As I sit here writing this, preparing for another campus recruiting season, I’m reminded of thousands of college students I’ve interviewed — the ones well prepared by their schools for a career in consulting, but also the many who have been not gotten enough practical results to complement their academic training.
They spent tens of thousands of dollars, invested years of their life, and yet emerged with little training in the one of the most important skills for the real world—critical thinking.
The people who succeed as consultants and industry professionals in both the short and long-term tend to be the people with the best critical thinking skills, beyond the facts and figures they learned in college. In a world where nearly infinite information is instantly available, critical thinking and the ability to learn quickly are the long-term competitive differentiators.
Too many classes still measure GPAs by what you know, not necessarily how you apply it. Thankfully, some of the leading schools emphasize these skills, like the University of Texas at Dallas. but far too many do not. Beyond your GPA, corporate recruiters care whether you exhibit these four pillars of critical thought:
College graduates are used to this type of question:
“What makes wine sweet?”
If you ask a college student that question, they may provide plenty of data: they’ll research wine experts, cite scientific articles, and tell you every molecule that contributes to wine’s sweetness. They might even put it all in Modern Language Association (MLA) format.
But ask them what the most important thing to know about wine is, or conduct a time-boxed case interview, and they may look a little more like a deer in the headlights.
The difference is subtle, but fundamental. College students are taught how to collect a bunch of data, run it through standard formulas, and answer a posed question. However, they often aren’t taught how to frame a problem, set up the mental model, or identify whether all of the data was even needed.
When faced with an actual problem to solve, too many young people experience analysis paralysis. With all the information available today, you can spend forever compiling facts, cranking through formulas, and formatting reports.
The irony is that students have more data and analytical tools than ever before, but that very abundance can overshadow the nuggets of wisdom.
Former Navy Seal Jeff Boss says it best: “Trying to stay up to date with the latest viewpoints and updates is akin to the human version of an information hamster wheel: you can run along it all day but never actually arrive anywhere.“
In the above example, a better critical thinker would approach the problem with logic that looked similar to this:
- How are we defining ‘better’ here? What is the real problem, and what does our customer really want?
- With that goal in mind, what do I need to know to achieve the desired result?
- What data is available to enable me to make a fact-based decision?
Instead of researching everything about the topic, a critical thinker identifies what they need to know, at what level of detail, and with what priority.
Interpretation is related to analysis. It is the process by which you translate your analysis into an actual plan. Our word critical derives from the Greek word kritikos, which means ‘judge’ (or interpret).
College students today don’t learn how to make their data actionable. Let me give you an example from my own consulting firm on this one.
I hired a guy who we’ll call Derrick. Not just a guy, a genius. Good Will Hunting level when it came to his quantitative skills, and was off the charts in econometric modeling. When I brought him on, I thought I was getting a game changer, someone who would advance rapidly.
Instead, he barely lasted a year.
He just couldn’t interpret data to build solutions for clients, and quickly develop hypotheses that he could test and confirm or discard. He would spend many hours researching client problems, and dump all of that data on them, but he couldn’t tell them what to do with it.
I had a one-on-one with him and said, “Derrick, imagine you spend $5,000 on a new bicycle. It’s fast, it’s comfortable, maybe it even flies. But when you show up to pick up your new bicycle, the sales guy hands you a bag full of parts. All of the pieces of a great bicycle are there, but you aren’t paying thousands of dollars for the parts, you’re paying for a bicycle.”
His ‘bicycle’ should have a properly framed problem, with a workable plan, and frequent feedback to interpret feedback and make recommendations.
He’d never had to think that way, and in the end he just couldn’t do it. He’d been instructed throughout school on a path to analyze problems, and thought that way was right. But his clients felt differently.
The real world is all about results. You don’t get points for attendance, and in baseball terminology, we often get 1 ½ strikes before we’re out. Clients hire consultants to solve their hardest problems (otherwise, do it yourself), so their expectations are high, and rightly so.
The trouble is that while the evaluation criteria is stringent, measurements are not always defined, problems are seldom fully known, and significant ambiguity exists along the way.
Many of the students I’ve interviewed assume that if they go through the right motions, if they log enough hours, they will be ready to be a consultant or take a challenging job in the industry.
As a consultant, your fundamental requirement is client success, to solve their problem. Everything else is secondary.
This applies to the solutions you recommend to your clients. You need to be able to evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Unlike a professor grading your work, the evaluation criteria can be ambiguous, and it is important to break down what success is, and aim for intermediate successes while homing in on the overall solution.
Having higher internal standards is critical: If your client has to tell you that your work has errors, they will likely not be a client for much longer.
To evaluate properly, you need solid analysis and interpretation. Most importantly, you need to ask the right questions:
- How can we measure success? What are the early measures that provide positive data points for the overall solution?
- Am I seeing first-person, objective evidence of those signs? If not, how do I create those answers and deliverables?
Without frequent evaluation, you make it impossible to adapt to changing circumstances, and each engagement will have changing circumstances (scope change, new client personnel, corporate changes, and so on). If you can’t evaluate and adapt, you can’t succeed.
Figuring out what to do next sounds like an obvious skill, but you’d be amazed how many people lack it. They get used to having work assigned to them by someone else. The school system reinforces this, because degree plans have required courses, courses have a syllabus with specific assignments, and so on.
The good news: this prepares graduates for linear, well-defined tasks. The bad news: consulting, and professional work overall, is moving in another direction.
Here’s the tough part: your clients hire a consultant because they don’t know what to do next. Figuring out what those next steps are, framing the problem, constructing a work plan, conducting analysis, and then developing the recommendations are the majority of your job.
But self-direction goes deeper than that. You think employers hand out syllabi with checkboxes next to all the things you need to do to get promoted? While good firms provide a career path and guidelines, even the elite firms will tell you that ultimately, you are responsible for your career. You need to recognize for yourself what you need to do to get ahead.
This lack of self-direction has led to a high rate of burnout in young employees.If you’re the sort of person who craves growth and movement, then school is great. You’re constantly taking in new information, and progressing towards a degree. But then you graduate.
Once you’re out in the real world, you’re no longer on a degree track. You have to direct yourself forward. If you don’t have critical thinking skills, you can’t do that.
Best case scenario, you learn enough about a specific skill to have value to your employer. However, simply having subject matter knowledge means you are likely to stagnate, and wonder what it takes to move past all the other graduates who have the same degrees, with the same knowledge, and the same jobs.
I get it. When I was coming out of school, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It took a lot of trial by error to figure out what it took to get into consulting and how to succeed over the long-term.
The good news is that this can be learned, and you can avoid a lot of the time and wasted effort, and focus on the vital few areas that make the difference.
You Need More Than An MBA To Be A Consultant
An MBA alone is not enough (though one that emphasizes critical thinking skills is a giant step in the right direction). Critical thinking and its supporting skills are the differentiator in a world where information is infinite, and analytics are everywhere.
We have a million tools now to help us communicate. We can represent our thought processes with flowcharts, spreadsheets, bar graphs, and we can put it all in a nice PowerPoint.
But if that PowerPoint isn’t built on foundation of solid logic, if it doesn’t convincingly convey the thought process of a critical thinker, it’s all useless. Any tool you use as a consultant is only as good as you are at embedding critical thought into your work and deliverables.
This is not a dig at academia. Our universities have spent decades, even centuries preparing students for the business world. There are forward-looking schools who are addressing this need.
University of Texas at Dallas is an example of these schools who are increasing emphasis in their business school curriculum in the area of critical thinking. They developed an active advisory board and then incorporated its feedback from the market about the need for stronger critical and creative thinkers. Based on that input, we developed course content to improve critical thinking, design thinking, and executive communication skills. While still early, the results have been promising so far, especially for students who were strong in quantitative skills but lacking in ability to define problems, think creatively, or communicate with impact.
That world has changed, and colleges are in the process of changing to meet the new demands. In the meantime, identify what you need to be highly successful in consulting and industry, and be ready.