Hunting for Unicorns

Traditionally a unicorn was a mythical creature with a horse-like body and a single spiraled horn pointing from its forehead. Even in legend, the unicorn was very rarely seen and almost impossible to catch.


Today the word unicorn is used to describe something or someone who represents an almost unattainable level of uniqueness and perfection.


Social media is largely an aspirational platform – where we focus on showcasing only the most ‘successful’ aspects of ourselves. It’s easy to see the leaders in our profession as unicorns.


  • “How do they do it all so perfectly?”
  • “How did they manage to find a well paying role that equally uses their talents A, B and C but only requires them to work three days a week?”
  • “How were they lucky enough to fall on their feet into my dream job?”


There’s likely to be another side to their journey and job that they don’t talk about as publicly. The path they had to forge to get to where they are and the challenges that come with their position. Before deciding you want to follow in their footsteps, it’s worth learning as much about their world as you can.


When you discover a unicorn, how do you approach it without frightening it away?


How do you introduce yourself to a leader or influencer in your field, to learn about the path they took to get there and what the job is really like without overwhelming them?


The risk is that in your eagerness to learn as much as possible in the shortest amount of time you’ll create a situation that feels transactional – a barrage of interview questions designed to extract knowledge from the unicorn.


You’ll get a better level of access if you engage him or her in conversation. Conversations flow best when they include stories. Asking someone to tell you a story is an invitation for them to talk about themselves which often leads to an uninhibited flow of anecdotes and wisdom.


Begin with a question such as “I’m really interested in getting some experience in [the unicorn’s field of excellence] and I was wondering if you could tell me the story of how you first got your foot in the door?”


You’re likely to find that while you need to extrapolate the nuggets of wisdom from the stories for yourself, you’ll actually get more authentic and useful tips than if you asked “What should I do to get a job at your company?” The answer to this question would be how it should work, where the information you get from the story about how they landed their first job at the company illustrates how it actually works.


Sharing your own stories as part of your conversation with the unicorn is also a very unobtrusive  way for them to get to know you. Without needing to making a specific ask (“do you know of any job openings?”), you can express your personality, your purpose, your world view and share your experience to date. This informal networking is often more powerful than an actual job interview where you are angling for a specific role.


The unicorn (with significant influence in your field even if he/she doesn’t do any hiring per se) has the opportunity to get to know as a person rather than a candidate and if you make a positive impression there’s a chance they’ll let you know or put your name forward when an opportunity arises.


A great question to ask that encourages the unicorn to consider how they might help you in the future is “If you were me, what would you do next?”


The information you learn from a unicorn isn’t only relevant in situations where you’re working for someone else. You can put the knowledge you acquire to work straight away in your own projects. If you’re not working on something already, this could be a great time to prototype a new idea.


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