preparing one two hour skit at the end of the year to capture those moments and also start a student blogging channel where students can post whatever adventurous thing that they're doing. That way, wherever our MBA takes us, our memories, our fondest memories will always be a click away. So I think that's one aspect of it. The other aspect is with the Management Consulting Association. Having done more than 40 client engagements and having read Case in Point, cover to cover a lot of times, I feel there’s a lot of value that I can add to the consulting group, answering questions like, “Why consulting?” or “What does a typical day to day look like?” to the broader best practices on how to network, how to problem solve, and also kind of getting them acquainted with consulting lingo. What is 80/20? What is the white space? Boiling the ocean? That kind of thing. So personally, having made that transition from engineering to consulting, I empathize with the career switchers. I know the struggle is real. So, by organizing a consulting track to my current team's home ground, which is Chicago, facilitating connections, and also sharing my list of helpful resources, I hope to save my peers some valuable time, take away some of the recruiting stress, and also while I'm focusing on the startup stuff to also be in touch with my own consulting prep.

Brian: Okay. So just conclude that. So instead of saying “So… yes.” tell me “Those are the primary ways that I'll…”, just wrap that up.

Lakshay: So that's primarily how I see myself getting involved.

Brian: There you go! Okay. Everyone does this. 100% of people do this. When they have a great intro or they get into the question and then they’re like, excited and they get to talk about it, just like you were. You were so excited and so genuine, and those contributions were so concrete and so real. They were not boilerplate contributions. I really appreciate that about them. You're like, oh, wow, these are unique. Okay. Preserving the memories of the cohort and then really leveraging your own experience to help reduce the recruiting burden and help your peers in some way. I think those are really genuine contributions, and the way you were communicating them was very genuine. And then you were like, and now I'm done talking. I've told other clients that this week. I want a montage in my mind where I capture all of the practice questions that were ended with “..and uh, yeah.”. So one thing is that's fine. The point I'm getting at is that that's pervasive. Thousands of people are going to end one or more interview questions that way. And uh yeah, that's the answer to my question. So just paying a little bit of attention to sort of landing the plane there and, and a tried-and-true way to do that is just to just tell them the question that you just answered. Or with this one, those are a few specific ways that I've thought of already. I'm sure I'll discover more. I'm sure I'll find a way to contribute in other ways, but from where I'm sitting now, one year and three thousand miles away, those are some concrete ways I imagine contributing. Right, okay, great. Knocked it out of the park. Nailed that one. You're going to be a contributor, there's no doubt in my mind. Okay, let's move on to, tell me about a time you faced a challenging situation.

Lakshay: Yeah, so I was working on this project where, in addition to a standard analysis, we wanted to leave the client with an Excel model with which they could refresh the results and visualize them in real time. It was an alcobev client and there was a lot of fluctuation during COVID so the ability to do that was essential for the client's leadership. Now, we were facing three key challenges. One, there was no clear roadmap of how we get from point A to point B. Second, in order to achieve this project, we collaborated with two additional teams and I was supposed to give instructions to senior tenured colleagues. And third, while the client's leadership was aligned with what we were doing, for the execution team that we were working with, this was one additional task to the list and they were finding all sorts of problems saying hey, this is not going to work, basically finding problems with what we were doing. And so I sensed some animosity, well, not animosity but some apprehension from the team. So I did three things. The first thing was to go to YouTube, learn how Power Bi works, learn how macros work so that I had a common language to speak with the additional teams that we were working with within McKinsey. The second thing was being very transparent with the team. Being honest about what my capabilities were, breaking down the problem for them, but then really trusting and leaning on them to execute it in the way they saw fit. And third, I feel when nothing was working with the execution team, what I did was we gave them a work-in-progress model, prepared a list of instructions and then they could just identify the pain points for us, play around with the tool, get a sense of what we were doing. I feel once we stopped building by McKinsey to co-creating that with the client, once they got their hands dirty, they were not only identifying the pain points, but given they were so close to the industry, they were also suggesting ways to make that better. So that really turned things around and I think three key takeaways for me from that experience were the fact that I was able to learn something new, which I had no clear understanding in, and also bring other people along with me in that experience. That was a good takeaway for me. I think second, just the idea of building something from scratch, we don't get to do that every day. So that was very exciting for me. And third, this work that we did is now a standard part of our project delivery. We've since rolled it out to five or six more clients. I've kind of become the visualization part of the team, where if anybody is working on that kind of a project, I'm pulled in. That's extra time away from projects, but I’m happy to do that and I really loved the entire journey of executing this.

Brian: Okay, alright, you react first. Tell me about it. I'll say this first though, I hate the question. So tell me about a challenge, to me, I mean, we've seen it. It pops up a number of times in behavioral interviews, that question. But personally, I think the question is so vague as to be almost meaningless. But anyway, yes. Tell me about your judgment of the response.

Lakshay: I think I kind of went a little bit off script towards the learning parts. I think that is where I was rambling a little bit. But then I got back and maybe I wasn't looking at the screen enough. Maybe that's something I should do more of. But other than that, I think I did fine. I'm not sure on time.

Brian: Yeah, time was fine. I think you're looking at the screen enough. I don't think you need to pressure yourself to do that. We're always going to look aside when we're thinking or visualizing, and then you can come home for the smiles and the contact and the summary points, and it kind of makes an impact when you turn to that. I think one thing for this one is, yeah, I enjoyed as a listener the inclusion of the learning, maybe just framing that as that, you know? I think you said “So I took some action steps, I did three things. The first thing I did was head to YouTube.” and I was like “Wait, what?”, and then I understood it, of course, just a few seconds later. But if you said “The first thing I did was I had some homework. I needed to learn some things I didn't know. And so a tried and true method is, you know, I went to YouTube where I've learned many useful things that I've carried with me throughout my career.”. Just frame that. You get to say like “Yeah, I'm a self-learner and this is a habit of mine. When there's something I don't know, I have to learn more about it so that I can communicate more effectively about it and deliver value that is more approachable for the client.”. The other thing is, okay so you have three challenges and three takeaways from it, which is all great. I'm a big fan of at least one of the takeaways. If there's only one takeaway, it should be related to this. There were multiple takeaways but one of the takeaways should relate to how you've changed with your other client relationships moving forward. So your takeaways were sort of like “Hey, you can learn this stuff and you can support your team and accelerate their learning by just your nature and what you like to do.”. You learned that you enjoyed building this tool from scratch, which sort of relates to your broader journey about startups and building things and doing that. And then the third takeaway was… I can't remember what it was, but it was basically about being success. Like it was a success and it felt good that it was a success. All fine! This is all nitpicking and nuanced stuff. If I were going to add anything to that, I would frame it as having had this experience with the client where they had this apprehension and they were skeptical of the value this tool was going to add. What you've learned is giving them some ownership of the tool, letting them in on the beta stage, and then taking their feedback into account, or sometimes just parking it with them and letting them play with it… I don't know how you would want to articulate that, but something about how this strategy of getting some buy-in from the client is now just in your tool belt. This is something you can use in the future when you have clients who are skeptical about a tool or a team that's resisting adoption in some way. You got some buy-in from them by just saying, hey, have a look, just play with it and then let us know what you want. I don't know if the takeaway there is about flexibility or if it's about recruiting, getting ownership from them, or getting buy-in from them by giving them some agency in the process? I don't know. How would you articulate that?

Lakshay: Yeah, I think the words that I used this time, but I didn't really know them back then, was this is a very common theme that is emerging where, rather than the consulting, I was building something. Like you kind of co-create solutions with the client, given they have a lot of perspective on what the market looks like, what they actually need, and they can possibly add a lot of value. But at that point when I was working on the project, I did not know that. I did that purely from a situational standpoint. But yeah, I could talk a little bit about how this is something that I try and do on other projects since.

Brian: Yeah, it's not required. You can have a good answer to a question that’s just like these are the takeaways and these were the successes. Totally fine. Just in my personal brand, I'm a fan of the, this is now something that I do on every client. I know that you have some other stories. You're like “Okay, now every time I have a new team for this, we set up these calls and we adapt in this way.” because part of the gist of a behavioral question is how do you take value from experiences and move forward? Especially when they're about a trial, trials and tribulations. When they're about a failure, about a setback, about a conflict. Then sort of the thrust behind the question is are you humble enough to be able to see that you faced challenges, had conflicts, made failures, encountered setbacks, made mistakes? And then are you sort of that growth mindset that you can take value from it even from an adverse experience and incorporate it into your toolkit moving forward? I think it's always sort of like the question behind the question oftentimes, even though I don't like that question at all. Okay, let's do another one. Okay, let's do a different flavor of behavioral question that you can see from time to time. Tell me about your three primary strengths.

Lakshay: Interesting question. I feel three strengths of mine… certainly the first has to be patience. I feel as an individual, I am very well-informed when I'm making decisions. I reach out to a lot of people before really making those big life decisions, which at times has seemed like I'm spending too much time making a decision but then also, being prepared is very relieving for me and I think that helps in more ways. Second has to be dedication. I think there is no substitute for hard work. For the last six months, all I've done is try to get my GMAT score from 710 to 770, not going out with friends and thinking about college applications and reflecting on what I really want to do post MBA. So, I think that ability to kind of shut everything else off and then really focus has also helped me at McKinsey where I received a distinctive rating, top 1% globally. That was difficult but I'm so proud of it and I think that the dedication is really a big part of it. And third, I feel, is the ownership. Taking charge of things, getting things done, and really owning up not just to the successes but also to the failures and the mistakes that I've made along the way. I feel there's so much to learn from what I didn't do right than I did do right, and I think that's kind of very true to what we have at McKinsey as a culture. Taking ownership of things, of what you're doing. And yes, I think those are the three main strengths as I see it. So, yeah… I did the same thing, I said “So, yeah…”! 

Brian: I tell you, it's very common. You are not alone. It's a very common habit and in that way totally fine. But yeah, it's hard to stop talking. It is. That's one of the challenges. Even when you have an outline, when you have an idea of where you want to go, what you want to communicate, it can be difficult to just end the question or end your response. So in that one, I asked you for three things, so I know the structure going into it. You’re giving me three things. An effective way to end that one is, I think, you don't need to summarize those three again. You always can but you basically have two options. I think your go-to options for ending and for escaping an answer are to summarize the question you just answered, right? And so you could say, yes, I think patience, focus, and hardworking, those would be the three qualities that I would highlight. Right? So you can just summarize those and say them back to me if you remember them, if you remember the three qualities you just narrated. Or you can just end where you are, because I know it's a short list. I know it was three. You told me it was three and then so when you're working on the “hardworking” one and you could be like “Yeah, taking ownership of projects and working hard is something else that's served me really well in my career.”.

Lakshay: I agree with you. I think in general, across the board, there's some work that I can do, especially when I'm closing answers rather than saying “so yeah” or “and yeah”.

Brian: Haha so yes, absolutely. I think if we were working for perfection, toward the perfect interview then yes, you would have a more crisp, just punch to the ending of every response. Realistically, you're human in a dynamic situation, and you won't. In fact, many interviewers a lot of times with interviewing, they want to see you struggle a little bit, right? The interviewer wants to see you encounter a question that you don't seem super prepared for. They want to see you squirm a little bit. If they succeed in doing that, then you're not going to have that crisp, clean punchline that you wish. And so just ending a couple of questions that way is fine. Like in the studio, as a musician, that would be one that you just fade out, like the band never figures out how to end the track. They just sort of just fade that one out. I don't know where it ends. It's an absolutely legitimate way to do it, and you should not be self-conscious or down on yourself or in any way whatsoever when that inevitably happens.

Lakshay: One quick question. So, for questions like these, where maybe I'm not as prepared or something, if I want time to think, is it okay to ask for, let's say, thirty seconds or a minute to think about it or structure my thoughts before I start answering it? Because in the middle, I'm not sure if you noticed it, but by the second point, I was in the back of my mind thinking, what the third one I should be talking about?

Brian: Totally. I could see you doing that, and you did it well. Because most people prepare for, I don't want to use the word negative, but the behavioral-style questions that involve conflicts and challenges and setbacks and failures and mistakes, difficult team members and difficult situations. But you do occasionally see the ones like just tell me about your strengths, right? Tell me about something positive about yourself. Tell me about your proudest moment on your resume. And so that can come as a like, whoa, whoa, I've got to reorient and prep for this. So I could tell you were improvising, but you're a great improviser. So it was a great it was a wonderful spectacle to behold. To your question, can you ask for time to think about it? Yes. Can you ask for thirty seconds or a minute? No. That's too long and that would be just an awkward silence for both of you to sort of sit through, especially in a live situation. It would be less awkward in a zoom situation just because of the distance between you and the listener, but in a live interview situation, that would feel like ten minutes, that one minute of silence together. But what you can do is just breathe. I'm a big fan of using the breath to drive space, and you can certainly say “Let me think about that for a second (take a breath). Okay, I guess I'd say there were three things.”, right? And so that's plenty of time. That wasn't a minute. That was probably like ten seconds, maybe twelve seconds, but it was two breaths, right? It was a breath, “Let me think.” (I'm not asking, I'm declaring. Would you allow me to think? No. I'm just saying I'm going to think about that.). “Let me think.”, another patient breath, and then I'm ready to go. And the breathing thing buys you time and also settles your reactive nervous system in a way. So it gives you that opportunity to ground yourself a little bit and buys you that five or six seconds, which will be plenty for you, both due to the tremendous amount of preparation that you have done and the great stories that you have to tell and your great improvising skills, you're not going to need more than that many seconds to come up with something to say.

Lakshay: Yeah, I think the pause that you took, I could clearly see what you mean by taking a minute because that small pause also seemed like a lot on the receiving end of things. Because if I am just meeting you, for example, in an interview situation and I don't know how to react. I think that reminded me of something I learned while case prepping. How you can probably start with something like “Oh, that's a great question!” and then kind of buy yourself time doing that.

Brian: Absolutely! “That's a great question.” or “Let me think about that.” I'm a big fan of, and then you always have your breath. You always have it and it's an ally for you in all of these situations where you're becoming nervous, where you feel your energy rising and you need to settle a bit, or you feel yourself speaking too quickly and you need to slow down. Your breath is your built-in regulator. If I saw you as an interviewer, there's a subtle difference, it's not a major difference, but if you said “Hmm” followed by a pause versus “Hmm” followed by a breath, there's something to me like just seeing that you're breathing. “Oh, he's taking a breath. Oh, he's breathing.”, you know? It's a very subtle thing, I don't know how to describe it, but even just seeing that action of you breathing rather than just seeing you standing there holding your breath, there's something more relatable about that, to me, subtly, as an interviewer. In the context of the answer you were just giving, it's evidence of your patience. It's evidence of your patience in the moment, that you'd be willing to slow down and take that pause and claim that space to get yourself together. So anyway, that's the long answer to your question. Yes, you can ask for some time. No, not thirty seconds or a minute or anything quantified, but you can take about a couple of breaths’ worth of space and I think that would be plenty.

Lakshay: Makes sense. Thank you.

Brian: Of course! Well, I think that's a great spot to end. Of course there are more behavioral questions we could go through. Like the “Do you have any questions for me?” section, but I think we've done quite a bit with the time that we’ve already spent and behind the scenes, I know that you're very well prepared for that side of the interview. Any last-minute reflections on the whole experience of doing a mock interview or what that's like or what takeaways you have?

Lakshay: Yeah, I think having read a lot of interview reports by this point from different forums, I think certainly the Interview Hero program that you guys have is super extensive. At one point I felt like that was probably too much work that I did early on. But at least going into interviews, I feel more prepared in terms of taking different types of questions, even if there's a tricky one in there somewhere. But overall, I think just telling a story because, for example, I initially read about how do you stand out or things or questions of that nature, but I feel when I really share my experience, what I want to do and what I've done so far, and I think you pushed me to the point where you squeeze that out of me during our discovery process, I think that in itself makes the story unique and we've clearly seen that with the interview invites coming in. So I feel really happy that I did took that time and went through that entire process and really looking forward to December when the decisions come in.

Brian: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. Really looking forward to that. And I think, yeah, you're a great example. You're a great interviewer, and you've been so responsive to coaching while making it yours and making it personal and keeping your flavor without sort of trying to sound like the perfect MBA candidate robot. You sound like such a relatable, warm, friendly, smart, competent professional, and that's all you can do is make a connection with your interviewer and make a new friend, right? Is sort of the philosophy behind it and I think you do a great job of that. So I'm excited too. Good luck!

Lakshay: Thank you!

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Brian Birdwell

Generalism Specialist | GMAT/GRE Guru | Senior Coach

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