Short Story: The McKinsey Interview
One man’s life could dramatically change as he aspires to join one of the most prestigious consulting firms in the world. But before doing so, he faces one last monumental challenge — Impress the one person standing between him and his dream job.
Like heaven? Magical? Perhaps majestic? I’m not sure what the right word is to describe it. It’s water, so there isn’t supposed to be a taste to it. It’s not like when someone says, “Oh, I’ve had rattlesnake. It tastes like chicken.” You can’t do that with water. I angled the bottle to read the label, spilling a quarter of the contents onto the chair beside me. With Carl Lewis-like speed, the receptionist sprinted towards me with a fistful of tissues. She rolled her eyes and shook her head, as if one of the disappointing gestures weren’t sufficient to convey her utter disgust with me.
Everest H20. It’s catchy, I’ll give them that. A corporate marketing stiff probably won a plaque or a crystal trophy for coming up with the name. Everest H20. It’s all I could think about five minutes before the most important interview in my life. What I should have been doing was running through case studies in my head. Damn you, Everest H2O, for being the most heavenly, magical thing I had ever tasted.
A man walking briskly approached from the hallway, pointing at me with quite possibly the longest finger in the world. I instantly forgot about the water, shifting my thoughts instead to E.T., as in the Extra-Terrestrial. “Mr. Branigan, are you ready?” asked the alien in the charcoal wool suit.
“Yes, absolutely,” I replied confidently.
“Please take a seat here,” E.T. instructed, once again showing off his impressive digit. “Ms. Tyler will be with you in just a moment. Would you like some water?”
“That would be fantastic,” I responded, hoping he would bring me an unopened bottle to take home, a parting gift of sorts, like the grab bag of pencils, stickers and lollipops one receives at a kid’s birthday party. When E.T. left the room, I stood and trotted over to the window, staring through the twelve-foot high glass overlooking Grant Park. The day was beautiful, not a single cloud to stain a perfectly blue sky. Perhaps this would be my office view one day. All I had to do was ace this interview.
I quickly refocused my attention, thinking about the hundreds of hours I had invested in case study preparation. It didn’t matter that neither my girlfriend, Jennifer, nor my roommate, Harry, were in the room with me. I was totally prepared, completely ready. All their contributions, their hard work and support, were about to pay off. I rushed back to the chair at the sound of approaching footsteps.
“Good morning, Mr. Branigan. My name is Annie Tyler,” said a woman holding an open manila folder. She removed a crisp copy of my resume and sat down behind a large maple desk. “Shall we get started?”
I nodded and cleared my throat, but said nothing otherwise.
“Good. I have a tight schedule this morning, so how about we get right to it. We’ll do two cases today,” Ms. Tyler began. “This will help us gauge your thinking process; how you work through complex situations amidst uncertainty and incomplete information. In short, we want to know how you solve problems. It’s the most critical skill we look for in our consultants. Sound good?”
“Let’s do it,” I responded without hesitation.
“Okay. Let’s start with a textile manufacturer, a recent client that –.” Ms. Tyler stopped abruptly when the phone sitting on the corner of her desk rang. She glanced at the caller ID. “My apologies Mr. Branigan, but I need to step out for a second.”
I immediately panicked, fearing that their human resources department had uncovered something unsettling, a dark discovery from my past that was about to bring a swift end to the interview. Perhaps they had found a faded high school picture of me passed out in the quad. There are a few of these images out in the world, the worst being the one of me in my underwear caressing a bottle of Strawberry Hill as if it were my first girlfriend. I was relieved when Ms. Tyler returned, explaining that it had been an important client that needed an immediate answer on something.
“Is there something I can do to help?” I asked, fantasizing that I could assist McKinsey with a major crisis, save the client fifty million dollars and make Partner on the spot.
“No, thank you. We have it under control,” Ms. Tyler responded, struggling to suppress laughter in between sentences. “Unfortunately, we’ll need to cut our discussion short today. Let’s skip the case studies. Instead, why don’t we just take a few minutes getting to know one another. As you can imagine, our clients bring us exceptionally challenging problems, obstacles on a global scale that are intensely demanding in nature. Often times, the solutions to these issues aren’t immediately apparent. They require stamina and tenacity, an unflinching perseverance. Tell me what persistence means to you, Mr. Branigan.”
Crap. I was prepared for a market sizing case. I was looking forward to something related to profitability. I could’ve handled a mergers and acquisitions problem. But what I wasn’t ready for was a character trait self-assessment. Poop. I was completely caught off guard. I thought only brand management interviewees got asked fluffy questions like that. What three words best describe you? What is your greatest weakness? If you were a backpack, what color would it be? Shit. I had to think fast.
I had worked in investment banking for nine years prior to graduate school. There were plenty of experiences to draw from, like the time I labored on a Powerpoint presentation for thirty-three straight hours, stopping only for bathroom breaks and Hot Pockets. But in that critical moment, I froze. And instead of Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, the names that came to mind were Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey and Keren Woodward. In the most important interview of my life, the members of the 80’s British pop band, Bananarama, were the only thing keeping me from my dream job. I didn’t wait for Ms. Tyler to acknowledge my answer. I jumped right in, launching into what I hoped would be a compelling and impassioned story about what persistence meant to me.
It was a month into the summer vacation between my junior and senior years of high school. I had worked the late night shift at the neighborhood pizza joint, a place that cranked out delish thin crust Sicilian and the meanest turkey, avocado and bacon sandwich west of the Colorado River. After getting off work, I had crashed at my friend Darren’s house, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from his father’s garage refrigerator. The night was exceptionally clear, a rarity after brush fires had rusted the sky for the better part of the past three weeks. We sat by his backyard pool, dipping our feet into the deep end as we made senior year plans. The last hurrah of high school would be an amazing time that zipped on by with little we could do to stop or slow it. We stayed up until 4 a.m. that night. By the end of the evening, we stared and admired a pyramid of aluminum cans that stood three feet high.
Despite the late night philosophy session, we were already up and eating breakfast by 8 a.m. We were hoping to squeeze in an hour at the driving range before the blistering Southern California summer sun would make physical activity unbearable. I waited for Darren to finish mowing the lawn before we headed over to the municipal golf course five blocks away. I turned on the radio and plopped down on the couch with an orange Gatorade, trying desperately to counter the previous night’s toxins.
Are you heartbroken that you didn’t get Bananarama tickets before they sold out in an hour? Well, get those fingers ready. Because I’m giving away a pair of tickets in the first five rows for Saturday night’s epic show at Dodger Stadium. Are you going to be my lucky 20th caller?
I leapt off the couch and sprinted for the phone, knocking over the Gatorade that Darren would later take the rap for. That’s what I loved about him. He was my best friend, a guy who would do anything for you and often did, like the first time he came to my defense when a pair of bullies cornered me at the local park. Ever since then, we were best buddies. It was like the volleyball scene in the movie Top Gun. I was Goose to his Maverick.
I had to win those tickets, not for me, but for Audrey, the most beautiful woman in our entire school. She was a senior, a year ahead of us, and had just graduated. I knew she was a big fan of the band. And when she did a solo dance number during half time of a junior varsity basketball game earlier that year, my heart just melted like a Han Solo action figure tossed into a beach bonfire. I dialed the radio station’s phone number. Busy signal. I hit redial. Still busy. Redial again, another six times. Then it rang. My heart stopped. The line connected.
Thank you for calling KPXB, your home to all the hottest top 40 hits and beyond. Please remain on the line and we’ll take your call in the order it was received.
I had to remind myself to breathe. I started to think and plan. Maybe my uncle Chad would let me borrow his convertible. There was no way I was taking Audrey to the concert in my beat up brown Fiero, the one with the dented driver-side door and the taped on fender. I closed my eyes and pictured Audrey’s long brunette hair blowing in the wind as we sped down the 210. She would look over at me, reach over and rub the back of my neck with those soft, tender fingers. Please remain on the line, the recording repeated as I watched Darren wheel the mower back into the garage.
“Hey, who are you calling?” asked Darren when he walked in, leaving the front door open behind him. He went straight for the kitchen sink, downing a glass of tap water with a single, long gulp.
I cupped the mouth piece, in case the call connected and the DJ jumped on the line. “It’s the radio station. They’re giving away tickets to Bananarama. I just got though. I’m totally taking Audrey. Holy crap, dude.” I could barely contain my excitement. Darren just shook his head. He wasn’t much of a fan of the genre. Although he did accompany his girlfriend to see The Cover Girls, something he refused to talk about or acknowledge, even to this day.
Darren was good like that, keeping his girlfriend company even when she wouldn’t return the favor when we went to see Metallica and Rage Against the Machine. “They’re just yelling,” she explained. They stayed together though senior year as well as college, and eventually got married after a short mutual break that lasted all of sixteen hours. They agreed to never attend another concert together, and to not force any of their four children to choose sides when it came to music. “Darren, did you hear me? I said it’s Bananarama.” But he just rolled his eyes and went into the bathroom to take a shower.
He emerged from the bathroom fifteen minutes later, the hot steam slowly following him like the groupies of a popular boy band. “Are you still on the phone? Jesus, dude. Come on, I want to get to range before it gets too hot.” I looked down at my wrist, checking the time on new Swatch and debating whether to hang up the phone. I was so close, I could feel it. I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder and held up both hands, pleading for ten more minutes. It’s when I looked down at my watch again that I heard Darren’s ear-piercing scream. “Dude. What the –?”
I dropped the receiver to the floor, managing to actually touch the phone four or five times before completely fumbling it like a greased up football on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I dove to the ground, grabbing at the receiver and pulling it to my ear, hoping that I didn’t accidentally hang up on the call. Please remain on the line. Phew. That was close. I stood up slowly, taking the edge of the kitchen island to steady myself. I turned and looked at Darren, only to see him completely naked, his towel having fallen down from around his waist. He was pointing at something at the other end of the living room, something up near the ceiling.
I followed the trajectory of his finger and his penis, both pointed perfectly parallel in the same direction, as if they were the yellow lines in the middle of a long asphalt road. “Wait, is that a –?”
“Yes, it’s a mother f-in’ bat, dude,” Darren explained as he rewrapped the towel around his waist.
“What? But how? Where?” I asked.
“Why did you leave the door open? You let in a bat, man.”
“What? No, it wasn’t me. I’m on an important call. I didn’t leave the door open. You didn’t close it when you came in,” I argued.
“Oh my God, look at that,” said Darren. “That thing pissed all over the carpet too.”
“Um, no. That’s not urine. It’s Gatorade. Sorry, I meant to clean that up,” I apologized, tossing a dish rag across the room that Darren snagged with one hand. He dropped the rag on the ground and stepped on it, the Gatorade quickly absorbing into the cotton towel. He inched carefully towards the bat. As he did so, I backed away in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the kitchen until my back was pressed against the sliding glass door leading out to the backyard. I reached behind and felt the door latch, discreetly trying to unlock it as quietly as possible. Bats have diseases, stuff you don’t want to get. I didn’t want to miss Bananarama on account of rabies or something worse.
“Will you please get over here and help me?” Darren pleaded. I shook my head. “Dude, hang up the stupid phone and get over here.” I shook my head again, harder. Darren sighed and moved away from the bat. We eventually met at the edge of the kitchen, as far as the phone cord would stretch. We crouched down together next to the dishwasher, angling our bodies just enough to catch a glimpse of the bat. It hadn’t moved.
“What should we do?” I whispered.
“We have to figure out how to get it out of here. I think those things lay eggs. That would not be good. Let’s think of something, a way to catch it,” Darren responded. I was hoping he’d say we should go hit a bucket of golf balls after calling his mom and dad to come home and handle the situation. But he was right. And he was my best friend. I had to do something, to help. I carefully set the receiver down on the kitchen island, but not until after I heard the phrase one more time. Please remain on the line. Still good.
Keep in mind this was years before the Internet, long before typing five words into a search bar would yield a professionally-produced, how to video within a split second on how to catch a bat. We couldn’t ask Siri for assistance, her comforting voice still more than two decades away from inception.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a broom in the narrow gap between the refrigerator and the wall. I crawled over on my stomach and gently tipped the broom over, using my body to soften the noise when it hit the ground. I laid the broom on my back and slithered back to Darren, who had pulled a phone book out of a drawer and was flipping through the pages. We couldn’t find any information of practical use, but if you live in Southern California and are ever in need of a basement remodeler or bathroom accessories, I can point you in the right direction.
Darren ripped a page from the back of the phone book and began jotting down notes with a Sharpie. I thought he was writing out a will, he was scribbling so frantically. But it was ideas on how to trap and capture the bat. He was good like that, very thorough and detailed, constantly thinking. We started at the top of the list: Poison.
“Do you have any poison?” asked Darren.
“Yes, I happen to have some cyanide pellets tucked in my Miller’s Outpost wallet,” I shot back. Darren’s eyes lit up as he immediately reached for my pant pocket. “No, I don’t have poison,” I responded, slapping his hand away.
Next on his list: Trap. We went through all the kitchen cabinets, pulling out pots, pans, Tupperware, plastic spoons, spatulas and drink pitchers, among other things. We stopped searching when we came across a box of Hostess Ding Dongs that were supposed to be for his little brother’s soccer team. We quickly finished off a third of the box, something else I’m sure Darren would later also get in trouble for. We had a lot of items strewn across the kitchen floor, many of which probably could have been crafted together to make a workable trap. But without a blueprint or even an organized thought, we really weren’t any closer to a solution.
We took two of the tumblers laying on the floor and filled them up with milk. The Ding Dongs had made us thirsty. We sat up. Darren rested his back against the dishwasher and I sat five feet away, just below the microwave oven. We were facing each other. Darren poked his head up for a quick peak, dropping back down immediately. He nodded. The bat was still there.
“This milk tastes so good,” I whispered. I never understood why chocolate and milk went so well together.
“I know, right?” said Darren. “It’s like the perfect duo, like Batman and Robin,” he suggested.
“Yeah, like us. I’m Batman and you’re Robin,” I added. We both laughed.
“Yeah, right. No way. I’m Batman,” said Darren. He paused. “And you’re Cat Woman.” We laughed some more and he rolled another Ding Dong across the floor to me. I looked at Darren and then the Ding Dong and then Darren again. And I thought about that Top Gun volleyball scene.
“Hey, I have an idea,” I began, as I finished off the milk with a big satisfying gulp. I got up to my knees and stretched my neck out, sizing up the bat.”
“The door is still open right?” I asked. Darren nodded. “Okay, give me three or four more Ding Dongs. I’m going to chuck one at the bat. And then when it moves, I’ll throw a second one. And I’ll do it again and guide it towards the front door. You go out the back, okay? I’ll take care of this. And when the bat’s gone, I’ll come get you. Sound good?”
Darren looked at me. I could see the wheels spinning, but I didn’t know what he was thinking. What he assessing my plan? Or debating who had better aim? Was he mentally going through the house in search of poison? “I’m not leaving you, man. We stay together,” was all he said. He nodded. And all I could think about was Top Gun. Darren was my wingman, and I was his co-pilot. In that moment, I cried a little on the inside. And then a bit more on the outside. I think my reaction confused him.
Darren rolled a pair of Ding Dongs to me so that we both had two shots each. I crawled on my knees towards my Maverick, setting the snacks on the ground when I reached his side. I wiped my hands on my pants, drying the perspiration that had formed in both palms. Darren nodded, and then I nodded. And we both stood up in unison, cocking our arms to take aim.
“On three?” I asked.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Darren interrupted, and we both dropped down at the same time, bumping into each other as we returned to the safety of the ground.
“What? What happened?” I asked, panicking.
“I think one of us should go first. If we throw at the same time, it’s going to confuse it, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, good point. I’ll go,” I volunteered.
When we collided on the way down, Darren’s shoulder had knocked against my elbow, jarring the Ding Dong from my right hand. I reached out to pick it up off the ground. “Oh no,” I said, noticing the protective wrapper had split open on one side.
“Just take it out of the plastic.”
“No way, Darren. It’s gonna make a mess. It’ll smack against the wall and explode. And your mom will kill us.”
“Good point. Just eat it then.”
I didn’t argue or hesitate. I was still hungry and hung over from the prior night. I ripped away the rest of the wrapper and took a big bite of the Ding Dong. Darren immediately followed suit, tearing open one of the Ding Dongs with his teeth and taking a bit that made two-thirds of the chocolate delight disappear in an instant.
“I can’t believe we finished off an entire box,” said Darren.
“Well, almost an entire box,” I corrected. Darren nodded and held up his last Ding Dong. He stared at it before shoving the whole thing into his mouth. He looked at me and smiled. No words were exchanged. I knew what I had to do. I finished my last Ding Dong. But unlike Darren, instead of a huge chomp, I took many small bites, slow and methodical in nature. I wanted to savor the experience. I wanted that time to stop. I wanted to live in that moment forever.
“Is there a conclusion, or a point to this story?” a voice interrupted. I returned to the moment to see a look that was equal parts bewilderment and anger on Ms. Tyler’s face.
“Oh, I’m sorry, where was I?”
“You were telling me a story, a rather long one at that, about persistence,” she said, pausing to glance at her notes. “Although I’m not entirely clear on where you’re going with this story. So did you and your friend catch the bat?”
“Oh, right. My apologies. I sort of lost track when you interrupted me. No, I mean yes. Well, not really. So after we ate the last two Ding Dongs, we both fell asleep on the kitchen floor. Darren’s mom woke us from our nap a few hours later, screaming at both of us for the mess we had made. When we tried to explain that it was all because of the bat, she responded with what on earth are you two knuckleheads talking about? We pointed at the corner of the living room but there was nothing there. We walked closer, both of us standing behind his mom for protection. But there was no evidence of the bat. It must have just flown out of the house on its own.”
Ms. Tyler looked at the clock. “I don’t think this really answers my question. And unfortunately, we need to bring this interview to a close as our time is up.”
I nodded and gathered my pen and portfolio, picking up the stack of my resumes that had fallen out of the folder and onto the floor. I stood and shook Ms. Tyler’s hand, confident in the firmness of my grip. When she headed towards the door, I quickly swiped the bottle of Everest H20 water and stuck it into my suit pocket. I saw E.T. standing at the threshold, ready to guide me back out to a lobby full of prospective candidates.
“Tell me something, Mr. Branigan,” said Ms. Tyler, as I was five steps into the hallway. “What happened with the Bananarama tickets? Did you win them?”
“No, I didn’t,” I answered, pausing for a moment as E.T. yanked on my wrist, trying to route me back to the lobby. “But I did get to see the band a few years later, during a national reunion tour.”
“And did you take Audrey?”
I laughed. “Unfortunately not. I never saw her again after high school. Her family moved overseas and she never came back. But Darren happened to be in town the weekend of the show. So we went together,” I explained, thinking about Maverick. Ms. Tyler smiled before returning to her office.
It took only two days, but McKinsey would call to inform me that I would not be receiving an offer to join the firm. The economy quickly soured two weeks after that, when the dot com boom turned into the dot com bust. Along with a quarter of my class, I finished business school without a job. On June 15th, the day after graduation, I moved home and lived with my parents for three months while those who had jobs backpacked through Europe or Asia before starting their high-paying jobs. And ironically, Bananarama returned to town that year for a Fourth of July benefit concert. I couldn’t find anyone to go with me however, so I ended up attending the show alone. It was a cruel summer.