The Flying Purple Unicorn Myth

Written By: Mike Nicholas – Strategic Growth Director

Every Manager wants them.  The ‘rock stars’, the ‘studs’, the playfully-phrased and enigmatic ‘Flying Purple Unicorns’ of the working marketplace.  Dozens of Manager man-hours go into developing the perfect job descriptions, technical interview questions, and strict evaluation criteria for identifying, capturing, and hiring this mythical beast.  The Manager then dusts off her hands and says ‘Let them Come!’.  And sometimes they do!  Most times they don’t.  Surprisingly for most Managers only looking for Unicorns, the costs in both time and money is higher than they thought.  But, more alarmingly, the risks associated with actually getting one could be even greater.

What To Do?

The answer is in the ability for a Manager to understand themselves, their company, and the market.  For parallels, we can look to professional sports.  The Washington Nationals parted ways with their Unicorn, Bryce Harper, earlier this year and his new team, the Philadelphia Phillies, were immediately crowned favorites for the division.  As the season began, the Nationals initially struggled mightily as the loss of the Unicorn was felt by all, with the Manager’s job in jeopardy.  What did they do?  They focused on developing their ‘up and comers’, acquired competitive role players, and built a culture of resiliency and team-first attitude, or Natitude if you prefer.  Is it any wonder the Nationals swept the Phillies and their Unicorn to clinch a playoff spot at the end of the season?  They then faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, a payroll of $206M and a stable of Unicorns, and won.  By comparison, the Oakland Athletics have a $92M payroll, still made the playoffs without any Unicorns, and both the Dodgers and the Athletics are watching the playoffs on TV now.

Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ Unicorn, is a positive example of one you build around and add role players, not just ‘rock stars’.  In his 18 seasons and 6 Super Bowl rings, Brady has enjoyed only two Top 5 receivers in terms of stats (Randy Moss/Wes Welker).  Clearly the successful retention and cultivation of Brady, who has never been the highest paid QB in the League, has allowed the Patriots to deliver the right talent at all positions, and win consistently.

In sports, there is no doubt Unicorns bring in fans, revenue, prestige, and power – sports are driven by Unicorns.  But their acquisition and contract-driven headaches do not always lead to creating winning teams.  The same is true in business.

‘Hold On!’ says the Manager.  ‘I work at an amazing place; everyone should want to work here!’  Unfortunately, nearly every Manager says that and most believe it.  Thanks to our beautifully capitalistic society, every company has the right to make itself better and more attractive to the market.  For every Amazon, there is a Google or Apple.  For every Freddie Mac, there is a Fannie Mae or Capital One.  For every Lockheed, there is a Northrop, GDIT, BAE, Leidos and on and on.  To make matters worse, that very Manager chooses to engage in self-inflicted wounds:  waiting for the absolute perfect person, decision by mass consensus, lack of clear or timely feedback, excessive steps or length of process, etc.  These not only affect the perception of the market on your company, they could prevent your team from having sustained success.

What if You Do Actually Get the Unicorn?

These are some of the most popular people on the market for recruiters, who work day and night to pull them from your team and place them at their clients.  One bad interaction, a perceived slight, a negative feedback exchange, an ‘overloaded plate’ and they may entertain a call, I field them all the time.  Companies are scrambling to put together any sort of ‘perk’ to tip the balance in the talent arms race, catering to Unicorns and their demands.  Clearly, the inherent retention challenges that Managers face with a ‘Unicorn-only’ policy are myriad, and again, might not even lead to long-term winning.

Don’t Force It

I am certainly not advocating taking a goat, spray-painting it purple, attaching a traffic cone to its head, and calling it a Unicorn.  You should not just hire mediocre talent.  But too often, a Manager’s idealized version of ‘What I Want’ vs ‘What I Need’ vs ‘What I Can Have’ are at odds, especially in a technical environment.  Soft Skills like communication ability, adaptability, quick learning, time/prioritization management, working well with teammates – these are not as often investigated in technical face-to-face interviews, let alone phone screens.  These soft skills are critical for team success and should count in a candidate’s favor who doesn’t rate 10/10 on every conceivable technology or tool.

In summary, a true winning team needs performances from all of its members, including the Manager.  The Manager who understands themselves, the company they work for, and the market are the ones who will acquire and retain the right talent and lead their teams to sustained success.  Some will be Unicorns, most will be important role players who can be developed because they possess the soft skills to improve and contribute productively.  In today’s market, smart Managers hire smart people who are team-oriented, can solve problems and can communicate effectively.  If they happen to be purple and can fly, that is a bonus, not a requirement.

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