It was January 12, 2022. It was a cold morning, and I was walking out of the gym with my earbuds on, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” nodding and vibing with it, and walking so determined as if the whole world revolved around me. That combination had become my ritual to get a unique confidence boost, get out there, and make the day count. I had my round of summer internship interviews with McKinsey & Co. later that day.
A year before that, when I got my admission to Fuqua, I was not even considering becoming a consultant. To be honest, I did not even know what a consultant does. My first exposure to consulting was reading GMATClub.com discussions. I was looking at all the people talking about MBB. I actually googled to see what MBB means. All I could see in those threads were “a good command of English is essential” or “they prefer a young workforce,” and I was 33, and had never spent a single day in an English-speaking country or done business in English.
Of course, I was intimidated. The whole idea of moving to the U.S. was aspirational enough for me. Annually, there might be less than a handful of people from my country, Iran, flying to the U.S. to pursue an MBA, let alone going on to a major consulting firm. I kept repeating this question in my head: “Why would a consulting firm even hire me?”
I have been running my own businesses and projects since I was 23. I built a reputation in the electrical control systems design and manufacturing industry by making a success story out of my failing family business. I have also done residential building development projects and car assembly line setup projects on the side. When I started managing my family’s distressed company, I was facing so many problems that were too big for a fresh-out-of-college kid. It was terrifying to get to the end of the month and not have enough cash to pay your 20-plus factory workers, knowing they all have a family to feed.
Fortunately, the personality that I built through all those years of challenges came with a fearless instinct to dive into unknown problems and solve them as I move forward and keep persevering until it pays off—and that very same attitude assisted me in my journey to consulting.
Getting Started at Fuqua
I arrived in Fuqua in September 2021 having missed the beginning of my first year due to almost three months of visa processing delays. This was another wave of intimidation for me because everyone had started recruiting and I had not even memorized my own home address yet. Everything was fuzzy, and I was trying to organize in my head this massive influx of information about living in a new country, recruiting, school work, deadlines, calendars, emails, events, small talk, and more.
My Consequential Leadership team was my anchor point. They were extremely kind and helpful, and as I arrived, they brought me up to speed with all I needed to do on a weekly basis. In the recruiting domain, even though I had only shown some initial interest in consulting, they taught me when and how to sign up for coffee chats, how to find key people, and how to learn about the industry.
Understanding What Consultants Do
When I was introduced to the concept of “coffee chats,” I realized that this was the opportunity for me to understand exactly what a consultant does and answer all the questions I had. It was absolutely not justified for me why companies hire consultants. Do they not know their problems better than anyone else? These major companies have been in business for so long. How can some outsider evaluate what they need better than the company employees themselves?
Through the coffee chat sessions organized by the school and the Duke MBA Consulting Club, I got the opportunity to talk to many Fuqua alumni and non-alumni consultants who had been already doing the job, and I finally learned why businesses require consultants.
First, consultants are a cost-effective solution for resolving complex questions. Consultants focus their efforts on gathering and analyzing data and generating reliable conclusions quickly and accurately. In contrast, client employees are usually responsible for their core job responsibilities, and that prevents them from shifting focus to other things.
Second, consultants have access to an extensive knowledge base of similar cases and solutions, enabling them to build on prior knowledge to tackle even more complex problems.
Third, consultants approach the client’s question with an impartial perspective, resulting in a professional and unbiased recommendation.
Fourth, even if a client knows the answer to their question, validation from an external reliable party is advantageous, and consultants are the agents to serve that purpose.
Knowing exactly what a consultant does was the inflection point for me. Now I could envision myself pursuing it as a career more clearly. It became apparent to me that consultants share three essential traits:
- The ability to think strategically to determine the best potential approach
- The courage to dive into a problem
- The perseverance to continue exploring until the solution reveals itself
Surprisingly, I came to realize that I had always been on a parallel path to consulting because in my business, every week there was a new question to solve that I had never encountered before, and my job was to choose an approach, dive into the challenge, and explore until I found the solution.
At this point, I had the answer to my initial question “Why would a consulting firm even hire me?” It was because I already had the skillset and the attitude to become a consultant, and that is probably what McKinsey also saw in me when they sent me an interview invite.
Then came the next major challenge—preparing for my interview.