Hunting Unicorns. Are We Wasting Our Time Searching for Mythical Candidates?

Shelley SmithBlog, Executive Coaching, Leadership Development, Predictive Index

A recent blog written by Drew Fortin posted on PI Worldwide on July 16, 2015

Drew: Google, what is a unicorn?

Google: Well Drew, a unicorn is a mythical creature represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead. Key word being “mythical” or made up – fantasy.

It’s quite likely you’ve created your own set of ideals – your very own version of a unicorn – in your efforts to source, select and on-board the best people to work at your company. Now, because you are realist (Right? We all have to be realists to some degree.), you treat your ideals more as a guiding light than the rule. You realize it’s unlikely you will find the perfect candidate for the role. BUT, if you can check off as many of your ideal boxes as possible, chances are you’re going to find, at the very least, a horse with an amazing forehead worthy of one day displaying a magical horn.

Sound ridiculous? It is. Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to set the standards of who we are willing to place in our open positions so high, and with such conviction, that we are baffled when the applicant flow is only at a trickle. Finding a candidate who is the best fit for the open position and overall corporate culture might as well be a mythical quest.

Marketing Smarts Podcast, hosted by Kerry O’Shea Gargone, is one of my favorite podcasts. Kerry recently interviewed Mike Saldi from Preact, a customer success software company, on hiring the best customer success manager candidates. Mike explains that his unicorn, or ideal, customer success manager job candidate, possesses three characteristics:

  1. Consulting and management skills
  2. Project management experience
  3. Technical skills

Mike goes on to talk about finding a good fit based on an in-person, unstructured interview. He can usually tell within a few minutes if a candidate is going to make the cut at Preact. Although Mike’s approach seems perfectly logical for finding a good fit for the role and culture (probably more refined and thought out than many of ours), for me it begs the question: is the possession of these characteristics really a good predictor of a candidate’s success at Preact? And even if his methodology were to land him a unicorn, is a unicorn what he actually needs?

If everyone is hunting unicorns without success, maybe it’s because they don’t really exist. Or could it be that you really need a unicorn to fill your role, but I really need a centaur to fill mine?

Perhaps the real issue is that, no matter how much we try to refine our hiring approach for sourcing, selecting, and on-boarding candidates, none of us really know 100% of what we are looking for. Skills, education, and work experience are all great, but they fail to get to the core of what makes a workplace hum. Insights from behavioral and cognitive assessments can be significantly more accurate in predicting how well candidates will perform within a specific role or culture, and how well they will support strategic initiatives.

  • What if they are smart and have relevant experience, but have no desire for repetitive tasks like taking phone call after phone call from customers?
  • What if they are a self-starter with a focus on the big picture, don’t sweat the small stuff, and just have the need to get through issues as quickly as possible?
  • What if their experience and education are exactly what you think you need, but they are unable to think on their feet and make decisions?

Uncovering people’s fixed traits, such as behavioral make-ups and intellectual abilities, often goes much deeper than anything you can grasp in an interview or glean from a resume. Your unicorn may say it’s a unicorn, but how do you know the horn isn’t a prosthetic?

And unicorns don’t exist. Right?