5 Ways to Build Your Own Purple Squirrel

Ah the elusive purple squirrel... you may not know it when you're writing the job description, but you've got someone in mind for the role.  Typically, recruiters have a set list of requirements for the job.  They've also usually got a list of things that they'd like their purple squirrel to accomplish in their first year.  Then there's the secret list in the back of their minds. Candidates may not know it when they accept a job, but that marketing position will also require you to code websites, sell goods and services, become a fully functional IT department of one and enhance company culture all in one little job.  (No joke, this was the nature of one job I had. I stress had because my job now is empowering without smothering.) 

When the job market was still in recovery mode, companies could get away with these kinds of demands.  They could usually find them quite easily, too.  Often, people took jobs that required more at a lower salary just to pay the bills.  But today is a new day.  Candidates are feeling comfortable again and they've flooded the job market, knowing that companies are hiring more than they have in the past seven years. Do you recognize what that means? Your purple squirrel has just jumped to a new tree. So how do companies without huge recruiting budgets attract their purple squirrel?  The answer is they focus on finding someone great internally that is trainable.  It's time to man up and Ikea your way into building your own purple squirrel.

Make Your Own Purple Squirrel

When I first began my career, I could never imagine I'd end up in marketing.  I could never imagine I'd know half of the skills I have now, to be honest.  I was trained to work in the State Department or for government contractors doing Public Affairs.  But when the economy took a dive during graduate school, I too had to adapt if I wanted to be able to feed myself.  I had to buckle down and learn some new skills.  The truth is, many purple squirrels faced similar challenges and were forced to grow.  There's the lesson in this little story: purple squirrels are made out of a desire to grow.  So how does a company make their own purple squirrel? 

  • Training training training. I think I've only had one company actually offer me any kind of training on the job.  The experience was thrilling. The unfortunate reality is that training just isn't always part of the equation now.  In my experience, people hire someone to do a job, but they don't sit there and tell them how to do it.  But training is more than teaching someone how to do a job.  Training is an investment- not only in the employee itself, but in the future of the company.  With training, employers can build a purple squirrel who can work on cross- functional teams and deliver better results. Employers can train marketing folks to do web design, coding, and sales.  This enhances the employee's ability to do their job well and allows that employee to grow.  When projects come up that require additional skills, that employee can confidently tackle more without costing the company additional fees for contingent workers or new employees.
  • Mentorship. In the old days, people actively sought out mentors.  And many employers provided them.  But nowadays, the old model of mentorship is gone.  I don't know a single person who has ever had a mentor, let alone a business who provided one.  Mentorship is important to growth for multiple reasons.  In this business climate, employers are watching their baby boomers retire.  With that retirement comes a lot of the knowledge from the early days of the business, skills that are lost, and insight into how things are done.  Employers seeking to build out the skills of a new generation of workers should be pairing their baby boomers with new employees to pass this knowledge along and to help develop the talents of those individuals. It could be as easy as scheduling a monthly lunch and learn where an older employee discusses specific skills, existing clients, or the history of the company's product.
  • Encourage building a network.  Networks are critical to the growth of employees. Employers seeking to build their own purple squirrel should be concerned with connecting these employees to other professionals.  Building out networks can enhance their knowledge base, provide employees with resources and expose them to thought leadership in the industry.  Many fine networks such as Vistage and Provisors Group encourage employees performing specific job functions to reach out for support from others in that industry.  Often, these group members network in addition to learning new skills and discussing new ideas.
  • Bring in a coach. Employers seeking to build their own purple squirrels can do so with the help of a coach. Consider throwing a monthly town hall meeting and bring in a coach to help teach skills such as sales.  This can help all employees to be more effective in their job, whether by recognizing opportunities, pitching, creating copy with the end goal in mind, and more.  A coach can be a great non-threatening way to introduce training into the employee environment.  It can also be a great way to encourage employees to take time to develop their own skills outside of their formal duties.
  • Offer "stretch" projects.  Often, good employees hoping to grow haven't been offered the opportunity yet. Get to know your employees and their hopes for their career.  With this in mind, employers can offer "stretch" projects.  These are the projects which require skills outside of an employee's current strengths and core duties.  Allow employees to take these on in order to grow.  This could be as easy as letting a marketing person revamp the website. This will allow this person to learn new skills- like website design- to enhance their skill set to become a purple squirrel. "Stretch" projects are a great way to give employees on the job training by doing something that will improve the company. 

With an increasing number of industries reporting skills gaps, it can be very valuable for a company to build their own purple squirrel instead of hoping to attract and hire one.  This can help to develop their own employees and build job satisfaction. An investment in employees can not only improve the employees themselves, but the company as a whole.

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Comment by Nicholas Meyler on November 24, 2015 at 6:15pm

With all the new "gene-splicing" companies, I'm a little shocked that we haven't seen any real purple squirrels, yet.



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