What Bain & Company Looks for in MBA Hires
Bain & Company—widely considered one of the most elite consulting firms in the world—is a coveted post-MBA destination for students at top business schools in every part of the globe. Headquartered in Boston with 53 offices in 34 countries around the world, Bain employs approximately 6,000 people and counts as its clients leading Fortune 500 companies, as well as nonprofit and government organizations. And business is booming.
According to Keith Bevans, global head of consultant recruiting, the company has grown at a rate of 15 percent a year for the past 20 years, with no slowdown in sight. “We hire a little over 400 consultants a year—and that growth comes from the top business schools in the world,” he says. While the company primarily targets top-20 schools for MBA recruiting, it hires from more than 60 schools around the world and is committed to finding the best talent wherever it can.
Bevans is a Bain lifer. He started as an associate consultant out of MIT, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. He left Bain to get his MBA at Harvard Business School but returned upon graduation and has been there ever since. For much of his career, he was a client-facing partner in the firm’s Performance Improvement practice, with a focus on processes to improve effectiveness and efficiencies. Now he’s putting that expertise to work for his own company, and he couldn’t be happier.
His allegiance to the firm is clear, and it’s based in great part on his intimate understanding of its culture, which he describes as steadfastly collaborative and supportive. And he’s not alone. Bain frequently tops the “Best Places to Work” lists for Glassdoor, Vault and Consulting magazine, with employees praising its “great people and culture” and calling it “an incredible place to learn” and “the best place to start your career.”
It’s people, too, set Bain apart, Bevans agrees. “They are very smart, very passionate, maniacally focused on making a difference in whatever they are doing—and they wrap all of that in a layer of humility, which I think is very rare to find.”
Bain Partner Keith Bevans, global head of consultant recruiting
MBA graduates are a big and important part of the company’s hiring, and many start out as interns in the 10-week summer associate program between their first and second years of business school. “It’s definitely an important on-ramp,” he says of the internship program, adding that it’s also a valuable opportunity for both Bain and its interns to determine fit. Notably, 90 percent of interns return to work for Bain full time, Bevans adds. And there’s not a maximum cap on intern hires. “Our summer program is limited only by how many great students we can find,” he says. “We don’t have a target—rather I like to think of it as a minimum. If we find more great people, we will always go over whatever we set out for.” Which means there are opportunities for second-year students who may not have targeted Bain or consulting in their first year.
But interns alone are not enough to keep up with Bain’s growth. “It varies from year to year in terms of how many of our full-time hires are former summer interns, new full-time hires or former consultants. But the internship program never fills up the whole group.”
Don’t miss Clear Admit’s exclusive interview with Bevans below, in which he talks about the firm’s commitment to employee training and support, goes into detail about Bain’s MBA recruiting process, shares where he looks and what he looks for in MBA hires and more. Our thanks to Bevans for making the time to share more about Bain with the Clear Admit audience.
Corporate Recruiter Q&A: Bain & Company’s Keith Bevans
Clear Admit: What sets Bain apart—not only among other consulting firms but also as an employer or company overall?
Keith Bevans: There are a couple of things about Bain people that set us apart. In my role, I have had the opportunity to travel to offices around the world hiring people, and what I have found is that Bain people are passionate about both the work they are doing and the things they are doing outside of work. They really jump right in with both feet. When you align that around our goal of having our clients be successful, you can really see the passion Bainies have for their clients—it just oozes out of them. We are having a big impact on our clients, and we are hiring people who are really energized by that.
With that as our starting point, we put them in an environment where we really do act like one team and do everything we can to support them in their professional life. From our global training programs to our onboarding program to the career counseling we provide—it’s all aligned around helping them be successful and be the best they can be. Bain people are people who want to have an impact.
Relative to other firms I think we are different in the sense that we have a very collaborative culture. We also have tremendously deep expertise in every major sector of the economy, and we bring that to our clients. “We’ve studied this and analyzed this, but why don’t we marry that with your expertise?” we’ll say to clients. We are not trying to prove that we are smarter than our clients but to work collaboratively with them to position them to succeed.
CA: How important are MBAs in your overall hiring? How many MBAs do you hire each year, both interns and fulltime? Are you continuing to grow at the 15 percent rate you’ve enjoyed for so many years?
KB: MBA talent is a big and really important source of talent for us. For the last 20 years, we have been growing on average at a rate of 15 percent year. That makes for a phenomenal slide when I put it in front of recruits. We hire a little over 400 consultants a year, and that growth comes from the top business schools in the world. The bulk of our targeted efforts focus on top 20 programs, but we have hired from almost 60 different MBA programs around the world.
With our growth, our primary focus is to make sure we are finding the most talented people out there. The breadth of schools from which we’ve hired shows that we are continuing to do innovative things through the Bain Passport and Webinar series to connect with students wherever they are. Our intern program this summer is once again—for the third or fourth year in a row—the largest we have run as a firm. It is definitely an important on-ramp, if you will. And 90 percent of the MBA interns who come for the summer return to Bain afterwards. We find the best, bring them in for the summer and very often they start their careers with us.
As for the 10 percent who don’t return—most of the time it’s actually more of a mutual thing. Maybe they tried consulting and decided it’s not a fit for them. And here’s another example of the supportive part about Bain: Even the interns who don’t come back often get support from the people who worked with them at Bain. They help them identify what parts of the internship were the right fit, and what roles might be a better match and then they help connect them with people who can help. After all, they are still Bain alums and still part of the Bain family.
CA: What do you look for in your MBA candidates? Specific backgrounds? Work experience? GMAT score? Anything that is definitely NOT a good fit for Bain?
KB: On the MBA side, I like to say there are three things we look for when we are meeting candidates. First, we are looking for, “Are they smart?” That is a function of some of the quants—like GMAT score—as well as where they went to undergrad, what they majored in, and are they doing what they need to do to excel academically. We want candidates who have proven they have the raw horsepower to be successful in an environment that is very analytic.
Second, in terms of professional experience, we are not only looking for people who are former consultants. We are looking for people who can be successful in a corporate environment and can engage with people. In terms of leadership, we are looking to see, “Can they make it happen?” For instance—if you are organizing a conference and bad weather causes your keynote speaker to cancel, can you figure out what to do? By the same token, the data is never as clean as you hope it will be. We are looking for candidates that have had that kind of experience where life happens and they’ve had to adapt on the fly.
So, we are looking at are they smart, do they have professional experience that shows they can make it happen and be successful with clients, and the third important thing we are looking to assess is can they give and receive coaching and feedback?
Also, it’s a two-way process. The candidate needs to understand the job and understand why Bain is different. Being in an environment that is collaborative with clients means necessarily that we are collaborative with each other. At Bain, you are not the lead singer. As candidates go through the recruiting process, they get to know what it takes to be successful here. Sometimes when people get to meet us, they opt out because they are looking for something a little different.
CA: How do you prioritize the training and development of your employees? Can you provide some examples?
KB: One of the things we do when employees start—it is very similar for undergrads and grads—they go through a week of in-office training to help them understand the way our computing works, the high-level tools we use, etc. Toward the end of the week they have a conversation with the staffing manager, who will ask about their long-term career goals and what they have come to Bain to learn and go over the different opportunities for staffing. Coming out of that, they will be put on a case.
Several weeks in, they also will go to one of our global training programs. We have one of these programs running for all of the new employees in a given cohort, and everyone who is starting at the same time will take part together. They will be put in a group with four to six other peers all from different offices, and a trainer will work with that group throughout the whole week. They will do a simulated case and learn how we do analysis—and they will also meet other Bainies from offices all around the globe. We do that about every 18 months in people’s careers.
It’s a big investment—getting the whole global group together regularly. But the result is that not only are you part of an office, you are also part of a smaller community of peers. I went through the process myself, and today there are four of us who started 21 years ago—the others are in Chicago, San Francisco and Boston. We have been through every one of the trainings together and are still friends to this day.
CA: How do you support work-life balance among your employees?
KB: The way we think about that is interesting—let me unpack it a little bit. We don’t think about it as “work-life” balance. Any one of your readers who is focused on work-life balance is admitting to themselves and saying the work is going to be really terrible, and therefore they must have some kind of hobby outside of work. Why would anyone want to work at a place where their life force is being drained from them? That’s not the right way to think about the job.
It’s about sustainability. We train people to think about sustainability. Think of it as a two-by-two matrix. On the x axis you have “work” and “life,” and on the y axis you have “gives energy” and “drains energy.” I would much rather work with my team than do yard work—I really enjoy coaching the junior team. At Bain, we think of it more in terms of doing the things that give you energy and make you excited and passionate and doing fewer of the things that leave you feeling drained. I know that several companies do tout their work-life balance programs, but that’s telling—that they are so concerned about having life outside of work suggests that the work is taxing.
CA: What are the entry opportunities for those starting at Bain with an MBA and how do typically careers unfold?
KB: Typically, people will start with Bain as interns—which we call our summer associates—or as full-time consultants when they graduate. The summer associate program is a 10-week internship, and 90 percent of those who take part return to Bain full time. The consultant role is roughly two years, and then they become case team leaders. This gives them the opportunity to show they have developed their skill set adequately to become full members of the management team as manager within three years. Then they’ll continue to advance from manager to principle to partner.
Along the way, Bain’s is a generalist model. Our belief is that the right foundation for you to be an expert and a senior manager down the line is to see a lot of different industries. As you get into your second year as a manager, you will start to specialize, whether it’s in retail or technology, performance improvement or strategy, or some combination. Often people will choose an industry and a capability—say they want to do retail and digital—so they will pick the intersection of the two. This allows them to work with the staffing manager to get those roles, so that they are seeing a lot of companies and understanding business at a higher level.
There are also a lot of other things we are doing that you will see people take advantage of. For example, we have programs that allow people to take a two-month leave of absence to recharge a little bit, aptly called “Take Two.” We have people in their second year as consultants who will use the Take Two opportunity to take an externship and go work for another company—perhaps a nonprofit. Also, given the demographics a lot of our consultants are working to start a family, and our parental leave policies are very favorable for people who want to do that. We offer an eight-week medical leave for birth and another eight weeks of parental leave for either parent—and that applies to all types of new parents, whether birth or adoption. So, we have time to recharge, time to expand their families, time to explore different industries, all baked into the career path of the consultant.
CA: Which schools do you actively recruit from, any additions / subtractions to this over the last few years? How do you decide that a given school is the right place to recruit?
KB: I may not be as specific as you would like in answering this. I would say that based on where our offices are around the world, we are recruiting actively at the top 20 business schools. By that I mean that we are actively running events and our associate consultants go to these schools to get their MBAs. And then we use the Bain Passport and Webinar series to reach other students, whose campuses may not be close to an office. I will also point out that we review every single application that comes through our website at www.bain.com/careers. Our offices are really excited to see those people come through. And when we looked at themost recent data, we saw that we are hiring from about 60 different schools.
In terms of additions and subtractions, given our growth, the real question is just,“Where’s the next school and how can we work more schools into the rotation?” Yale School of Management made a big investment in its facilities and its program in recent years, and it just so happened that we had a big uptick in interns from Yale. They have been a great source for us, and we have a great partnership with the dean and career services team. What usually happens is a couple of really talented alumni come in from a given school and say, “I know there are a lot more talented people there you aren’t getting.” And so we try to get them. It’s really not a source of debate.
CA: Are there certain schools whose graduates seem to be a particularly good fit for your company? Why?
KB: Ah, the age-old internal debate. (Chuckles.) No actually, I may be biased given my alma mater, but when you travel the Bain system, you see there are common threads at a lot of the top schools. We hire the same type of person from different cities and countries and schools. They tend to be very smart, very passionate, maniacally focused on making a difference in whatever they are doing—and they wrap all of that in a layer of humility, which I think is very rare to find.
CA: Describe your MBA recruiting/hiring process.
KB: We have a series of programs that are under the umbrella of “Experience Bain.” Those programs start right about now. Our pre-MBA programming is all about marketing and education. We are not extending offers before people get to business school. Rather, we want them to get to know what Bain is about. The biggest program is called “Connect with Bain.” It is an opportunity literally for people around the world who are working in a city where we have an office to register and take part in events planned during the summer to help them learn what we are about. There are also a lot of different Experience Bain career networking events that people should start looking out for in early April.
On-campus recruiting for first-year students typically starts sometime in late October with marketing events, which offer students the chance to meet more people from the firm and do some student case practice. The application deadline is usually around December, with interviews in January. That process is usually completely wrapped up by the end of February. For second-year students, the recruiting process really starts right away when they get back to campus in September. I find that surprises a lot of people. Most of the recruiting process for second-years is winding down by the end of October.
CA: How often do you seek out candidates directly who haven’t shown specific interest but who you think might be a particularly good fit?
KB: I think what we end up finding is two things happen. A little bit of what we are doing with the pre-MBA experiences is giving people broader exposure to the range of work we do. We find that many people don’t assume that any consulting firm is doing a lot of work in tech—or that consulting might be good for someone interested in entrepreneurship.
We are also targeting people who are interested in specific topics—showcasing, for example, how the work Bain is doing is changing the way retailers are connecting with customers. A lot of our programming is geared toward people who have a passive interest in a topic that may or may not be consulting, but didn’t realize that’s what consultants are doing—that they could come to Bain and become a retail supply-chain expert or that they could come to Bain and it would help them be a better entrepreneur two years down the line. Also, we find that a lot of alumni are introducing us, saying to people, “You should come to this event or dial into this webinar.” We really like when that happens because in a lot of ways, those are the types of people who can fall off the radar.
CA: What opportunities do students have to interact with Bain before they even head to school? Pre-MBA boot camp? Participation in events offered by Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), Tiogo, Forté, others?
KB: We actually participate in a lot of those types of programs because for Bain, diversity is something that is very important. Diverse teams get to better answers. You also need diverse teams to have credibility with clients. How can you tell a retailer you know what their customers need if you don’t look like their customers? Furthermore, our growth dictates that we need to be focused on diversity. I need to go to a campus and get all the best people on campus—and I can’t get them if they feel like we are not a great place for women, for people of color. So it’s not only the right thing for us to do but also a strategic imperative to continue growing. We are active participants with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), Forté, and others—because that’s where there are a lot of great people who haven’t necessarily have the same exposure to Bain. Those folks may not feel like consulting or corporate is the right role for them, but through these programs they get to see what some of our alumni are doing after they leave—the amazing things that people go on to do after Bain—and it’s eye opening.
CA: How many interviews will a candidate most often go through? What advice can you offer in terms of the best ways to prepare?
KB: Tactically, on most of our campuses the process is two first-round interviews, both case, on campus. The second round is three interviews, two case interviews and a resume discussion. On some campuses we might just do one round. The best way to prepare: We put a lot of content on our website that talks about what Bain looks for and how to prepare for the interviews. What I would say though, just broadly, to your audience it that it’s about doing a little bit of prep over a longer period of time—not about taking their holiday break and doing a case a week over several weeks. The idea is you want to do a little bit of practice over a longer period of time so you have time to reflect and continue learning. They are also in business school, learning as they go, and you just know more after a couple of months in business school. It’s also always better to practice out loud with someone else.
The best approach I have seen was a group of students who would get together for brunch every Saturday—one would give, another would receive, and the other two would eat. And then they would switch. This kind of continued practice for the interviews allows them to get comfortable talking about situations and industries and problems they may not be familiar with. We are not looking for industry expertise but instead how they would approach a business problem, how to break it down, can they still figure out what matters.
CA: How important are internships for fulltime recruiting?
KB: Our summer program is limited only by how many great students we can find. We don’t have a target—rather I like to think of it as a minimum. If we find more great people, we will always go over whatever we set out for. That said, there is a limitation in terms of how many great experiences we provide in a summer. We can never fill the full-time class with all former interns—there are just not that many fantastic internship opportunities we can provide. It varies from year to year in terms of how many of our full-time hires are former summer interns, new full-time hires or former consultants. But the internship program never fills up the whole group.
CA: What advice do you have specifically for those recruiting in their second-year?
KB: What we realize is there are a lot of students in the second-year recruiting pool that are new to the consulting interview process. Maybe they came in sure they would do a startup or investment banking, or they come in already obligated because of a fellowship or scholarship to work somewhere else for the summer. We do meet a lot of people in the second year who are new to Bain. If they are interested, they should reach out to the on-campus rep toward the end of the summer, and they should know that the process starts right away when they get back to campus. The second-year process starts earlier than a lot of people’s. They can’t some in and say, “Alright, it’s December, what do I do?” It will be too late.
CA: Is there anything you would like to see more of / better in MBA recruits? Particular coursework that is important, either for an intern or full-time MBA graduate to complete in order to do well at the firm? Data analytics? Case method?
KB: I wouldn’t focus people on specific coursework or any particular topic. Business school is a tremendous opportunity for you to pursue the different interests you have for a career in the business world. What we look to find is underlying problem-solving skills, a passion for making a difference for clients and humility. So they should pursue their passions in business school, because that approach is the same passion I want to see when they come to Bain. It is important that students think about the differences between the different consulting firms. What are they doing to determine what makes Bain a better fit? Just as a lot of readers may have a lot of business schools they are choosing from—their experience might feel very different if they don’t choose a school with the values, the support and the people around them that are a good fit. The same is true of your post-MBA career. There are a lot of good places to work, but for you one place might be better.
In terms of the internship, we are not big on “made-for-T.V. moments” at Bain. We take our interns and give them real problems, put them on real teams, and have them work with real clients. It is not a staged opportunity for them to learn about Bain. It is a real situation where they are expected to have a real impact. In this way, it really gives us a chance to see what I was talking about—how are they at dealing with problems, engaging with clients, working as part of a team? At the same time, it’s a chance for them to see if it’s a good fit for their goals. It’s a good opportunity for us to determine the fit in terms of skills and goals, but it’s very much a two-way street. We are very selective with our internship program, and that explains why so many are able to come back full time. I don’t think all firms employ the same approach.
CA: What trends are you seeing in MBA recruiting? Anything especially noteworthy or surprising?
KB: People are asking much smarter questions about how this career fits with their longer-term career goals, and I think that is healthy. When they do, we talk about the experience and support they are going to get—through both the Bain Executive Network (BEN) and Bain Career Advisors (BCA)—to help them consider both their next steps at Bain and potential steps the can take outside of Bain. Though two groups, BEN and BCA, are there to help all Bain employees, from associate consultants through partners.
Everyone comes to Bain with a five-year career goal plan. But then someone will get a phone call about a job they weren’t really looking for and find that though they were thinking about staying to be a manager, maybe they want to take this opportunity to work in digital and technology. We are having that dialog with our people in a way that is consistent, because people want to have an informed discussion about how to navigate their careers. We are not looking at it from a lens of, “How can I convince you to stay?” but rather “How can I help you be the best business executive you can be?”
CA: What impact do H1-B visa regulations have on your hiring? What hopes for or concerns do you have about potential shifts in such regulation?
KB: Why ever would that be in the news? (Groan.) We are looking to hire the best people that we can find everywhere. The visa process—both here and there have been similar difficult situations in other countries around the world – it’s not that you are not getting a Bain visa, it’s that you are not getting a visa. We do what we can to support candidates who are in a difficult situation. Students who know they need an H1-B will get an office for the United States, but they will also get an indication as to what the fallback office will be if they have to wait. That’s been a big focus for the team. So maybe your offer is for Chicago, but if you are not able to start in Chicago right away, you will start in Amsterdam. What is unknown for us right now is if they have to start their career in another country. It is unclear to us—and many others—just how the process will shake out over the next years.
CA: What’s one area where you think Bain still has work to do in terms of being the best employer it can be?
KB: I think that a lot of the things we are doing show that we are continuing to innovate. Fifteen or 20 years ago we were one of the first firms to offer to extend health benefits to domestic partners—it was just what we felt was the right thing to do for our people. Same with making the change on parental leave and offering employees the opportunity to take two months to recharge. We are continuing to inject better ways for people to do their work sustainably. Also, digital now account for about 40 percent of the work we are doing.
Those are all some of the things I know we are doing. What I think the biggest gap is telling our story and really letting people understand why our home-office, generalist model is different and why it is the best way to start your career. I think we still have an opportunity in terms of communicating that and conveying that in a way that people who may not have considered consulting see Bain as a potential place for them.