Team Unicorn

Team Unicorn

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In a 2017 interview with The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, ghSMART management consultant Elena Lytkina Botelho pronounced the death of the Unicorn leader.

“The stereotypical, larger-than-life, charismatic CEO who never makes mistakes and is probably the smartest person in the room and rides in and out on a white horse with a perfect, unblemished record only exists in urban legends.”

In the same interview, Botelho spoke at length about the qualities of effective CEOs. One of the skills she identified was the ability to build a great team, rather than rely on individual competency.

“You’ve got to surround yourself with people who have complementary skill sets, and you’ve got to let them do their job,” Botelho explained. “You have to let them build reliability into the company and be willing to be part of that reliability. Then the rest of it is about process, routines and cadences. A lot of reliable companies feel a little bit more like a marching band than the improvisation of talented musicians.”

As we’ve discussed in previous posts with reference to the soccer coaches Jurgen Klopp and Valeriy Lobanovskyi, leaders we might describe as Unicorns don’t exist in isolation. In reality, they benefit from highly attuned support systems, intellectual diversity, and effective organizational processes in addition to their own talents.

As prevailing attitudes towards Unicorn leaders become increasingly skeptical, and the skills of the broader team are prioritized over those of an individual, attention is turning towards finding ‘Unicorn employees’. The label may not be particularly helpful, but the theory – that organizations should search for staff who possess rare skill sets that can take them to the next level – is sound enough.

According to a 2018 FastCompany article by Lisa Evans, Unicorn employees have five key qualities:

  1. They go above and beyond the boundaries of their job title
  2. They are a good teammate
  3. They raise the emotional intelligence of the team
  4. They work hard, but aren’t workaholics
  5. They have a growth mindset

If we accept that Unicorn leaders are the beneficiaries of great teams beneath them, then finding the best talent to fill those teams should become the priority for organizations that want to maximize their effectiveness and give talented leaders the tools to drive positive change.

By building teams with complementary skill sets, intellectual diversity, and a positive culture, organizations can put themselves in a strong position relative to the competition. Rather than seeking out individual Unicorns, recalibrating the search to find diverse and highly skilled staff to support competent leaders is likely to result in improvements across all aspects of an organization.

If there are such things as Unicorns in business, then they are almost certainly collective rather than solitary beasts.

Interested in reading more from the Sportsology research team? Our latest paper, The Dangerous Myth of the Unicorn Leader, is available to download for free.

Image: Claudio Schwarz Purzlbaum/Unsplash