The Unicorn Recruiting Trap – Why I’ve Stopped Hunting

The Unicorn Recruiting Trap – Why I’ve Stopped Hunting


“A” Players

Game Changers

Full Stackers

Just about every manager I know has hung their hiring hopes on the pursuit of mythical creatures. The unicorn in particular. To one degree or another, it’s always been this way I guess, but to me, our obsession with recruiting “A” players feels frothier than ever. My hard scientific evidence of this fact admittedly is mostly the conversations I have with other managers and my twitter feed. But then again we’re talking about imaginary creatures anyhow so who really cares about science.

In sports, the pervasive all-in pursuit of franchise players has always been there. A single player can literally change the fortunes of a franchise for a generation. Just ask Cleveland … Golden State … Edmonton. On sales teams, we often see 20% of the reps generating 80% of the sales – rock stars. In engineering – just about every tech company I’ve worked with has a couple of legendary developers who know every line of code – who seem to be responsible for the lion’s share of innovation.

These days it seems like every second conversation I have with fellow managers revolves around these unicorns. Where are they? How do we get their attention? Would they come work here? What do they eat? How do they behave in the wild?

It’s getting to the point where the prevailing logic seems to be that you just find one or two unicorns for your team and the rest will “take care of itself”. That the 80-20 rule sets the model for how a team should operate. That the top 20 percent of your team should contribute 80 percent of the productivity.

I’m not buying it.

“Does operate” – maybe. “Should operate” – not in my opinion.

This is where I think we’ve gotten confused. Keep in mind, I too was a unicorn hunter at one point. But I’m not anymore. In my experience, the reason we put “A” Players on a pedestal is that we’ve failed to develop as managers. Getting the most out of a unicorn is easy – they are hard wired to be great. That doesn’t make you a good manager. It doesn’t necessarily make your team great either. Instead of learning how to build great teams based on a variety of people and personalities and types, we bank our success on hiring a few unicorns to carry the load. That may work up to a point. It might keep the lights on – but it doesn’t mean it’s the way teams SHOULD work.

In my opinion, you can achieve a certain degree of success taking the unicorn-first approach, but to be a truly great team, you need another approach entirely. When it comes to building teams, I subscribe to more of a moneyball approach – I’m trying to build the Oakland As – a team where the greatness in every player is identified, developed and embraced.

As I’ve said, I wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to be quite cynical when it came to developing people – I was a nature trumps nurture guy. I believed people came with the talent they had been born with and my job as a manager was to find more of the ones born with lots of it.

It’s taken me more than a decade of managing people, watching teams perform and not perform, seeing people at their best and at their worst to come to the following realization:

My number one job as a manager is to create an environment where each individual person on the team can be at their personal best. That’s the job. Create the conditions whereby every person on the team can be the greatest version of themselves.

Why is this at odds with hunting unicorns?

What I see are managers building teams, focusing recruiting, creating environments designed to embrace and elevate the unicorn. And this comes at a price. When you focus your time, energy and praise on unicorns, it means you’re not focusing on developing the non-unicorns – the majority. I don’t think you can do both.

But doesn’t the presence of unicorns raise everyone else’s game?

Not for everyone – no. In my experience, each person is unique – that’s my point. To truly embrace a team-first approach you need to expend a great deal of time and energy on actively nurturing each individual. You need to architect the conditions for everyone to improve – not just the unicorns. You become more of a concierge than a manager in my model.

In actual fact I’ve seen the presence of unicorns hurt the performance of other people on the team. They can’t see themselves in the model the unicorn has set. That can be deflating.

So how do you build an environment that brings out the best in everyone instead of just the unicorns?

Here are some of the principles I follow for my team:

Ditch the high pressure and intensity

I don’t think the majority of people respond well in a high pressure environment. So I don’t do this anymore. My goal on a day to day basis, is to make each individual on my team feel as comfortable as possible. When people are comfortable, they perform at their best. When people are comfortable they are at their most creative. This is what we should be striving for.

Openly discuss everyone’s developmental journey

I want everyone on the team to be on a journey towards a better version of themselves that is aligned with the personal goals they have. I don’t constrain this conversation to quarterly performance reviews and career conversations either. I want it out in the open as part of the daily discourse within the team. I want everyone on the team to know about the goals and dreams of their teammates. When this kind of openness is present, I’ve seen amazing things happen. People help each other.

Favor a Capacity to Learn over Point in Time Talent

Too often we focus on the “talent” people have when they walk in the door on day one. We focus on what MBA program they went to 15 years ago. These are snap shots. They’re indicative only of talent in one specific window. If a person is going to be on my team for 4 years, I want the one who’s going to get better every day – the one who’s dedicated to learning. In my experience, that’s very often not the person who has the most natural talent.

Keep the focus on team goals

There’s no question employees need to understand their purpose at work and have the autonomy to pursue it. They also deserve recognition for their successes. But the most important thing is to define the context of that purpose and those successes in terms of how they impact the overall team goal. What we want to minimize, in my opinion, are celebrations of individual success that are not directly tied to the mission of the team. When you do this, it can lead to the wrong behaviors and negatively impact the sense of team unity. The day to day narrative should be about what the team is striving for and celebrations should be about how individuals and groups have helped advance that cause.

The unicorn recruitment strategy is widespread. As managers we scour the earth in search of these mythical creatures to be the cornerstones for our teams. Often times we feel like if we can just get a couple of these “A” players, the rest will take care of itself. But this strategy comes with a cost. It’s hard to find unicorns. Unicorns might not want to come work at your little known company. Unicorns might not be enthralled by your maturing industry and 5th generation technology. Not everyone who looks like a unicorn actually is one. And sometimes, the presence of unicorns can actually harm the team dynamic.

So, I invite you to join me in going unicorn-free and instead focus on discovering and developing the individual greatness in every member of your team.

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