A person wearing a unicorn mask with a teal background

The Best Candidate isn’t a Unicorn

By Serena Moy

2022 brought about a great deal of discussion about the various challenges that organizations currently face due to the ever-changing “post” covid landscape. Staff retention, hyper-competition, employee burnout, and of course the economy. Some of these challenges stem from external factors, but many are self-created hurdles. 

There is an all too common belief among hiring managers that the candidate they hire to fill a particular role must tick off all the checkboxes on a long, and often grandiose list of talents, experience, skills, and education. In essence, many organizations are searching for a “unicorn” and in doing so they are passing over talented, well-qualified candidates with the potential to be superstars in the given role. 

To further illustrate this point, imagine that an organization is struggling to identify and hire a candidate to fill a key position. In reviewing their candidate hiring criteria we discover that the list of must-haves is extensive, and the core problem becomes clear. 

The organization is searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack in their quest to find a candidate who: 

  • Possesses 10 – 15 years of work experience within the industry
  • Has tangible, documented experience completing a broad range of specialized tasks (i.e. leading a complex team with multiple layers of staff, has strong fundraising skills with a track record of raising over $5 million dollars annually, is a strategic problem solver, has built an organization from the ground up, etc.) 
  • Is fluent in at least two languages (3 or 4 preferred)
  • Has several advanced degrees
  • Fits the profile of a diverse candidate
  • Cooks gourmet meals, is a published author, has traveled around the world, can write code, etc.

Alright, we added that last requirement for fun, but, in our experience, it is not too far off base. Finding a candidate that meets all of these criteria is going to be incredibly difficult, if not altogether impossible. 


The Broader Impact Of Seeking A “Unicorn” Candidate


The decision to delay filling a key role during the search for a “unicorn” candidate comes at a high cost to the organization in terms of time, effort, and lost productivity. The impact is often felt, not just by the organization itself,  but by staff members and the communities they serve as well. 

Existing team members will undoubtedly need to pick up the slack to help complete the tasks that might have been performed by the missing team member leading to extra work and an increased risk of burnout. The trickle-down effect of leaving a key position unfilled for an extended period of time often impacts the community at large when the promised value fails to be delivered due to a lack of leadership in a key position within the organization. 

The longer that the position remains unfilled, the greater the losses suffered by the organization and its stakeholders. Eventually, a long-term unfilled leadership position will begin to reflect negatively on the organization itself as both internal and external stakeholders begin to question the organization’s inability to secure a candidate to fill a key role. 


Don’t Let Perfection Be The Enemy Of Good


While candidate quality is certainly important, the time spent seeking a “perfect” candidate, who may or may not exist, could be better spent working with a good candidate to help them reach their full potential while working within the organization. 

At the end of the day, whether your organization remains committed to seeking a “unicorn” candidate or not, it is worth your time to fine-tune your hiring criteria to increase the chances of filling your key positions as quickly as possible. 

First, let’s start with the obvious. If your organization is unwilling or unable to compromise on the candidate criteria for a key position, you are likely going to need to sweeten the hiring package considerably to incentivize those “perfect” candidates more likely to make the move to your company. These incentives can include a higher salary, the ability to work remotely, a better benefits package, more vacation days, or opportunities for bonuses, among others.

However, If you are willing to re-examine your hiring criteria, here are some ways we advise our clients to help them locate and nurture a high-quality candidate with the potential to become the perfect fit for the role. 

  • Consider anti-bias training sessions to address any inherent biases that may be hindering your ability to find great candidates 
  • Set a hiring deadline and work backward from that date to establish a timeline for each stage of the hiring process and stick to it
  • Evaluate your candidate hiring criteria and determine which 3 – 4 requirements are non-negotiable. Then, make an agreement to compromise on the remaining requirements
  • Think about what qualities make it more likely that a candidate can grow into the position. Then, give fair and honest consideration to candidates who may not meet every requirement but have the potential to be nurtured and trained to fulfill the role
  • Ask yourself, “Are we asking for too much?”. If the answer is yes, consider re-scoping the position itself
  • Reach out to professional agencies who have specialized expertise and industry connections who can coach you through these tough decision points and will help you find a candidate who has the best combination of skills and talent  *hint, hint*


Are You Feeling Stuck? 


At Edgility, we know that people make the company, and we pride ourselves on finding the perfect candidate for every role. We understand the common desire to find that ultimate “unicorn” candidate, but we also know that the greatest fit for a role could be someone who is looking for an opportunity to prove themselves and could ultimately end up surprising you with how perfectly they fit within your team.

This is a scenario Edgility is all too familiar with, and we have coached many clients through choosing a candidate for their potential. A few years ago, we assisted an organization in choosing its next Executive Director. The hiring committee was initially pretty skeptical about a candidate who seemed like a good fit but lacked experience in a very specific skill listed in the job description, fundraising. We coached them through deciding whether this was a must-have or a nice-to-have and whether it was something they could grow into with on-the-job experience or something they felt needed to be exemplary from the very beginning of their tenure.   Based on these discussions, they decided that the candidate was the best fit for the role. We are pleased to share that this placement has now been serving the organization tremendously for over 5 years, increasing the company budget, and boosting the organization’s social media presence and community reputation immensely. Needless to say, the organization is incredibly satisfied with its selection. 

If you’re having trouble with these tough conversations or would like help finding a unicorn candidate, Contact us today! We would love to help you and your organization find its next great leader.

Serena Moy

Meet the expert:

Serena Moy


  • Executive Search
  • Recruitment Campaign
  • Contingency Planning



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