Unicorns are hard to catch. Back in the 1500s, it was believed that only fair young maidens could gain the trust of these elusive, horned creatures.
I’m no fair maiden. Still, in my time, I’ve had the luck of getting close to many magical unicorns … in the form of “unicorn” employees. Not to be confused with unicorn companies—startups valued at $1 billion or more—“unicorn” employees, for me, are staff who possess a unique set of qualities that make them extremely rare and valuable. Like actual unicorns, they’re hard to find, but once hired, offer up enormous benefits in the workplace. To name a few, they shatter expectations, raise the bar for everyone and are simply a joy to be around. Unicorn employees can literally take your business to the next level.
Whether you’re looking to build a unicorn army, or hoping to boost your own value in the workplace, here are the five key qualities of unicorn employees:
You aren’t limited by your job title.
In the span of about 5 years, my company, Hootsuite, went from a 100-person tech startup to a 1000-person global company. Through this stage of “hyper growth,” employees who truly flourished were flexible and intellectually curious.
Earlier on in the business, this meant having the ability to wear many hats and excel at varied tasks, critical at a fast-growing startup. For example, just because somebody’s job title was “Office Administrator,” didn’t mean she would shy away from pitching in on a major marketing campaign by helping brainstorm some catchy tweets.
Later, as the company grew, unicorn employees jumped at the chance to dive deeper into specific, growing areas of business, which needed good people. Some even decided to move across several departments. I saw unicorn employees make surprising leaps—one even went from financial specialist to software engineer. I think this is so important to employee growth that we recently launched a new pilot initiative, called the “stretch program,” to help people expand their knowledge and expertise across the business … and grow their unicorn horns.
You think big and small.
Exceptional employees are able to think strategically. This means having the ability to take a step back and see the overall company goals, or the industry as a whole, then apply it to your work. To be effective in business, you must be able to see the big picture.
On the flipside, while big-picture thinking is critical, I’ve also found that the best employees also know the devil is in the details. Running a business requires meticulous attention. A minor copyright issue, improperly executed email campaign, or even what seems like a small technical glitch can end up being catastrophic, affecting a lot of clients in a short period of time. The best employees are those who take the time to read the fine print. These are the types of people I know I can entrust with serious responsibility.
You have true grit.
The concept of “grit” has made its way into popular culture recently, perhaps sparked by psychologist Angela Duckworth’s popular TED talk and book, on the subject. She defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” and says it’s a crucial factor to achieving success.
I couldn’t agree more. Being an entrepreneur since I was a teenager, I’ve learned that the business world is like being on a boat in the open sea. Whether it’s a patch of rough waves or an unexpected storm, unexpected obstacles are inevitable. During these turbulent times, having grit—a dogged persistence—can help you keep focused on the destination. In fact, that very outlook helped my billion-dollar company weather the storm and get to the next level. Unicorn employees have true grit, and are able stay calm and focused on the task at hand, even on choppy seas.
You’re respectful by nature.
The ability to work well with others is a skill that benefits any workplace. It seems simple enough, but you’d be surprised.
A few years ago, I put out a job posting for a high-level sales role. Many people applied, and after a series of interviews, I had some top candidates in mind. However, when I checked in with my executive assistant at the time, I was shocked to find out how many of those people who had been personable and courteous to me, had been downright rude to her.
Unicorn employees are respectful by nature, and would never treat someone—regardless of title —in this way. It’s something that absolutely sets a stellar employee apart from an average one. In fact, this is so important to the well-being of our staff, it’s been built into two of our four core company values: “Respect the individual,” and “lead with humility.”
You get it done.
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 it done, and know how to have fun.”
The update blew up, striking a chord with the tens of thousands of people who commented and liked it. (Weiner followed up by writing a full post on the topic.) Like him, I too am a huge proponent of having fun at work and believe it’s crucial to success. However, I can’t stress how important it is for people on the job to be able to get shit done. After all, no matter how great a co-worker is to be around, if he can’t produce actual results, his presence is isn’t ultimately helpful and may even be damaging to others. Great teams can be shattered by a single member who can’t get shit done.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that top performers contribute to a business 10 times more than their average counterparts. In fact, some firms, including Microsoft, claim that figure to be 100 times.
The bottom line: 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.
For companies and business leaders, it’s probably worthwhile to put some extra time and effort into chasing unicorns. Unlike their mythical counterparts, they’re very real and they can change your company. And for unicorn employees in the making, it’s never too late to grow your strengths and make yourself more rare and valuable than ever.
CEO @ HootSuite
Image: Evonne Heyning