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The Strategic Recruiting of Purple Squirrels, Innovators, and Gamechangers

by
Dr. John Sullivan
Jun 18, 2012, 5:18 am ET

There is no more valuable recruit than a “Purple Squirrel.” In fact, a single Purple Squirrel recruit may be more impactful than all of your other hires combined during a single year. If you’re not familiar with the term, a Purple Squirrel is the moniker that denotes an extremely rare and talented recruiting target. Purple Squirrels are valuable because they are extreme innovators. Once hired, they can change your firm’s capabilities, direction, and marketplace success almost instantly.

The benchmark Purple Squirrel was Tony Fadell, who conceived of the concept of the MP3 player while he was at Philips. But Apple recruited him away, allowing them to dominate and make billions in a product area (the iPod) where they had little expertise before recruiting him. This single Purple Squirrel acquisition made Apple billions and set the expectation for future market dominating innovations at Apple!

The most stunning thing, however, about Purple Squirrel recruiting is the fact that there is literally a zero chance that these valuable game-changers and pioneers can be recruited using the existing recruiting process at 99.5% of the world’s major corporations. For example, everyone would agree that Steve Jobs, even in his youth, was a Purple Squirrel, but the fact is that he was rejected by the recruiting process at HP, despite all his talent, simply because he had no college degree.

These purple squirrels are true pioneers with the capability of not only coming up with original ideas but also in successfully implementing them. Purple Squirrels are generally not senior executives, but instead, they are often mid-level employees in product development, technology, mathematics, social media, or the monetization of products and services. Each of these areas are essential for market domination.

Why You Should Develop a Process for Recruiting Purple Squirrels

There are numerous reasons why firms are beginning to realize why they need to focus their recruiting effort on Purple Squirrels. Some of those reasons and benefits include:

  • Their incredible economic impact – the tremendous value of these purple squirrels is not idle speculation, because Apple has calculated their performance at 25 times and Google 300 times the performance level of an average hire. Think of the tremendous economic value that recruiting could bring if your firm had the capability of recruiting early-career pioneers like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Page (Google), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), or a Tony Hsieh (Zappos).
  • Innovation is replacing productivity — the tremendous economic success of Apple has convinced many CEOs that continuous market-leading innovation has a higher economic impact than the more traditional HR goal of increasing workforce productivity. Average employees simply don’t come up with pioneering, game-changing solutions, so if you need them, you need to recruit a few Purple Squirrels.
  • Technology superiority is becoming essential everywhere – most executives have also learned that every firm in every industry now must maintain superiority in technology and many Purple Squirrels are technologists who can provide that technical superiority.
  • Impact on employer brand image – adding Purple Squirrels to your workforce will instantly improve your employer brand image and the likelihood of attracting other top talent.
  • They can be the driver of a culture of innovation — recruiting even a handful of Purple Squirrels may shift your culture (like it did at Apple), so that it becomes an “innovation culture” where serial innovation becomes the norm.
  • The recruiting competition is weak – because only a handful of large corporations (e.g. Google, Facebook, and Apple) have the capability of recruiting these individuals, your main competition will be limited to executive search and startup firms.

Why Traditional Corporate Recruiting Approaches Fail on Purple Squirrels

Applying traditional corporate recruiting approaches guarantee failure because Purple Squirrels really are different. Here is an example to illustrate the difficulty. Let’s assume that you are trying to recruit Tiger Woods to your local golf team. He certainly wouldn’t return your messages and you would not be allowed to approach him personally. If you did get a brief 30 seconds with him, he would simply say that he is happy where he is. In fact, it would take a recommendation from a trusted colleague or reading about a “WOW” aspect of your golf team even to get his attention. And even then, it might take months to get him to agree to an interview. There are at least 10 ways that Purple Squirrels differ as prospects and candidates. They include:

  1. Finding them is easy – even though they are rare individuals (less than 1% of the workforce), they can easily be identified because of their track record of high-impact work. They are likely to be award winners, speakers at conferences, they may hold patents, and a simple Google search will identify their great work.
  2. Direct sourcing is required – these are “super passive” prospects who will literally never again apply for an open job. They cannot be successfully recruited or even contacted using traditional methods. The recruiting may need to be done by an executive or a peer Purple Squirrel.
  3. Their primary motivator is “the work” – you can’t impress them with perks or even money. You must realize that their primary motivator is “the work” and the opportunity to do the best and most challenging and impactful work of their life. If you don’t offer compelling work, you have zero chance of recruiting them.
  4. They must be fought for – because Purple Squirrels already have a good job and are highly valued, their current boss will fight ferociously to keep them. Because they continually receive “anytime you’re ready” job opportunities from colleagues, they will not even see, no less respond, to a job posting.
  5. They expect a personalized job – they undoubtedly already have a flexible job, so they expect that any new “dream job” will of course be designed around their interests and needs. Their expectations may include remote work options, a choice of projects, and even an opportunity to select their own team. If you show them a standard job description, they will simply walk away.
  6. They will not discuss job opportunities with strangers – they will not ever return recruiter calls and a longer-term relationship with a peer may be required before you can even approach the topic of a career opportunity.
  7. You must know their “job acceptance criteria” – they will not even consider an opportunity unless it meets each and every one of their “job-acceptance criteria.” As a result, you must tailor the opportunity and the offer around their decision criteria. You must also identify any potential deal breakers and then find a way to avoid each of them. On the positive side, at least one “WOW” will likely be required before they will even consider an opportunity.
  8. Their decision will be influenced by others — they don’t make major decisions without consultation, so you must identify and attempt to influence those who will be involved in any major decision (i.e. spouses, other Purple Squirrel colleagues, former bosses, references, mentors, etc.).
  9. Hiring managers may be resistant – hiring managers are certainly accustomed to holding all of the power over their recruits. Unfortunately, because of their past success, Purple Squirrels often have an ego and they expect to be treated as at least equals. If your hiring managers are not trained to accept a little arrogance and extremely high “demands,” they will likely reject these Purple Squirrels because of their own ego issues.
  10. They expect to see innovation in the recruiting process – they understand their value and their power in the recruiting equation, so they will expect a great candidate experience. If your recruiting process doesn’t also include some dramatic innovation, Purple Squirrels will simply assume that innovation doesn’t exist at your firm and they will immediately drop out of your recruiting process.
  11. Skill assessment becomes secondary – because they have a successful track record of implementing innovation, you won’t need to do a lot of formal skills assessment. Because these individuals know their tremendous value, requiring more than one interview or even an updated resume might be a dealbreaker. Selling them needs to be the primary recruiting focus.

Approaches for Successfully Recruiting Purple Squirrels

Space limitations prevent me from providing a complete recruiting process for successfully hiring Purple Squirrels, but I can provide you with a handful of approaches that have been successful in the past. These recruiting approaches include:

  • CEO recruiting – having the CEO act as your chief recruiter can make all the difference, provided that you guide the CEO throughout the process. The CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Zynga, Starbucks, and Google have all been directly involved in recruiting.
  • Use proactive key employee referrals — proactively approaching one or more of your high-powered employees and asking them to take the lead on contacting and building the relationship is a wise beginning. Be sure and educate them on the do’s and don’ts of Purple Squirrel referrals. You might also assign a senior executive to help throughout the process.
  • Develop a talent community – this approach was pioneered by Microsoft, and its basic premise is that the only way to have conversations and build relationships with Purple Squirrels is through non-recruiting topics. That means building online social media based talent communities containing hundreds of participants that are based 100% on learning and best practice sharing.
  • Involve them in your work – the basic premise of this approach is that you must get Purple Squirrels involved with the important work that you do. That means periodically asking them questions, asking them to serve as an advisor, or making them a beta tester. Over time, they will learn to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and appreciate the capabilities of your team. Also consider invited open houses where your team shares its work and plans with top prospects. These can be held at night in the functional department.
  • Prioritize your jobs – you only need a handful of Purple Squirrels in order to impact your firm, so you must put together a process to identify the handful of jobs and business units where a purple squirrel could have a dramatic impact.
  • Comment on their work – one of the most effective approaches for building relationship with a purple squirrel is to initially positively comment on their writing and their work. Eventually proceed to occasionally criticizing it and offering suggestions. Finally, ask them to review your own best work.
  • Build a behavioral profile of your target – use your own purple squirrel employees to get an idea about how to best contact and understand them. Use Internet searches and Google Alerts to find out what events they attend, what organizations they join, where they write, what they read, and what their favorite communications channels are. Use that information to fully understand them, to make your first initial contact, and to build a long-term relationship with them.
  • Identify the “right day” to discuss an opportunity – because Purple Squirrels are likely to be well treated at their current job, on any given day a recruiting opportunity with almost always be responded to with a “hard no.” However, there are a handful of “right days” where they would be more likely to consider a new opportunity. Those “right days” might include days immediately after their boss, the CEO, or a close colleague left. Right days might also include days surrounding when their current project is coming to an end, after they’ve been denied a promotion, or when the company is experiencing a significant difficulty (i.e. a merger, a layoff, or a scandal). Their own and their friends’ Facebook postings and Twitter comments can provide you with an effective heads-up on when a “right day” is occurring.
  • One-day hiring capability — you must have the capability of moving extremely fast once a Purple Squirrel does become available. In order to make an offer in one day, you will need to have previously opened up a” corporate resource” position for them and have already put together their dream job offer which meets each of their job acceptance criteria. You also need to be prepared with a counteroffer strategy, because their boss will undoubtedly make one or more counter offers.
  • Include something that WOWs them – in order to improve your chances of success, you need to do something that dramatically impresses them on “offer day.” Some possibilities include “hire them both” (hire them with a close colleague), let them pick their own (boss/team/project/location), or offering them a huge bonus if they accept immediately. Other possibilities include having your CEO make the offer in person or allowing them to design their own dream job.

Final Thoughts

Although recruiting Purple Squirrels may seem unusual to you, the practice is actually quite common in the sports and the entertainment industries. Everyone there already knows the tremendous advantage of adding a single player like LeBron, Kobe, Tiger, A-Rod, or Lionel Messi to a team or Angelina Jolie, Jack Nicholson, or Matt Damon to your movie.

If you want to pursue the approach in the corporate world, the first step is to identify a few “Purple Squirrels” and ask senior leaders to estimate their impact if they were successfully brought on board. When you get a resounding “yes,” you need to be prepared with a complete plan on how you have the capability to contact, build a relationship, and eventually recruit them. After bringing one successfully on board, the rest will be easy.

photo from Bigstock

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  1. Chris Brown

    Brilliant article, Dr. Sullivan. Some great thoughts and ideas!

  2. Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. Classical over-achievers don’t qualify in my mind as “purple squirrels”. Those folks are easy to spot. Who has the bandwidth, resources, or support to go after the REAL PSs when we have a hard time obtaining these for the people who do fit the mold? Also, how often do these companies that you mention hire recruiters who are PSs THEMSELVES? Not very often from my experience. Some companies may SAY they want folks who are different from the standard, but when it comes down to it, they want the same old conventional over-acheiving folks, just like they are (or wished they were). For example: do you think Google would have hired a young Bill Gates or a young Steve Jobs before they became successful? Would Microsoft or Apple hire a young Bill Gates or young Steve Jobs? I doubt it.

    Cheers,

    Keith

  3. Nick Vermeulen

    This would most certainly be a “WOW” to me. I could very much relate to the article, it was most interesting to read. Really enjoyed it. Let’s see what the future will bring!

  4. Valentino Martinez

    Have to agree with Keith for the simple reason that established workplace cultures have a tendency to find an operational comfort zone. For quantification purposes let’s say that their operational level is “C”. The moment they bring in an “A” thinking and operating player that player gets isolated, frustrated and leaves.

    The exception is when a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs start a business at the micro level and sustain “A” level thinking and operational demands. They set the pace and it’s the “B” and “C” players who are pressured to leave if they can’t pick up the pace and hang in there with the crazy “A”s.

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  6. Cherie Lester

    I have to agree with a previous comment. Highly talented / innovative thinkers are not the definition of a “Purple Squirrel”. From a recruitment stand-point, a purple squirrel is a person with very specific experience/ qualifications that is very difficult to find… their specific certifications or experience is rare….which is different from what the author is discussing above. Innovative / out of the box thinkers that end up developing our newest technologies are not what long time recruiters consider purple squirrels.

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  8. Clare Letourneau

    I agree with Keith’s comments, BUT some of the ideas presented, I have been pitching to clients for a while without much success; Like developing a Talent Community, having your top engineers be your pitch people for tough to sell top candidates, building non-recruiting Technical Events to share best practices or discuss a type of hot technology, etc.

    Again, most companies, start-up particularly, just want a quick fix to their staffing problems and of course they ALL want their whole engineering team to be “A Players”!
    :-)

    Dr. Sullivan has it right, whether your a PS or not, most good technical engineers will move only if the technology is new and their problems sets are different, or they get to really develop something cool…it’s all about the technology. If you’re offering a Ruby on Rail candidate another Mobile Platform to work on, which is just like 10 other companies that come calling before you..it will be a tough sell, that’s if they will even talk to you at all.

    There are forward thinking companies out there like Heroku…their engineers do the main recruiting for Ruby on Rails type engineers in their ‘communities’. They look for them globally, and let them work remotely. Once they have their interest and start the interview process, then they hand off to the Recruiter. Most engineers don’t want to do this…so most companies struggle to find good people.

    Clare

  9. Lou Hazim

    Very familiar with the term “Purple Squirrels” however most of the industry does not take the time to build their strategy and process to attract these talents. Instead they stay away from these searches and relate to a “Purple Squirrel” negatively.

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  11. Klaus Schulz

    The MP3 example was just fate and luck. Nobody hired for such an event.., Like you already said, People still don’t understand the impact of preparing for PS candidates, and won’t play those bets. Futile. All this realization is an observation after the fact. Take SUN, for example. SUN was perceived as a highly intelligent, marquee company to work for, in 1995 to 2005, everybody had respect for SUN. Reality was, that SUN only had about 50 PS smart People at the core, and the rest was fluff. All Code, all Design, Software and Hardware was conceived by 50 smart people. The rest were bookkeepers, assistants, all the fluff you need to run a big company. SUN never planned on hiring the 50 People, they just knew each other and decided to work together. This is different at Google as the opposite example. Google consciously hires PS and will not stop until they find some of them…

  12. Craig Shutt

    Great article Dr Sullivan and one I’ll be sharing with my clients! This is particularly relevant to the technology space, however you can relate it to every sector. I have worked a lot with professional services firms in Australia and New Zealand to attract their equivalent, which is forward thinking new age Partners (or up and coming Partners) who challenge the status quo, have fantastic leadership and business development skills and most importantly who are passionate about making their professions more appealing for the next generation. Trust me they are hard to find!

    Cherie, I don’t think there is any set definition of ‘Purple Squirrel’ and it will differ in every company. For the technology sector I think the article and terminology are right on the money.

    Craig

  13. Matt Rivera

    Dr.Sullivan – Great insight into specialized recruiting practices. Regardless of some of the comments on what constitutes a purple squirrel (for the record, I’ve always thought of them as just very specific, hard-to-find skills), what you describe are valuable techniques. Companies need to understand and utilize a variety of recruiting techniques and resources. One size does not fill all. Most companies have several needs: purple squirrels, highly technical skills, general technical skills, support personnel, office personnel, executives, and line managers. While you don’t need a separate process or approach for each, you might need to engage several internal and external resources to focus on specific areas (such as purple squirrels) to ensure that you can meet your skill needs. As some have coined it, it’s no longer a war for talent, it’s a war for skills.

    Matt Rivera
    blog.yoh.com

  14. Klaus Schulz

    Frank said: “Does this link up with the concept of the Purple Cow or did the term just get lifted from Godin’s book ;) ?”

  15. Howard Adamsky

    This is such an outstanding article.

    Sadly, few companies or recruiters will actually do the work required to land these candidates. Those who do, will be rewarded.

  16. Klaus Schulz

    @Howard – Right. and who knows,. Maybe Companies such as Kodak were just cruising along with the brotherhood staff, much like Rim is doing/was doing for the last 10 years, before things blew up in their faces. Hiring only MBA’s without any practical experience. Without the Human Innovation described here BAU (business as usual) companies will become irrelevant and go under. Smart and visionary companies will hire up and down their relevancy curve and hold productive “all in” brainstorming sessions where everyone can contribute….

  17. sudharshan rajendhiran

    Great article…! Very few companies have the talent to attract and retain Purple Squirrels. And only very few companies really need those purple squirrels.

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  20. Kaitlyn Brown

    Outstanding article! The team at ExactSource enjoyed it so much that we wrote our own blog post about it. We believe that Purple Squirrels are the people who bring something to the table that you didn’t know your company was missing. We’re not talking over achievers – but someone that can make the position their own. Feel free to check out our blog post here: http://info.exactsource.com/blog/bid/173921/How-to-Successfully-Identify-and-Recruit-Purple-Squirrels

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  27. Kay Hughes

    Purple Squirrels are more plentiful than you can imagine because I’ve seen so many great ideas squashed in meetings. The biggest struggle of a purple squirrel involves getting executives to see the vision and then commit to it which, unfortunately, involves allocating funds and time to the project. The President and CEO may be looking long term but executives and management focus on the short term and play it safe. The purple squirrels and their ideas get squashed before they can be realized.

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