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How to find a purple squirrel

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Six years ago Jan Koum and Brian Acton applied for jobs at Facebook. Both were turned down and Acton would often quip: “We’re part of the Facebook reject club.”

Today, Ukrainian-born Koum is a good friend of Facebook’s Chairman and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He has also joined Facebook’s Board of Directors, but not before Zuckerberg paid him and Acton $19 billion for their company WhatsApp. How the HR people at Facebook must be kicking themselves. If only they had the foresight to employ Koum and Acton when the two applied for positions at the company. They could have saved Facebook a huge amount of money. Or perhaps looking at it another way, they could have made Facebook a huge amount of money!

Hindsight is always 20:20 vision and the recruitment industry abounds with not dissimilar stories. Certainly Facebook’s HR team was not to know the eventual outcome regarding Koum and Acton, nor indeed is there any certainty that they would have invented WhatsApp if employed by Facebook. However, there are numerous cases where recruitment is undertaken without a thorough understanding of the drivers behind the role to be filled or the personal attributes required to achieve success in that role.

What often happens is that the hiring manager will pass onto the HR Department a job description based on what the previous person had been doing during his or her tenure without thinking about how things might have changed over that period, briefly discuss the position with the HR team and then wait for the short-list of suitable candidates to materialise. HR will rarely challenge the actual skill sets being sought.

Another issue with which we as search consultants are increasingly being confronted is a brief to find a target who we colloquially term a “purple squirrel”. These are the rarest of individuals; extremely talented, supreme innovators and the ultimate game changers who are ‘perfect’ in every way - education, competencies and experience. Whilst they do exist, the reality is that purple squirrels won’t be found using conventional recruitment parameters and the process requires the consultant to have an in-depth knowledge of the client, and the client to trust the consultant’s intuition.

Take Jan Koum, James Dyson and Steve Jobs as examples. Highly talented, supreme innovators and the game changers every senior executive would want to have on his or her team. However, prior to achieving the level of success they have become renowned for, all three would have failed the conventional recruitment approach because none of them possessed a university degree.

Purple squirrels can be likened to great actors. They are team players operating best with others around them but they often excel in roles on their own. These people know what they want and where they want to be. For companies looking to recruit them, it is essential that they understand the job acceptance criteria of these purple squirrels. This will often entail having the right amount of leeway to undertake their role. The normal management strictures will be a complete turnoff for them. Indeed, most of the time they won’t want to have much to do with management but prefer to be given a free rein. Certaily, the idea on managing people will not be high on their list of priorities as this can restrain their freedom to think. Furthermore, just a lucrative financial package and the opportunity for career development are never deal clinchers.

More often than not, this requires a change in recruitment approach. Rather than the hiring manager concentrating on competency-based recruitment (which certainly plays a part in the general recruitment process but doesn’t work with purple squirrels) the approach needs to be aspirational-based. What should be going through the mind of the recruiting manager is “What sort of candidate will produce outstanding results for the organisation?” rather than “Can the candidate do the job?” This makes the recruitment process a driver, rather than an inhibitor, of management innovation. This is really important because unless there is some degree of innovation in the recruitment process, purple squirrels will quickly deduce that the company is lacking in innovation and walk away. Equally important from the hiring managers point-of-view is to make sure that everyone who is associated with the recruitment – or who will be affected by the hire of the purple squirrel – has bought into the idea.

But why do companies seek to hire a purple squirrel if the process can be so challenging? There are many reasons, not the least of which is the economic impact these people can have on the organisation. Tony Fadell, Philips’ former head of digital audio strategy, was a perspicacious hire by Apple executives. Whilst at Philips, he conceived the concept of the MP3, but took his fledgling technology with him to Apple and went on to become known as one of the fathers of the iPod, making billions for company in the process.

It has also been said that Google is one company that actively chases purple squirrels because they have calculated that recruiting a top technologist will result in around 300 times more productivity and business impact than an average technologist. In financial terms, if (as suggested) the average Google employee generates around $US1 million in revenue each year, hiring a single purple squirrel technologist has the potential to add $US300 million to Google’s revenue annually.

Then there is the brand impact hiring a purple squirrel can have on the organisation. When it was announced in October 2013 that Burberry’s Chief Executive Angela Ahrendts was leaving the fashion and luxury goods firm to join Apple as Senior VP for retail and online stores, word rapidly spread through all forms of media, thereby boosting still further Apple’s “street cred” – especially useful at a time when people were questioning Apple’s strategy. Additionally, employing a purple squirrel can often attract other top talent. Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but a couple of months before the announcement that Ahrendts was joining Apple, the technology giant had hired Paul Deneve, Yves-Saint Laurent’s former CEO and President, and Enrique Atlenza, a senior vice president at Levi’s.

In recruitment we often talk about the need to ensure candidates are a good cultural fit and have skills that complement existing staff. However, in recruiting purple squirrels this often means flipping existing recruitment models on their heads. Certainly we would not identify targets we know to be the diametrical opposite to a firm’s existing culture, but given that these people are pioneers who are capable of disrupting an organisation in a very positive way, there are times when some exceptions have to be made. It may also mean making internal changes to the way in which the organisation operates and driving those changes forward. There are many examples of companies that have successfully done just that.

Even though they are rare individuals, identifying purple squirrels is not difficult because their achievements and reputation will have been well-documented. The difficulty comes in convincing them to change tack. Some will have giant-sized egos that need to be massaged expertly, and hiring managers must be prepared to accept more than a little arrogance. Furthermore, they will not discuss any potential job offer, irrespective of how lucrative it may be, with someone they don’t have a relationship with. This may often entail using business networks to build relationships with potential targets long before any approach is made regarding career change.

For companies prepared to put in the groundwork, be adaptable and be seen to be innovative, irrespective of the industry sector, the effort will be well rewarded.


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