Friday, November 30, 2012

Common coffee chat mistakes - 7 ways candidates screw up pre-interview networking

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During my time at McKinsey I participated in dozens of coffee chats and other pre-interview networking events.  Of the hundreds of conversations I had with candidates, the ones that stand out are the bad ones.

In this post I'll discuss the 7 most common pre-interview networking errors I've seen so you can avoid making them yourself...


McKinsey coffee chats and other pre-interview networking events are non-evaluative.  You won't get an interview slot or job offer because of your participation, no matter how charming you are or insightful your questions.  But there is some downside risk - sometimes candidates do and/or say things that can get you dinged.

By the way, you should still participate in these events - even though these events won't help you get an interview, you can learn valuable things about your fit with the Firm.  You can read my earlier post on how to get the most out of coffee chats.



1.  Showing up late or missing an event you signed up for

There's no expectation or requirement that you attend these events.  But if you sign up for one, we're expecting you to show up.  If you don't make it or are tardy, that will reflect poorly on your professionalism.  The assumption will be that if you're going to be late to meet with a potential employer, you might miss a client appointment.  So if you have a valid reason for being late or missing an event, let a recruiter know so you don't get dinged for it.

2.  Displaying your ignorance

We understand that many of you are career switchers and might be coming to an event to get your first exposure to consulting.  That's fine, but we would also expect you to do some homework and prepare, just as you should prior to meeting with any potential employer.

If you come to a networking event and ask questions that are easily answered by a simple Google search, it reflects poorly on you.  This is not an environment where there's no such thing as a stupid question.  If you can't be bothered to do some basic research before meeting with a potential employer, we'll wonder if you would be similarly unprepared for a client meeting.

3.  Acting selfishly

I'll describe three types self-centered candidate behavior that reflect this mistake:
  • Hogging airtime:  Dominating the conversation and/or continuing to ask questions even though others are waiting to participate
  • Boxing out:  Physically preventing others from entering the conversation space
  • Asking questions that are too specific:  Forcing the entire group of candidates listen to a consultant answer a question that's so specific, it's only applicable to you
Although these sessions are non-evaluative, consultants are only human (yes, even the McKinsey ones!)  If you act selfishly, we're going to think about what it might be like to work with you.  You might lead us to believe that your lack of consideration for your classmates will translate into a lack of consideration for your colleagues.

4.  Behaving inappropriately

We want you to have a good time, be yourself, and ask anything.  Sometimes, candidates take things a bit too far.  They might have a bit too much to drink at a cocktail event or company presentation.  Or, they might ask questions or make comments that are inappropriate.  I've also seen a candidate get a bit too comfortable and use profanity.  Each of these things would cause us to call your professionalism into question, considering you're doing them in front of potential employers.

5.  Being arrogant

Despite the stereotypes that exist, I found McKinsey consultants to be no more or less arrogant than the general b-school population.  That said, we're well aware of the arrogant McKinsey stereotype so I think we're particularly sensitive about contributing to fulfilling it.  We also know that clients don't react well to arrogance, so if you're exhibiting it, we might doubt if we could put you in front of a client.

6.  Lacking confidence, presence, or poise

Personal presence is hard to define and even harder to coach and improve.  That said, there are a few things everyone should focus on to make sure they come across as well as possible.  The following are good ways to improve the impression you make:
  • Make good eye contact
  • Speak clearly and audibly
  • Listen actively and attentively
When we meet candidates who seem to lack confidence or appear socially awkward, we will worry about whether or not we can put you in front of a senior client.

7.  Appearing indifferent or low energy

Most consultants at these networking events have just left a busy client engagement, traveled to your location, and are squeezing this into an already busy schedule (see my earlier post on the day in the life of a McKinsey consultant for details).  The last thing they want to do is talk with a candidate who appears to be indifferent to the job and the Firm.  It will likely be seen as a lack of interest in the job and your interview slot might go to someone who seems more genuinely interested in the opportunity.

Perhaps your indifference is just the result of fatigue and low energy.  Being a McKinsey consultant is hard work - if you seem tired we're going to wonder if you can keep up with the consulting lifestyle.  Even if you've had a rough week by b-school standards, it's unlikely that it's been tougher than the week the consultant you're talking to is having.


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