The Extra Mile
‘Unicorn employees’ not only excel at what they do, they also consistently break out of their job descriptions to help a business thrive. But is this modern mythical creature something to be aspired to? Or a dangerous paragon of perfectionism?
Published in Edgars Workplace September 2018
By Jade Taylor Cooke
Unicorns are trending. They’re everywhere from dating memes to Instagram beauty tutorials, so it was only a matter of time before the terminology infiltrated the workplace.
‘The term “unicorn employee” describes members of staff who outshine the rest of their team,’ explains industrial psychologist Ann Werner. ‘Like their mythical name suggests, they’re the most difficult employees to find – if you can find them at all.’
Werner says unicorns possess the following traits: ‘They go the extra mile; are strategic about their own role and how it relates to the big picture; and are able to focus on detail and accurate implementation. Furthermore, when the going gets tough, they stick it out and have “grit” – a word that is bandied about a lot in current Millennial work scenarios. Unicorn employees are also considerate, passionate about their work, loyal to their teams and management, respectful of all levels of the hierarchy, and they achieve their goals.’
You may have seen one in action, or you may even be a unicorn yourself – the person always pitching in on big projects, upskilling to take on extra roles, and never saying ‘it’s not my job’. Every employer wants to hire one, and every career-minded Millennial is feeling the pressure to be one.
How did we get here?
The workplace unicorn concept was popularised by Ryan Holmes, the founder of Hootsuite. He coined the term while watching his small tech start-up grow into the global social media management giant it is today. ‘Through this stage of “hyper growth”, employees who truly flourished were [those who were] flexible and intellectually curious,’ Holmes wrote in a much-cited LinkedIn post relating to the topic. ‘Earlier on in the business, this meant having the ability to wear many hats and excel at varied tasks, [which is] critical at a fast-growing startup. For example, just because somebody’s job title was “office administrator”, didn’t mean she would shy away from pitching in on a major marketing campaign by helping brainstorm catchy tweets.’
Even at companies outside the tech sphere, rapid growth and a state of flux have become the norm, while job security is starting to seem like something of a quaint concept. As a result, Millennials across the board feel that unless they’re consistently hustling and proving their worth, they’re going to be left behind.
Inspiring myth or cautionary tale?
Unicorn traits are valuable and will no doubt take you far in your career – as long as you learn to navigate the potential pitfalls:
Protect your wellbeing Millennials are told they can be anything, and many of them have interpreted that as pressure to be everything. ‘This is unsustainable long-term and can lead to burnout,’ says Werner. ‘You need to question your willingness to stretch yourself beyond the parameters of a reasonable job description. The more you reach beyond your capacity towards unattainable goals, the higher the possibility of feeling a sense of failure. A vicious cycle develops, where overly high expectations combined with unmet goals results in disenchantment with the work, frustration and, at worst, developing self-hatred for rarely reaching the mark.’
Be wary of being taken advantage of ‘At my previous job, I played four different roles: digital editor, community manager, digital strategist and traffic manager,’ says Zulfa Jakoet*. ‘My title and responsibilities were that of a senior, but I was earning an entry-level salary. I did my research and discovered that each of these individual jobs had an industry standard that was much higher than what I was earning. When I presented this to my manager, along with evidence of how the brand had grown since I’d been working on it, I was told that I had to be “exceptional” to qualify for a raise. I cannot overemphasise how demoralising that was.’ ‘Job descriptions are put in place for a reason,’ says Werner. ‘The key is to fulfil that role and add value with any spare capacity you have, but to ensure that you can do that sustainably. This means having a respectful sense of boundaries and ensuring that any substantial additional responsibilities assigned to you are negotiated alongside increased career advancement and/or remuneration.’
Avoid being made a Jack of all trades Upskilling is a necessary feature of the modern workplace, but be wary of being assigned tasks that aren’t relevant to your career growth. ‘Although I was being paid very little, my job description was continually being added to,’ says Jo Sullivan about his first job after graduating. ‘I’ll never forget the day they needed flyers for an event, and asked me to design them – they’d initially hired me as a writer. I took on all the extra work that came my way because I felt vulnerable and was terrified to admit that I wasn’t coping. Unemployment is high, and I think many employers use that to their advantage, knowing employees are afraid to say “no” in case it affects their job security. What I do as a writer is valuable, and I didn’t deserve the extra pressure of taking on things that were so far from my skill set.’
A better model
Every employer hopes to bag themselves a unicorn, but a better idea is to focus on nurturing your current staff, says Werner. ‘A great manager could develop a whole team of top performers if they take the time to recognise what makes individuals thrive. Developing confidence through appropriate mentorship can go a long way to nurturing not the mythical unicorn, but a dedicated, diligent, realistic Millennial. Such employees are extremely valuable, and thrive when they are given support, mentoring, supervision and strong leadership.’