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Fail fast: how NOT to hire your next strategy consultant

NOT to Hire | Strategy Consultant

Written by Shaun Stevens
Jan 04, 2020

We all know that culture eats strategy for breakfast. But what you might not know is that it also devours case studies, consumes psychometric testing, and chews up and spits out a lengthy, overly formalised interview process.

We know that testing a person’s strategic thinking, stakeholder management, and technical capabilities is important - but there’s a right and wrong way to do so. Putting that person through an on-the-spot case study, particularly if they haven’t met anyone from the business, or had the chance to explore the role and hear more about the environment they’re signing up to - no prizes for guessing whether or not that’s going to be effective. 

And why not?

It doesn’t work.

Imagine you showed up to your next gym session, on a regular Tuesday morning with your personal trainer, only to be put you through a gruelling beep test, perform various lifts to your maximum capability, and finish with a 1km rowing effort. What if you had a slightly sore head? What if it was the first time you’d met this particular trainer, and you were still figuring out his/her personality and style? Do you think you’d ace these challenges? 

No. Because you’d be nervous, you’d feel under immense pressure, and you would be under-prepared. 

The experience of the case study maps directly to the Yerkes-Dodson law which basically tells us we perform at our peak when under a moderate amount of stress. An interview setting, when in pursuit of a dream job, is already at least moderately stressful. When there are unknown surprise elements thrown in (for example, an impromptu case study), candidates will start to slide down the wrong side of the U-curve, and mess up pretty simple aspects of the process which they would otherwise breeze through.

There’s a volume of research now demonstrating case study style questions may not be that effective after all. In a high profile New York Times interview, Google’s VP of People Operations stated that the firm’s infamous brainteaser interview questions (eg, how many golf balls can you fit in a 747 Jet) are a complete waste of time and not indicative of intelligence or capability. 

That’s not to say that case studies should be scrapped altogether - they are obviously an integral metric in the strategy landscape, but the weight they are assigned, and the way in which they are administered, needs to be examined. 

It will turn off candidates.

Obviously the process of finding the right talent for your team is not one-sided. You can’t be expected to bend over backwards paving a person’s way into the business before they have even demonstrated their worth.

But there aren’t a million excellent strategy candidates out there. The lure of the shiny tech start-up or innovative global powerhouses are drawing many of our high performers overseas; even the beaches of Bondi and restaurants of Richmond can’t tempt these superstars to stay. 

A capable strategist actively searching for a new role is rarer than a full-term Australian Prime Minister, so if they are interviewing with your business, chances are they are also speaking to your competitor! 

I had a candidate recently who was interested in a business and a role they were looking to hire, but still in the ‘exploration’ phase of making a career move. She was being chased by recruiters and internal talent representatives all over the show, and she agreed to meet my client after an in-depth discussion on what she might achieve from the conversation. I prepared the hiring manager and explained the situation, and was reassured that he would “sell” her on the business and explain why it would be a great move.

Fast forward to D-day; she arrived, he greeted her and then launched into a technical line of questioning around her financial valuation and analysis skills. She walked away more confused by the role than what she had been prior to the conversation, and without any clarity around the culture or value proposition of the business.

Needless to say, she didn’t want to attend her round two conversation. 

So I introduced her to a different business, which saw the initial meeting as a chance to win her over and fully inform her about the role she was pursuing. She was bought into the organisation, she understood her stakeholders and what would be expected, and when it came to the case study round, guess what? She absolutely aced it.

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It doesn’t decrease the length of the process.

The logic I am given by most clients who want to jam behavioural tests, case studies and numerical reasoning skills into one 45-minute block, is that they “just don’t have time to do an initial coffee with every applicant!”


Not every candidate will need so much attention and such a warm introduction, but some will. If you are willing to take the extra 45 minutes with a select few high-calibre candidates, you’ll greatly decrease the likelihood of your best candidates pulling out mid-process, because of a particularly unpleasant interview experience.

I’m not a mathematician, nor a highly analytical strategy consultant, but even I know 45 minutes plus 45 minutes plus 45 minutes (being three initial ‘coffees’) is a much smaller investment compared to hours of sourcing and recruiting strategy candidates, the time taken to review resumes, and not to mention several initial interviews with candidates who are going to walk after round one!

Sell a candidate on culture - convince them on the working environment, flexibility, and the calibre of the team, and watch that person thrive when they do reach the technical stage of interviews.

Ineffective hiring strategies, unhappy candidates, and lengthy processes - that doesn’t sound like a way to win the war for the best talent. And in the eternal words of Ricky Gervais - I don’t agree with that in the workplace.


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