Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Corporate Strategy as a career; case interviewing

I came to Fuqua wanting to do strategy or marketing and that was as clear as I was in my head. I spoke to people around and one advice by an operations professor who I spoke to at the India GATE trip of students was particularly useful, even if I understand it well only today (and of course, I am still learning!).

Strategy requires a decent understanding of the industry that you work in. In the conversation, this was the only sentence and it immediately made sense. Now I look back and think I was quite ignorant to have not known this simple thing, but I figured if I was ignorant, maybe there must be others out there! :-D Strategy requires taking all the inputs that a manager gets from the environment, analyzing them thoroughly, thinking through all the consequeces and interplays, building simulations, analyzing competitor responses (this is crucial), analyzing impact on customers and brand due to that decision and so on. Each industry, of course, has its peculiarity, and that's what makes it tough.

Every one of us has seen industries, products, companies from outside. We sometimes miss the complexity and sometimes we wonder how it works (What was Bill Gates thinking when he bought DOS?)! Most often, if you think either way (something is too simple or something is unbelievable), there is of course, a middle ground. The things that make strategy complex are probably the following (and there could be more!); competitive environment, customer preferences, company's culture and capabilities (the 3 C's of marketing), supplier relationships, distribution channels, logistics and operations, product positioning and perception, price dynamics (competitive price or with premium) and so on. If you drill into each of these, you will get into the 'muck' of things and your decisions will closely affect each of these aspects of your company. So my take is (and take this with a pinch of salt) is that if you want to jump into strategy or an industry, make yourself 'ready' to talk about these things specific to that industry. If you have been a production engineer or software engineer or have been a pharma salesperson, you will know the answers to these difficult questions in your respective industries. But what if you want to switch or simply open up your options?

Consulting case interviews are a great tool for that. Before the consulting interviews, people practice doing 20-50 cases and they challenge themselves to answer these questions in an interview setting with friends and classmates. As you struggle through these questions, you start thinking deeper into these dynamics. Consulting is a big avenue for doing strategy work in the corporate. A lot of top consulting firms focus heavily on strategy of course. Their interviews are case-based precisely to gauge your understanding of business dynamics. In the case, they try to reduce the noise due to industry dynamics, but they do challenge you to think what might be true about that industry. It's a great experience.

A lot of corporates also hire people for their strategy team and from what I see so far, even General Management interviews for strategy have cases, though not as full-fledged as what consulting companies do. They want to see how you think and do you think of enough factors and understand the implications. So in my opinion, it is a good idea for a wide range of people to do consulting case preparations. And if you are coming from a non-business background (engineering, military, research, teaching and so on), it is especially helpful. I have seen people here who come out of a GM interview saying 'He gave me a case (#&#&##!!)! I have not really practiced cases, so I just managed that questions somehow'. After a bit of digging, it turns out to be a 'mini-case' where the interviewer asks something like 'if you are running a grocery store and Walmart comes an opens a store near you, what will you do?' or 'if you want to bring a new product to market, how will you go about identifying key factors and doing market research?'. If a person does a few cases, these questions can become really easy, but if you have never 'thought through' these things before, its tough, especially inside an interview room!

In fact, I would also like to take it a step further, that case interviews are good to practice even for some marketing interviews. Corporate world is full of ex-consultants and they love giving cases. Everyone in the corporate world wants to see how you can unravel a business problem. They also would like you to talk in a flow instead of struggling to come up with an answer. If they ask, 'what are some of the factors you would consider', you have to give some 10 factors one after the other, neatly knitting them into a sentence and without struggling to think of each 'aspect' that he or she is asking. Most often, people start rambling, repeating themselves, looking at that vacuum next to interviewers head to think hard about an aspect, freezing (believe me, all those things happen in an interview, but no one would like to admit of course! :-)) It's really as simple or as complicated as that and case interviews are a great way to gain that 'depth' and 'practice' talking about 'business aspects' in a confident manner and coherent flow. So if you think that case interviews are only for consultants, think again. In my opinion, 'case interviews' is just a fancy name for it; call it 'business aspects questions' if you like or 'my-job-simulated-in-half-hour'!


Anonymous said...

That was an insightful post! Oh yes, not an exception from others though:)

MBABlogger said...

Great post Shivesh.. am planning to apply this year ..and looks like I would get lot of insight from your blog :)