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Purple Squirrel?

by Maria Onyango November 28, 2012

​I recently read an article on Purple Squirrels. Bear with me...

"No such animal!" I hear you cry. Actually, the Daily Mail reported a bona fide purple squirrel found in the garden of a couple in Pennsylvania.

But then again, that is the Daily Mail. In any case, I had never heard of the term 'Purple Squirrel' until a couple of days ago. It refers to a candidate who is a genuine game changer; the sort of candidate who can turn a company around in one fell swoop. The sort of candidate who comes around once every ten years, and has more impact than all your other hires that year, combined.

At Freshminds, we generally look for Purple Squirrels. They're difficult to find because they don't tend to market themselves, and they're passive in the job market. That's because everyone wants to hire them, so why bother trying? They also take a lot of selling in: a Purple Squirrel won't move for just any job. You're going to have to give them more than money - flexible working hours, a team of their very own, a puppy in the office (I joke not, this has happened).

There are many articles on how to hire Purple Squirrels and at Freshminds we make it our business to find these game changers and place them with our clients. It's a long process, but it's worth it to get the best talent into a role where they can make a huge impact. Some companies, and some roles, require that.

But what I'd really like to talk about is the bridesmaid to the Purple Squirrel's bride, that oft forgotten ugly sister. I like to call him, or her ... the Beige Vole.

The Beige Vole (not a recognised term, I hasten to add) is just a step below the Purple Squirrel. As the term suggests, they don't have the almost terrifying genius and personality of the Purple Squirrel, nor will they have reached the same towering peaks of innovation and achievement.

What they are, however, are hard workers with brains and drive. They come from strong academic backgrounds, have great experience and will have been promoted ahead of their peers. They will not, though, take your breath away completely. They are manageable in a way Purple Squirrels will never be (have you ever tried to manage a genius who knows they can get a job anywhere else?) They are a safe, safe pair of hands, who will deliver projects to budget and timescale again and again. They are very bright, if not an actual genius. They are easier to keep motivated and fulfilled in a job that may not necessarily involve reinventing the wheel on a daily basis. They are often a little more practical than the Purple Squirrel - implementation of their recommendations is easier because ... well, imagine the actual ideas that an actual Purple Squirrel would come up with. Purple-sky thinking.

My point is this: we see many clients who are quite rightly looking for the best of the best of the best - the highest flyer, with the biggest personality, the most drive and the most achievement. Finding this candidate isn't difficult - they make themselves obvious just by being amazing. Even at a Graduate level, you can spot them - the sort of candidate who the office is buzzing about for a good hour after the meeting, "She's literally the best candidate I’ve seen this year. That girl is going to have an amazing career somewhere, we have to find her the perfect role - NOW. Have you seen her CV? And she's so polished and commercial, her case study was flawless!"

But every candidate is not a Purple Squirrel. And every role is not appropriate for a Purple Squirrel, for the reasons I outlined above. So, I will often send over a Beige Vole alongside a Squirrel, and am surprised by how often a client will opt for the Vole, citing their stable nature, evidence of hard work, attention to detail and solid commerciality.

l will always, as a recruiter, look for a Purple Squirrel. And so should you, of course. But we would all do well to take a second look at the Beige Voles - their plumage may not be so bright, but in analytical and strategic roles they do extremely well, hitting the ground running and forming an essential part of a team. In their references, they are referred to as "crucial", "quick to grasp complexities", "highly professional", "exceeding targets" and "a great team member". And who wouldn't want that?

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