Executive and Professional Recruiting

Unicorns vs. Workhorses

Terri Davis magazine

Executive and Professional Recruiting
A recent article and study from the Harvard Business School suggests that too many companies “shoot for the stars” when they hire, forgetting business on the ground is done by workhorses.


The modern business use of the word ‘unicorn’ comes into the language from Silicon Valley, a term to describe a company whose valuation exceeds 1 billion dollars.
In the world of emerging businesses, with investors throwing cash at blockbuster companies such as the money losing Uber, the disgraced and defunct Theranos, and the struggling Snapchat, the universe of unicorns is not only small, they also, after heady ecstasy and promises, crash and burn or make excuses on investor calls for losing billions of dollars a quarter. The list of failed unicorns is a graveyard of hopes dashed. Meanwhile, with each passing month there are new unicorns on the horizon, apparently, fantastically glittering in the press and investor reports like their predecessors, until some shocking demise (often hidden along the way in financials) reveals that yet another unicorn is a fragile creature that wasn’t all it was made out to be.

So why do we so often look for unicorns in our organizations when it comes to hiring talent? Should we instead be looking at workhorses rather than dreaming for an ideal that’s not even real in the first place?

When it comes to any hiring philosophy that prefers stars over team players, unicorns over workhorses, you are putting your team and your company on a chase over the rainbow. What’s the reality? Everyone comes with a past work history, with some jobs being more difficult than others, each with their own unique challenges. No one has a red bow tied around them like some fantastic, new, and lilywhite unicorn arriving to save the day. Everyone has come through a history of work muck that has its day-to-day challenges that build towards experience and competency. A job history, for everyone, comes with a lot of mucking about while building resumes and companies along the way.

Do unicorns exist? No. Should we then keep chasing them like they do? No. It’s a fool’s errand. And here’s why.

Jim Heskett in an article for the Harvard School of Business references a book by Boris Groysberg, Ashish Nanda, and Nitin Nohria, titled The Risky Business of Hiring Stars, where the authors make the point that we chase stars because celebrity is baked into our culture; you might say it’s our main form of cultural and reputational currency today, where it wasn’t this way before the explosion of social media influence and the rise of social influencers. The authors say “… corporations and the media encourage stardom and discourage team work” and it’s “the expectation that some ‘miracle worker’ or ‘hot shot’ can come in and fix issues without the board facing the pain and agony of doing the hard work themselves.”

Heskett also notes “it’s about selling the dream that the star will add to the bottom line fast with new clients.” Rather than reward and promote the workhorses, companies troll the industry for reputational stars, pristine unicorns, instead of creating succession plans within their own companies. They instead go hunting for unicorns as a panacea to their problems.

“We chase stars,” say the authors, because we are fallible …Glamor always is enticing.”

This might be the reason a lot of companies defer to talent from larger markets instead of the talent they have in their home market. That glittery unicorn, that star, if she or he exists, always exists in another realm, better, bigger and more ideal in some larger city far away. Bringing these imaginary beasts into your company simply on the aura or sheen of being an apparent star somewhere else, is nowhere a guarantee these people will even fit with your organization and the personalities within your company. The likely fact is they won’t be with you for long.

In another article about executive portability and hiring the right engineers or IT professionals, the Harvard Business School also reports that to expect a ‘star’ engineer or programmer, for example, to make an immediate impact on productivity or creativity is completely false. Hiring more people into your company, no matter who they are, creates a J-curve of slowed down productivity well noted in the literature, simply because it takes anyone coming in from the outside into your organization time to learn your company, your systems, your technology, your clients, and your personnel. All of this takes time. The J-curve phenomenon happens every time you hire someone, especially true if you are hiring a lot of new people for new positions at once. There is a lag, a bogging down, a depression made in productivity that gets created when you add new people. You can expect productivity here not to be a catapult but a sinkhole that slowly fills back in until every new person gets on equal footing with the existing team. This is a good argument for training and nurturing advancement from within your current team, as you can avoid some of this lag in learning time you will face with bringing new people from the outside.

Every company should reach for the stars when it comes to their vision and goals. Just don’t expect that wishing on the stars, or the unicorns, will be the magical way to solve your business problems. Clydesdales bring beer to Bavaria without hardly breaking a sweat. Have done for hundreds of years. Heavy duty, reliable, steadily on the way, real. Instead of wishing on a star, it could be time to let the ponies inside your company loose to do what they do best, have done best for you along the way already, which is getting you where you’re going, step by step by step. Giddy up!

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