Don't hire unicorns—Make them
by Andrea Bonora on 15 January 2024
If you're wringing your hands because you can't hire people, you might be holding out for that proverbial unicorn. And there's a reason why they're a myth.
They. Don't. Exist!
All too often, you still see employers hiring off a position description that has a long list of all the things the 'ideal candidate' needs to have (probably because it hasn't been updated since 2012), thus setting themselves up to fail before they've even gone to market.
Employers should partner up with their own mythical cohorts, ensuring a shared mission that amps up the overall significance for both the business and its employees.
What does that mean? It means focusing on cultural value over commercial value and approaching it with a human-centred design lens. A focus on capability development that allows you to cater to your needs as a team and a business but also allows your people to flourish in ways they might not be able to anywhere else.
Now, here's a full disclaimer: This isn't a magic pill to solve all your hiring problems. Hopefully, this will make you think about why people would want to come to work for you and how you can grow and develop your people, increasing retention and, ultimately, revenue.
There’s more context to this blog in my webinar, which can be found here: Beyond unicorns: a fresh approach to building exceptional teams.
Culture and Values
This is, without a doubt, one of the fundamental things that will draw people to you. Do you know what they are? Do you live and breathe them?
Culture and what an organisation stands for play a massive part in what makes you an attractive potential employer. If you haven't looked at these in a while, I'd highly recommend doing so and getting your people involved in the process. They're the ones who can tell you what your organisation stands for. Their experience and opinions should be the cornerstone of how you continue to reinvent yourself and be your point of difference.
If you can show that your people are involved in the day-to-day, valued, and their opinions matter, how could that be anything but a good thing?
Limitations of the Old vs unleashing the New
Unless you're in a profession that requires registration to a governing body (think medical or something of that ilk), then having a 'relevant tertiary degree' doesn't count for as much as you might think it does either. Sure, it gives a fundamental understanding of some theory, but the wealth of your lived experience is much more important in this context.
I'm pretty sure some of you are shaking your heads, thinking, "Andrea, you're nuts if you think this works."
Well, I can tell you from experience it does. And it's something we intentionally apply to our hiring process at Equinox IT. And it turned out real gems, too, I tell you!
We create position descriptions (PDs) around the individual. When we interview, we look for how fast we can get to a yes rather than the fastest and easiest way to eliminate someone from contention.
I'm not saying we all need to throw out the idea that anybody can waltz into an Enterprise Architect gig in a government agency if we ignore the technical elements. That's not at all what I mean.
I mean, look at the human behind the skills. Sure, most technical roles require a minimum of experience (again, years of experience is redundant) to be functional in their first few months (notwithstanding onboarding and reading documentation as they get their feet under their desk), but what are the things that can't be taught, that they bring to the table? How do they plug gaps in your existing team? What are some areas for them to work on that your existing team can help them with? What's their value-add? How do they add to your existing culture within the team and wider organisation?
Defining what's "important"
Answer this honestly: how many times have you been hired into a role where you've ticked every box without learning anything or growing your capability?
Trick question, right? Although if the answer isn't 'never', then I'd question why you changed roles in the first place if you're doing the same thing as your last gig.
So why apply an unattainable wish list to your hiring process?
Reading off a wish list on a position description is the old way. You're not even giving people a chance that could turn out to be some of your best people. On the rare chance you find someone with 'all the things", then amazing: show me (and practically every other employer out there) where the unicorn patch is so I can go foraging.
What if, and hear me out, you didn't pay so much attention to how much fluff they have on paper and took notice of what they aren't highlighting?
Juggling parental duties whilst studying and holding down a full-time job, or even someone returning from parental leave—now that's some serious multi-tasking, conflict resolution, ability to influence, and attention to detail. Talk about working under pressure!
Or even someone who's consciously decided to switch careers or industries. Going from a traditional PMO or policy role to moving into the tech sector, you still need to understand budgets, processes and stakeholder engagement.
The "tech" can be learned for the most part. Take a civil engineer who can rub some serious brain cells together to figure out complexities, is detail-oriented, and can see the bigger picture.
Drill down on the absolute non-negotiables and make those the focus of your search. You'll be surprised at how much wider that casts your net.
What are their transferrable skills, what value do they add to the existing team, what are the required foundational elements, and what can they learn through coaching and mentoring initiatives? Then, you can figure out how to create a support network around them to facilitate and nurture that growth.
The caveat is that it needs to be paired with a willingness and aptitude to learn.
This leads me to my next point.
L&D -> coaching and mentoring
Since Equinox IT implemented an internal coaching and mentoring program, we've seen an uptick in retention, increased employee engagement, and created an ecosystem unique to us.
There are a few reasons why we've done this:
- to alleviate the time constraints on our Co-CEOs to have those career-focused one-on-ones.
- it allows our people to form, nurture and grow relationships with their peers (our structure is very flat) even if they're not working on the same projects.
- allows our senior and principal consultants to develop their leadership skills while still being "on the tools".
- it provides our people with another touchpoint in the business with whom they can have conversations and who has a vested interest in their growth without going to their manager or me.
- it helps consultants grow and flourish in their areas of interest.
This approach is also woven into our client engagements and is something we get asked to specifically coach our clients (and their teams). If you're not providing your people an avenue to grow and stretch their capability, look at your last several exit interviews, and there might be a common denominator.
Optimised hiring process
I'll add another disclaimer here: if you're after a way to optimise your hiring process, this isn't it. But I'm happy to chat with you about how you can go from a four-week turnaround to five working days. Time is money, after all.
In my experience, I've found that businesses seem to think the hiring process is exclusively about them.
No doubt you've heard about this any number of times, and I'm not qualified to talk about this in-depth, but I at least understand the premise behind it.
Hiring like for like isn't going to help you solve problems. You will end up with a team of people who all think the same, thus coming to the same conclusion. Would you not want a team with individuals that approach problems or solutions differently?
Your team's biggest strength is your ability to create an environment where they feel safe to express their ideas and opinions, get creative and work together to pick things apart.
Provide them the opportunity to embrace their peers' different points of view in a healthy way and watch the sparks fly.
In a world where a perfect match just isn't reasonable, I hope this has given you some food for thought, covering many things you've probably already had floating around.
Think of how you can harness your team's superpower and unleash it.
Rather than looking afield for the unicorn that ticks all your unrealistic boxes, create one instead.
This blog is inspired by the free webinar Beyond unicorns: a fresh approach to building exceptional teams. The recording is available to watch now on our Insights page.