We have a saying in search: Hunting for a Unicorn. It’s a reference to the inevitably difficult-if-not- impossible-to-find, transformative candidate whom our client desperately wants. A job description for such a candidate may read something like:
“We are looking for a highly motivated, tri-lingual leader with 15-20 years of leadership experience. The candidate must bring a combination of top-tier strategy consulting, operations leadership (Six Sigma certified) and international experience in growing a business, leading an expanded team with scope of 1,000+ and having influenced cross-functionally to develop mutually-beneficial organization-wide outcomes.
Oh, and she needs to start next month. And we are only going to match her current salary. And it’s likely that she’ll find our incentive compensation and benefits package substandard relative to expectations."
Enter: the Unicorn! But how exactly do you find these magical creatures?
It’s easy to say what you’d want in an ideal world, but it’s far harder to obtain it. Usually the identification is easy enough. Even then, most search firms focus on the usual suspects and who they think may be in the market. Little thought, if any, is given to identification of new, progressive, inspiring and different leaders or those who may not be top of mind since they’re employed rather than readily available. Even less thought is given to attracting these leaders since the pitch is usually unrehearsed and clumsily delivered. And what about actually closing Unicorns if you are fortunate enough to identify and attract one?
It all starts with a candid and wide ranging conversation with your client. What’s going on their organization that’s driving this search? Why now? Does this role exist or has it been newly created? What will be its priorities and why? How long will these be the goals and when/why will they change? Are internal candidates being considered? Is gender diversity a priority? Who has been in this or a similar role in the past and what was the outcome? Who are the stakeholders that the Unicorn will be managing? Does this role have their support, or is there internal tension? Where do you think top talent resides and why do you think that’s the case? Are you prepared to consider entirely new options? How far can we stretch and challenge you? Who’s on the search committee and what are their views or biases?
An open and even challenging conversation like this will ensure that you’ve got something to work with.
And then you call your sources – not your candidates, but your sources. Why? Because well-placed leaders within the industries you’re targeting are great starting guideposts as you launch into the market. Chances are they’ve worked with top talent and have some insightful views on these leaders, their styles, their motivators and where they’d like to end up next.
And then you call these candidates whom your sources have identified. And when you do schedule a call, know what you’re going to ask them ahead of time. Send them the role description ahead of time. Have a rock-solid overview of the role and its particularities ready to tell your candidates. Don’t ever waste their time, since it’s a poor reflection on you and your client. Take their history, listen to their style in answering your questions about career moves, focus on what they’re saying and take copious notes. Then be prepared to provide your client with a strong overview of their candidacy and how they stack up relative to the role.
You should also tell your client as soon as you’ve found a true unicorn. Why? Clients can be given a false sense of “control” in a search process. “We’re going to kick off in January, interview them at the end of February and make a decision by end of March.” Nope. Wrong. That might be how things transpire, but just as likely, it might not. But if you, as the search advisor, happen upon a Unicorn on week two of your interviews, don’t lose them. Even if your client isn’t expecting an update until the following week, provide a profile on this Unicorn, with a synopsis of their candidacy, as well as a picture of what is so special about them.
Even if your client isn’t expecting an update until the following week, provide a profile on this Unicorn, with a synopsis of their candidacy, as well as a picture of what is so special about them.
In sum, it’s important to bear in mind the three phases of:
Identification: Source the top leaders in the field to find new, progressive, inspiring and different leaders or those who may not be top of mind since they’re employed rather than readily available.
Attracting: These leaders like to be courted, but everyone’s courting them, so how do you make your client’s role stand out? It’s essential that search firms know their client’s role cold and articulates the priorities and competencies for the role.
Closing: Unicorns, like most people, need to be respected. Respect is shown in solid offers, meaningful increases in compensation, strong potential for growth within prospective organizations and work that they will be proud of.