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4 ways to unleash the full power of unicorn employees

When managers realize they have that special star with unbridled talent, they must actively invest in their development—or risk losing them.

4 ways to unleash the full power of unicorn employees
[Photo: Sithamshu Manoj/Unsplash]
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Do you believe in unicorns? I do. It’s hard not to when I see them at work everyday. 

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Although they may not carry a multi-billion dollar valuation like the companies and startups we typically consider “unicorns,” these individuals contribute to their organizations in ways you can’t put a price tag on. Office “unicorns” are standout employees who proactively contribute to organizational improvement. When there’s a problem, they bring solutions to managers, jump at the opportunity to help with projects and come up with ideas to better the company.  

Like the mythical creature, office unicorns are also rare. So when managers spot a unicorn, they need to recognize the employee’s potential as an impactful contributor and actively invest in their development. Let’s put it this way—if you don’t wrangle your unicorns, they may return to the wild, i.e., to one of your competitors. 

I’ve had the privilege of nurturing many office unicorns at my workflow platform company, Catalytic. With planning, you can develop unicorns into leaders and specialists that drive creativity and innovation for your organization. Here are few principles I’ve followed in my time developing office unicorns:

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Don’t limit a unicorn’s creativity

Given unicorns’ knack for going above and beyond at work, their creative thinking should be encouraged, not discouraged—even when it comes to long-standing organizational processes. Unicorns don’t operate well in an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” culture. They want to know that new ideas are always welcome if they benefit the business.

This scenario recently played out on my team. Three unicorns identified that we needed to get better at following up on sales leads from trade shows. The group turned an idea into a reality by building an improved operational workflow for this process on our no-code platform, making it a permanent solution that our entire sales team now follows. 

Encourage unicorns to build their own brand

Build up your unicorns as thought leaders and role models for the entire team to follow. This offers a two-fold solution—it enables unicorns to develop leadership experience at your company and can inspire other potential unicorns to follow in their footsteps. Without opportunities to build their own brand, unicorns may not feel like they can grow as leaders and experts in your organization. 

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Give unicorns internal and external opportunities to create their own brand among colleagues and with your customers. One of the most effective brand-building exercises I’ve used for team unicorns is having them present with a client at an event. 

Show unicorns their career path

In my experience, unicorns want a clear career progression path. You need to have regular conversations with unicorns about organizational growth opportunities, chart a general timeline for promotion and outline the steps they can take to reach the next level. If you can’t provide this framework for unicorns, there’s another company waiting that absolutely can.

Meet unicorns’ expectations by making them a priority. Consistently engage unicorns about what they want to be when they “grow up” in your company. This attention to detail can keep unicorns performing at a high level and set them up for long-term success at your organization. 

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Invest in a unicorn’s professional development

Unicorns expect you to actively invest in their professional development. These individuals have personal and professional goals they want to achieve. And with the right guidance, unicorns can accomplish these goals at your company. However, if you can’t provide unicorns resources to help them grow, they may feel like their professional development is stuck in neutral. 

Proactively connect unicorns to learning and development opportunities, whether they’re internal or external. If unicorns want to master a skill your organization doesn’t have, set them up to learn it. On my team, for instance, we had several unicorns become “citizen developers”— employees who create new business applications using low-code and automation tools sanctioned by IT. With their new skills, this group of unicorns developed innovative processes that are now vital to our sales operations, including a new workflow that automatically pulls Salesforce data to populate presentation decks for quarterly sales review meetings. 

So, do you believe in unicorns now? You should. By fostering unicorns’ growth, you can develop the innovators and game changers who will take your organization to the next level. 

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Jamie Delgado is vice president of sales for Catalytic, a workflow automation platform.