In the world of recruiting, a "talent unicorn" is essentially a perfect candidate for a job. We call them unicorns because, as you might imagine, they're fantastic to behold--if you can find one. Like unicorns, perfect candidates are near mythical, so rare that not everyone believes they even exist.
Still, there are those who do believe. And I get it, to some extent. In this era of aggressive recruiting, it can be very tempting to think that you're only one perfect employee away from crushing the competition. Nevertheless, if you're looking for someone who ticks all 12 boxes on your ideal wish list of qualifications, aren't you setting yourself up for a long search and likely disappointment? Is there a right way and a wrong way to approach the hunt for the talent unicorn?
I think so. And I believe that if you're trying to build a stronger workforce and secure the best talent teams, it's worth investigating these questions a little deeper.
1. Do talent unicorns even exist?
Let's be honest: perfection is subjective. One person's talent unicorn is another person's mediocre applicant. What matters is your criteria. If you're looking for a new head of marketing, for example, you might want someone who is really strong on online demand generation, but also superior at managing messaging and branding--oh, and they need to know public relations, too. And product marketing to a very specific segment. But these are all very different skills. The likelihood of finding one person with every single thing you want ideally--including cultural fit, work ethic, and so on--is next to zero. Thus, finding the best talent simply depends on what you're looking for and whether you're willing to compromise.
2. Is it worth trying to find a unicorn (or "near" unicorn)?
A few weeks ago, I touched on this topic in another article and suggested that, in many cases, the answer is no. Finding a candidate who matches an extensive list of qualifications and requirements is a lengthy, expensive process. You have to think about the position and the opportunity cost. I've seen everyone from young mangers to CEOs make the mistake of bringing in people who are stars on paper, who cost a little too much, who have the perfect Ivy League-like background--only to find that they're a disruptive distraction. They try to take over the department, or their compensation upsets everyone else, or their ego gets the best of them. You can't bring in a high-paid prima donna if your team dynamic matters more.
3. Are there times when hunting the unicorn is worth the effort?
Of course. For example, if your company is at the point where your product has been perfected in the market but there's a window of opportunity to get big fast, you really want to find the best person you possibly can to make it happen. If the perfect programmer can build code that lasts 10 years, or the perfect salesperson can make or break your market position, it can be a very good thing to source and hire a highly paid, ego-driven individual unicorn. But it's got to be a contained role where a team won't suffer. It's got to be for a position or function that you know, not one you're still figuring out. And you need to be able to measure the success of the person you hire. If all of that aligns, sometimes waiting and paying for a unicorn is worth it.
4. If I don't look for unicorns, what do I do?
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: in most situations, I think companies are better off assembling an "A team" of B players than spending their time and money in search of all A's. So I guess you could say I believe more in the possibility of assembling a unicorn team than I do in finding the individual talent unicorn. In fact, I know the unicorn team is possible because I've created them myself. People like Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame, have created them, piecing together people whose skills complement each other, who--combined--form your perfect unicorn.
Because here's the thing: You can't have a whole team of individual unicorns. You'll never find them, you probably can't afford them, and they aren't likely to work well together anyway. Your goal is to make the team be the unicorn. That's not mythical--that's doable. It has proven to be successful. And in my opinion, any CEO can and should invest the effort to build that unicorn team.