Born to Be a Unicorn

Unicorns are hard to find, but once hired, have the potential to offer up enormous benefits in the workplace and take your product to the next level. These Unicorns do exist and are worth the time and effort it takes to recruit them and the willingness to open up, make them feel safe, and listen to what they have to say. Because they have gained many talents from across the world, across industries, and across professions. They are true leaders in that they never stop, and never stop wanting to, learn.

”In Scotland during the middle ages, the Unicorn was symbolic of the battle for independence, and today is the official animal of Scotland.
One distinct quality about unicorns we’ve clung to is their rarity. People talk about spotting a Unicorn or finding a Unicorn as something that is extremely rare.”
-Diana Peterfreund, author of two popular books about Unicorns

The Unicorn of Scotland symbolized purity, healing powers, joy and even life itself, and was also seen as a symbol of power and the battle for independence.

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This particular type of an employee, a Unicorn, gets overlooked far too often: those who possess a unique set of qualities that make them extremely rare and valuable.

What it Means to be a Unicorn

They never say it’s not in their job description. Unicorns will come out of nowhere. They will not be hindered by their respective departments, titles, positions, and job descriptions. They will go forth where they feel they will add value, and contribute unabashedly and fully not to impress but because it fulfills them.

Skills can be learned, and leadership can be transferred. A Unicorn will thrive wherever he or she is put. If they’re interested in other areas of expertise, and feel like it can become part of their high value activities, they don’t hesitate to extend assistance.

In the span of five years, HootSuite went from a 100-person tech start-up to a 1,000-person global company. Through this stage of “hyper-growth,” employees who truly flourished were flexible and intellectually curious.

At HootSuite, this meant having the ability to wear many hats and excel at varied tasks. For example, just because somebody’s job title was “office administrator,” didn’t mean she would shy away from helping brainstorm some catchy social media updates for a major marketing campaign.

As the company grew, Unicorns jumped at the chance to dive deeper into specific, growing areas of the business. It wasn’t uncommon for a Financial Assistant to become a Software Engineer, for example.

This is so important to employee growth, that HootSuite recently launched a pilot initiative, called the “Stretch Program,” to help employees expand their expertise across the business.

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They have the grit to get what they want. A Unicorn isn’t a superstar. Whereas a superstar is defined as someone who comes on really strong in the beginning, but whose light fades away once the going gets tough.

A Unicorn, on the other hand, has the intangible “grit” to endure even when the climb is difficult. They don’t give up on the first few hitches that come their way, when the constant praises of their boss have long waned. A unicorn employee will persist amidst failures, and even then, will stubbornly never give up.

To a Unicorn, there is always more to be done. There are more problems to be solved. There are more business records to break. In a way, this rarity thrives on challenges. This is a helpful and healthy perspective.

Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit and Perseverance”, defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” and says it’s a crucial factor to achieving success. Whether it’s rough waves or an unexpected storm, you’re going to be tested, constantly. During turbulent times, grit can help keep you focused on the destination.

Unicorns exemplify this kind of fortitude, and are able stay calm and focused on the task at hand, even on choppy seas.

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They see the big picture and the details. Exceptional employees are able to think strategically. They have the ability to take a step back and see the overall company goals, or the industry as a whole, then apply it to their work. To be effective in business, you must be able to see the big picture.

On the flip-side, the best employees know the devil is in the details. Another uncommon trait that a Unicorn has is the ability to look at the big picture, then zone in to the small details, when necessary. Running a business requires meticulous attention. A minor copyright issue, improperly executed email campaign, or even what seems like a small technical glitch can be catastrophic, affecting a lot of clients in a short time. The best employees are those who take the time to read the fine print.

Some will consider this a skill that can be honed, while others will consider this as a talent. Whichever the case, because of the stellar performance of Unicorns, they are often entrusted with huge responsibilities. Even amidst doing this, one part of him or her still doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, and understands that while small crucial steps are necessary, it is only a part in a definitive value chain.

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They think of themselves as an internal consultant. They are more than just an employee. Consultants are hired to assess a current situation and create action plans for improvement and to add more value to the business. They are paid for their expertise and their calm, professional demeanor, especially in times of difficulty.

They become an expert in something. People turn to the experts for advice and to solve problems. They look for areas in their organization where they can put their skills to use and become an expert. They look for ways they can go above and beyond the daily requirements.

They share their knowledge with others. They coordinate several lunch hour sessions where they provide training to others in the organization in their area of expertise.

They mentor others. They offer to mentor others within their organization.

They volunteer. They raise their hand and volunteer for cross-functional projects and work assignments where they can use their skills to help other employees, while demonstrating their abilities.

They offer to help coworkers. They don’t wait for someone to approach them; they pitch in when it appears they might be able to extend some help. They don’t expect any return favors – they help others because they want to, not because they expect something in return.

They become a speaker at local association meetings. They look outside the company for opportunities to gain visibility within their industry.

They write about their area of expertise. They contribute to their company’s website or industry association blogs. Doing so can help others, demonstrate your skills and also promote your personal brand to a wider audience.

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They find a way to move the needle. A few years back, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner sent out a short status update on his platform: “In simplest terms possible, the people I most enjoy working with dream big, get sh*t done, and know how to have fun.”

The update struck a chord with tens of thousands of people who commented and liked it. I am also a huge proponent of having fun at work and believe it’s crucial to success. However, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get the job done. No matter how great a co-worker is to be around, if he can’t produce results, his presence isn’t helpful and may even be damaging to others. Great teams can be shattered by a single member who can’t “get sh*t done.”

Studies have shown that top performers contribute to a business 10 times more than their average counterparts. Some firms, including Microsoft, claim that figure to be as high as 100. At the end of the day, you can be respectful, multi-talented, tenacious, detail-oriented and a big thinker. But if you don’t produce real results and move the needle, all those traits are wasted. You must be able to execute. It’s an essential unicorn quality.

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They know their own value. These signs you’re a Unicorn may be misinterpreted as arrogant or condescending. On the contrary, these employees are intrinsically respectful of their fellow workers and their work environment. A Unicorn is not a diva. This is what makes him or her such an anomaly. Because while they know their value in the workforce, they also realize that they cannot achieve greatness alone.

Humility may be an underrated virtue (excuse the irony) but even HootSuite values it so much that it is one of its core values: “Lead with humility.” and “Respect the individual.”

Many people mistakenly focus on being the big personality in the office, the one who’s the most fun at Christmas parties, the one people talk to endlessly by the water cooler But amidst the high fives and bro hugs, the most basic sign you’re a Unicorn is that you produce results.

Many employers, including Microsoft, believe in the unequal distribution of input and output among their employees as stated in the Pareto principle, that only 20% of the employee base produce 80% of the output. If you’re showing signs you’re a Unicorn, you may well be part of the 20% who actually gets something done.

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They are kind. The ability to work well with others is a skill that benefits any workplace. It seems simple enough, but you’d be surprised how often this is lacking. Unicorn employees are respectful by nature, and would not treat anyone — regardless of title — in this way. It sets a stellar employee apart from an average one.

Yes, Unicorns are hard to catch. In the 16th century, it was believed only fair young maidens could gain the trust of these elusive creatures. For companies and business leaders, it’s worth the time and effort to chase Unicorns. Unlike their mythical counterparts, they’re very real and they can help change your company.

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