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Hiring unicorns won’t create a high performing team

Five traps in hiring only A-listers and what to do instead

When building a team, it can be very tempting to rely on hiring “unicorns” to build a high performing team. Now, by unicorn, I don’t mean the mythical horned creature or a private start-up valued at $1 billion.

Instead, I am talking about those rare and highly desirable team members. The high performer with a huge amount of skill in their area of expertise. The one who gets things done, has creative solutions to almost anything and the personality to push forward their ideas to output work.

Shiny unicorns aren’t all they have cracked up to be

unicorn

/ˈjuːnɪkɔːn/

  1. a mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead. (Oxford Languages)
  2. something that is highly desirable but difficult to find or obtain. (Oxford Languages)
  3. a privately held startup company with a value of over $1 billion. (investopedia.com)

It’s easy to see why these people are super valuable on a team. And I would agree they are one part of a high performing team. However, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend, particularly among smaller companies or start-ups and scale-ups. The leaders get burnt by a few underperformers and start to develop this one profile of who they believe will add the most value to their team.

These people must already be true experts before walking through the door. They need to have a certain personality profile, a real “go-getter”, GSD type of person. They need to be super focused on their work. And they need to be just a little bit pushy in getting their way. To get things done of course.

Now I can be very tempting to build your team out of these kinds of people, because it appears to be the easier way of creating a high performing team. After all, if you have a team of really high performing people, surely that means your team will also be really high performing?

But I have found that trying to build a team out of this one type of person can actually reduce team performance. Hiring these types of people lead to five traps that have a negative effect on team performance.

1. Wasted energy adapting to the unicorn

The first trap I’ve seen is that teams end up wasting a lot of energy making modifications and working around the unicorn to keep them comfortable and performing. This tends to occur because people who perform at this level and who have performed at this level for a really long time are usually quite self-aware. This means they know they are high performers and they understand the value they bring to the team.

When they start to find elements of working in a team inconvenient or the team decides on something the unicorn doesn’t agree with, they start to look for special treatment on the team. This can look like not turning up to key team meetings, being overly controlling of the work environment, not collaborating with others on the team and not communicating well with their team or their leaders.

All of these behaviours require their teammates and their leaders to create a lot of space for them. People start to walk on eggshells around them and never expect them to play along with the rest of the team.

Often these team members are still performing and producing work, but the rest of the team is picking up the slack on culture, collaboration and customer centricity. This creates a lot of wasted energy and can lead to burn out or frustration for the leader and the rest of the team.

2. The unicorn prioritises their ideas over the team strategy

The second trap that we can fall into is that the unicorns often have a loyalty towards something other than the business or the team they are in. Now, it is totally okay for team members to have other priorities. Nobody is going to love your business or your team as much as you do as the leader.

However, the unicorns’ loyalty often lies so strongly in another direction that it can become a real tension that distracts from executing on your team or business’ priorities.

Often unicorns are most loyal to their own reputation, their skillset or their ideas. This can look like always chasing a new title or pay rise, inflexibility when someone suggests a different way of doing things, or a lack of participation in team collaboration or events. They also tend to prioritise their own ideas and projects over the most important business priorities.

Now, in the early days, this split loyalty often causes fewer issues which is why it falls under the radar to begin with and the unicorn seems like the best hiring decision you’ve every made. But over time, disagreement and tension between their priorities and the business priorities will start to emerge and will become harder and harder to mask.

3. The leader loses all their negotiating power

The third trap is the leader ends up putting themselves in a really weak negotiating position. This comes to light when the leader starts to try and influence the unicorn to change their behaviour and participate in the team more. And it also shows up really strongly when trying to retain these types of employees.

If the leader can’t effectively negotiate with the unicorn for behaviour change, they often end up losing other high quality team members. These team members get frustrated with constantly adapting to the unicorn and often feeling less valued as a result. And so these team members usually leave because they don’t enjoy working with this person or because they perceive the leader to have lost control of the team.

And if the leader can’t effectively negotiate titles and pay with the unicorn, they can often end up overvaluing the unicorn’s role on the team. Although the unicorn themselves may be worth what you’re paying them, they question must be asked whether the leader needs to be investing that much in the particular role the unicorn is playing. If you feel trapped into the unicorn holding that role, you can end up overvaluing the role itself. This limits the budget available for other value-add roles.

4. The team suffers a huge key person risk.

The fourth trap is that relying on the unicorn to get work done creates a massive key person risk. Key person risk is a concept I learned about back in my audit days. This risk occurs when a single person is responsible for a significant part of what a team does or a key step within a team’s process. Their role is “holding together the team”, which means if that person is unavailable work, either temporarily or permanently, then team performance grinds to a halt.

This trap relates back to number three, where you end up overvaluing this person and not being able to negotiate well. You end up in a position where so much of your team’s performance is riding on a single individual and it puts you at risk if they are unwell, or decide to go for a better offer elsewhere. Your team will be reeling trying to keep up performance without really great systems and processes that enable the whole team to work together to produce great outcomes, with or without the star player.

5. Teams fail to invest in growing and developing each other.

This fifth trap is one of the most dangerous of all. Leaders who rely on hiring the same sort of person with the same level of skills prevent themselves from learning how to develop their other team members into high performing team members. They are able to excuse themselves from developing the skill of developing others because the unicorn gets the work done.

If a leader doesn’t know how to develop and grow their team members, they will be constantly under pressure to hire people who are already “ready”. This contributes to the high levels of experience expected even in more junior roles today. Leaders are under pressure to deliver and don’t have the space or skills to develop someone to grow into a role.

These sorts of leaders often struggle to build real teams as well. Instead of a coherent team working together to produce great outcomes, they are reliant on individual “superstars” who can push up output without true collaboration. These teams never learn to actually work with your other team members to increase the quality of the work and build the systems and processes that help teams perform together.

TLDR; Don’t hire unicorns

Recapping some of the traps of trying to build a team entirely out of unicorns:

  1. You end up wasting a lot of energy, making modifications for that person on your team.
  2. Their loyalty often lies with themselves, their skills or their ideas and not your business strategy.
  3. You often end up putting yourself in a weakened negotiating position.
  4. You create a massive key person risk.
  5. And you lose the opportunity to learn how to develop others.

This is why I recommend you avoid having your whole high-performing team strategy resting on hiring a certain type of person. Instead, you need to think about all of the elements that go into creating a high performing team: having the right systems and processes, having the right culture, implementing and fostering the right behavioural norms and enabling everyone on your team to grow and develop and build something great together.

Looking for a way to overcome some of these traps on your team? Visit wizardinnovationlabs.com to download the High Performing Teams Playbook and unlock a new level of performance on your team today.

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Lauren Dixon

Lauren Dixon

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Org behaviour and strategy nerd sharing insights on building high-performance teams. Download the ultimate collaboration guide: wizardinnovationlabs.com