Why do strategy consultancies recruit from elite universities?

Why do McKinsey & others spend so much time on the campuses of Oxford, INSEAD, London Business School & Harvard? The answer isn’t what you’d think.

A student of mine, Ioanna, recently interviewed several strategy Partners, consultants, and HR-specialists as to why their recruitment effort was so skewed. In what order would YOU put these responses?

  • That’s where the best future consultants are to be found
  • It sends a signal to the market that the consultancy is the best
  • These students tend to have the sensibilities that fit with client CEOs
  • These students tend to be most similar to those doing the recruiting

Interestingly, University reputation, and indeed degree grade, are next to useless at predicting the job performance of graduates (a 1% predictive value). So, even though several respondents argued for (a), there is little empirical evidence that supports this assertion. No interviewees offered any internal evidence for it either. This is the reason that PWC and others now ignore markers such as A-Level grades when recruiting.

Concerning (b), the market signalling, it was argued by several ex-consultants that the outcomes of consultancy are often highly ambiguous, and so trusting in a brand is crucial in client decision-making. For most top consultancies therefore, advertising their services is not as useful as sending signals of their elite status and expertise: tie-ups with leading publishers, organising and sponsoring elite events, and yes, recruiting from top Universities. All these things indicate to the market that these consultancies must be better than others.

Several respondents pointed out the need for senior clients to be at ease with the recruited consultants. This was relevant not just to their conversational skills, but also the way they acted, ate, their sports and extra-curricular activities.

Crucially, at these firms HR played a minimal part in the recruitment process, which meant that consultants and partners, who are often untrained in bias, often ended up recruiting those with similar interests, backgrounds, and, you guessed it, alma matres. Thus (d) was also a factor.

The obvious drawback there is that strategy consultancies are not only missing out on great talent, but also on the diversity that is crucial for more innovative decision-making. Other consultancies, notably the Big 4, are aware of these dangers have changed their policies to avoid them. The question is, when will strategy consultancies do the same?

Recommendations from the research include:

  • Involving HR more in the assessment process
  • Dropping University reputation as a criteria in recruitment
  • Training consultants and Partners more in the dangers of bias
  • Communicating the benefits of a more diverse workforce
  • Balancing the importance of the partner interview with insights from HR

Ioanna Mavridopoulou

After a variety of HR roles (recruitment, selection, training & development), Ioanna recently received a distinction in her MSc in HRM from Cardiff University. She speaks in Greek, English, German and Russian, and has excellent interpersonal and communication skills. She is currently seeking a role in the HR profession in the UK.

Email: imavridopoulou@gmail.com

Published by Prof. Joe O'Mahoney PhD.

CEO & Founder, Consulting Mastered Ltd. Professor of Management Consulting at Cardiff University CEO & Founder, Repair Cafe Wales C.I.C. CIO & Founder, StayMobile Technology Ltd.

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