Searching for the PURPLE squirrel

How can you use strategic talent management to find the perfect candidate? Katrina Onderdonk Director of Talent Management, California Institute of Technology, USA explains and shares her top tips for recruiting the elusive “purple squirrel”…

I was introduced to the concept of the purple squirrel at a conference a couple years ago. “What is a purple squirrel?”, you may ask. A purple squirrel is a candidate who meets the basic qualifications, brings the desired experience, possesses all of the necessary competencies, and expresses interest in the position. In other words, a purple squirrel is that improbable individual who meets all the needs and wants for a particular role — a rare and special creature indeed!

Caltech is a world-renowned research institution, home to scholars who envisioned quarks, discovered quasars, launched the field of molecular biology, and detected gravitational waves. Our expectation for excellence doesn’t stop at the student and faculty level.

We seek to attract first-rate advancement professionals who are proud to build their careers.

At Caltech, we set our standards and sights high when searching for talent. When launching a search for positions at the director level and above, we bring together the hiring manager and other team members to brainstorm desired qualifications, experience, and ideal competencies for each role. To further narrow the scope, we must find people who are local or who are open to relocating to southern California where there is a high cost of living and who are excited about the compensation package we are willing to offer.

Being in talent management for most of my career, I have found that each recruitment is unique, and forming a trusted partnership with the hiring manager is critical to success. We recruiters often find ourselves as “order takers” on the difficult quest to find the dream candidate who brings all the bells and whistles, who is available, and who views our position as the next step in their career.

I use the concept of the purple squirrel at almost every search launch meeting to help hiring managers and key stakeholders begin to manage their expectations. Bringing intelligence and data to this meeting is critical in being able to advise the group on what the candidate landscape looks like.

This analogy is quite helpful when working with leadership in our searches. It helps to:

  • Set expectations on time-to-fill — finding a purple squirrel in a highly desirable position may take 6 months or longer.
  • Move quickly when a hot candidate shows interest — a purple squirrel quite certainly has other opportunities, so timing can be everything.
  • Remind hiring managers that purple squirrels often require a salary that may exceed targeted compensation.
  • Rank competencies and experience in a group of decision makers so that all of the interviewers are on the same page — and to acknowledge that there may not be a purple squirrel for this position.
  • Inspire creativity and flexibility when the search shows us that the candidate pool does not match up. Sometimes we need to adjust the target profile.
  • Show that recruitment is everyone’s responsibility. By encouraging others to take an active role, we increase our network and build a larger net to cast.

In the dynamic field of advancement, recruitment has become intensely competitive, and turnover is costly to morale and the bottom line. It is getting more difficult to find candidates who have strong tenure and the endurance to stay through ambitious campaigns without being tempted by a bigger title and paycheck. The most vibrant purple squirrels are becoming few and far between and have their choice of opportunities when they are contemplating a new chapter in their career. With the right approach, talent management professionals have the opportunity to strategically launch a search, keep a search on track, and foster the quest to find the purple squirrel.

Katrina Onderdonk is Director of Talent Management, California Institute of Technology, USA. Prior to joining Caltech, she was a search consultant with S. Benjamins & Company, and began her recruiting career at Banc of America Securities and Gap Inc. Katrina will be speaking at the CASE Strategic Talent Management forum in London, 30 November.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.