Over my career, I’ve seen many examples of leaders searching for the unicorn employee. You know, the one that has the perfect mix of skills, qualifications and experience.
These are the people that will fit your role perfectly, without needing to have extensive training or support, and can really hit the ground running.
Obviously, they are hard to find. Everyone is competing for them so it can be difficult to entice them to work for your team.
However, as with many things, there are two sides to the unicorn employee story.
Are they what you really need? Will they solve your problem?
So What Is a Unicorn Employee?
Unicorns are mythical creatures. Unfortunately in reality, they don’t exist. But in business-land, they refer to something that is extremely rare and hard to find.
So a unicorn employee is somebody who has all the skills you need, with the right experience. They have a good attitude, they want to work for you and guess what?
They don’t demand a salary that is too much for you to pay!
Perfect, right? It certainly looks that way.
The Benefits of the “Perfect” Employee
The benefits of hiring a unicorn employee are fairly obvious. Your perfect employee will:
- Require less training and support to get started
- Will be able to “hit the ground running” without needing a long time to understand the work
- Take up less of your time, because they know what to do; and
- Potentially be able to support other team members to help them improve.
So if you can grab yourself a unicorn, then it seems like a smart move.
Learn More: Show Appreciation For These 5 Underrated Employees.
The Search for Perfection
The mystical unicorn sounds amazing, but are they all that they are made out to be? As always, I like to look at both sides of the issue.
When we search for the unicorn employee, we are searching for perfection. We want someone who can fit right in, get started quickly and require minimal support.
However, our search for perfection can cause us to overlook other less perfect people.
We may start to lose appreciation for the efforts of others, even when they are helping us right here, right now.
Here’s an example I came across a while back, when speaking to a leader about their team.
This leader had just hired several managers to run projects in a complicated program. The program was highly complex, very political and had difficult problems at every turn.
The project managers that were brought in were doing a reasonable job, but people in the workplace weren’t quite satisfied and levelled criticism at them.
Sure, they were getting things done – but they weren’t perfect. They were experiencing challenges with their teams and in handling some of the complex politics and stakeholder relationships.
In this example, everyone continued to expect more from these managers.
High standards are not a bad thing, but it’s worth putting them in context of the reality of your workplace. Sure, these managers weren’t perfect and they had their struggles.
But they were there. And they were doing the job.
In fact, they were working through very challenging situations in a complex environment, with difficult stakeholders. How many people do you think would stick around for that?
Learn More: Why Being Resilient Will Kill You.
Appreciating What You Have
Sometimes it’s worth stopping to appreciate what you do have.
In the example above, there may have been managers out there who were better, but the employment market was challenging, and they weren’t readily available.
What these managers were doing was keeping things running in a difficult environment, where some others would have given up and found somewhere else to work.
Keeping Your Unicorns Fed Can Be Hard
It’s easy to wish for the best of the best. But will they enjoy working in your environment?
Can you keep them sustained with the work sustenance they need to be happy? Let’s take a look at some of them.
Does Your Unicorn Have Room to Grow?
Unicorns start out excited and full of vigour.
This enthusiasm can run out quickly if you’re not careful, when the realities of your workplace hit them.
Unicorn employees are already likely to be near the top of their potential when it comes to fulfilling their role. After all, you hired them to be able to hit the ground running.
Is there any space for them to grow in their role? Can they already complete all of their work easily?
Is there anything stretching them to help them learn new skills or gain experience?
The unicorn is successfully filling the gap in the team for you. But what need are you filling for them?
A cramped unicorn is an unhappy unicorn, and they might just visit someone else when you open the door.
Can Your Unicorn Make Progress?
I’ve seen many fantastic unicorn employees leave organisations because they feel like they are bashing their head against a brick wall.
They have many skills and insights to bring to the table, but is anybody listening? Are politics killing their momentum and slowing them down?
Unicorns are used to doing great things, and they are used to feeling successful.
If your work environment won’t help them feel like they can make a difference, then your unicorn will feel sad.
Is Your Unicorn Employee Doing the Things You Promised They Would?
Some leaders and organisations talk a great game. They promise that there will be opportunities, and that the unicorn will be doing interesting work.
Then the unicorn employee arrives, and the workplace paddock doesn’t look like it did in the brochure.
The grass is dying, stakeholders are hitting the unicorn with sticks and stones, and the unicorn is doing dreary work to make up for somebody else’s lack of effort.
Unicorns don’t often swear, but this one probably would.
What Does Your Unicorn Employee Look Like?
An important consideration for you thoughtful leaders is to have a think about what your unicorn employee looks like.
Normally, they have the perfect skills and experience for the role, but it’s not always easy to keep your unicorn motivated when they bring all this to the table.
Sometimes, we need people who are willing to stick with it, when times are tough.
These might be people who don’t have all the skills, but are willing to learn. Or people who lack experience, but make up for it with a great attitude and a willingness to grow.
What does a unicorn look like for you?
Because it might be that the “perfect” employee is not the one who will actually stick around.
Maybe your unicorn is less polished, less perfect.
But there might still be a diamond in there.
What are your experiences with unicorn employees? What does your perfect employee look like? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!