PURPLE SQUIRREL MYTHS & REALITIES: Are You or Someone You Know a Purple Squirrel Trying to Land a Job?
Although purple squirrels roamed the earth beforehand, the economic downturn in 2008 popularized this term and created many more — primarily out of necessity at that time.
What is a Purple Squirrel?
Contrary to popular belief, a purple squirrel is actually a highly sought-after candidate who is so ideally matched, that they are rare, hence the color.
Many people are under the impression that all purple squirrels are undesirable in today’s market as one variety possesses very broad skills, but also have a very precise subset of skills.
How Did So Many of These Less Sought-After Purple Squirrels Proliferate?
Back in 2008–2013, many companies were forced to lay off staff, often cutting a large percentage of their workforce. Some cut too deeply and they (or their customers) recognized this, as some tasks — some viewed as quasi mission-critical — were left undone. Consequently, many of the tasks that were “missed” were cobbled together to form newly created (albeit, “hodgepodge”) jobs that were nearly impossible to fill.
Since job seekers were plentiful during those years and companies were “in pain,” many began scrambling to find candidates capable of performing most or all the tasks. Some candidates who applied possessed these diverse skills but prior to that point, had not had these skills put to the test in any one job. Others had many of the skills required (sometimes from different industries), and the potential to do the rest. As a result, more generalists with mixed industry experience — and some of whom also had mixed experience across job functions were borne during this time.
Today, many companies are back to seeking those with laser-focused skill sets, primarily from progressively more responsible careers within the same industry and/or job function. Such candidates are viewed as having the precise set of experience, education, and range of qualifications that ideally fit the requirements of a job. They are the in-demand purple squirrels.
Other purple squirrels are not as fortunate. A cross-section of purple squirrels with mixed skills — often from mixed industries are finding it increasingly more challenging to land jobs. To many hiring authorities, this breed of purple squirrels comes across on paper as unfocused, with circuitous, and worse yet, meandering career paths that give many employers pause. Mind you, some of these very employers created and perpetuated the growth of this segment of the workforce.
Both factions of purple squirrels had and have the same career goals — namely, to remain a vital part of the workforce, support themselves and their families, improve their marketability and value to themselves and to their employers, and contribute to the health and well-being of their employers. Yet, those with mixed backgrounds have fallen out of favor and are struggling to stay or get employed.
What’s a Purple Squirrel Who’s Fallen Out of Favor to Do?
With such a wealth of diverse skills, many companies are completely unaware that they have overlooked one of the most talented, upwardly mobile, company-minded, developmentally oriented segments of the workforce. Many such purple squirrels are eager to go above and beyond to take on projects outside of their normal duties and/or job scope. Others are innovative thinkers, and if given the opportunity to truly thrive, they can inject game-changing ideas that can alter a company’s trajectory, making them a pioneer or market leader, or in other cases, prolonging or re-invigorating the viability of a company’s products, services or both. The ability to recognize this potential in this cross-section of the workforce will require a radical shift in thinking on the part of many employers.
Short of waiting for such a paradigm shift, this breed of purple squirrel can apply to start-up companies who tend to be more open-minded and/or less able to attract talent due to the inherent uncertainties of new companies as well as “Total Rewards” benefits that typically cannot compete with larger, more established companies, among other reasons.
Another tact such purple squirrels can take is to approach non-profits that are closely related to their chosen career path. Many non-profits struggle to attract talent and typically value those with a broad, rich, skill set. The issue with non-profits is that they traditionally pay far less, often as low as fifty or sixty percent lower than corporate roles. Yet, if such purple squirrel job seekers are able to accept such roles, many non-profits offer other forms of job satisfaction by virtue of their mission, charter, or cause. Also, some job seekers find that they can more easily move up the ranks at non-profits once they have established themselves as the highly versatile assets that are vital to such entities. Others stay on for a year or more, making meaningful contributions before moving back to corporate roles.
Another solution is for these purple squirrels to repackage themselves and de-emphasize the diversity of their skills and industry experience. I’m not suggesting that they omit key information or “fib” on resumes. Rather, I advise job seekers to include all roles held, but instead, focus on the knowledge, skills, and experience companies are seeking, and where appropriate eliminate, reword, or otherwise reposition such experience in a way that speaks to/resonates with that employer.
Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs had the right idea when they established company cultures that resulted in some of today’s strongest companies.
Many CEOs, in fact, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all had non-traditional backgrounds or lacked direct experience or a degree that typically are regarded as success indicators. Other companies such as Zappos and Southwest Airlines have been wildly successful by hiring based on a non-credentialed approach coined as “hire for attitude and train for skill.”
More recently, companies such as IBM are also changing employment practices by lowering educational or other requirements.
“Time and time again I’ve seen people with a background of broad-ranging employment and skills hired for a job where they didn’t necessarily tick the specialist criteria boxes but become incredibly successful by offering a new level of understanding to the role.” Branson continues by urging employers to hire based on personality and transferrable skills and not to hesitate to throw them “in the deep end.”
– Sir Richard Branson
“Look for three things in a person — intelligence, energy, and integrity. If they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two.”
– Warren Buffett
“Problems can become opportunities when the right people come together.”
– Robert Redford
“You don’t hire for skills you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.”
– Simon Sinek
“I don’t want the best ones. I want the right ones.”
– Herb Brooks, 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Coach
“Hire character. Train skill.”
– Peter Schutz
“Our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff, like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand or empowering passionate employees and customers, will happen on its own.”
– Tony Hsieh, Zappos