Why Won’t My Unicorn Candidate Pay Attention to Me?

  Everyone’s in search of a unicorn in the Bay Area. Hiring managers want to recruit exceptional people, and at BVOH Finance & Accounting Search, we pride ourselves on helping them do that. But unicorns are rare for a reason, and hiring managers sometimes become impatient when the best and the brightest aren’t knocking down their doors. Their sense of urgency is understandable. These are great, often fast-moving companies, and they don’t want a hiring lull to slow them down. I work with a lot of CEOs and CFOs at high-growth, venture-backed companies who are keen to find a controller or head of finance to round out their financial teams on the way to raising a round of financing or an IPO. They often want someone with a degree from a top university, a strong GPA, and either an MBA or experience with one of the Big Four accounting firms. These are focused people who know what they’re looking for in candidates, and they don’t want to compromise on quality. So it’s reasonable that they become impatient when they’re not inundated with great options right away. Sometimes they panic because a position has been open for a long time and they’re not seeing promising candidates who can fill the role. They feel discouraged and frustrated, and our team empathizes with how difficult this process is. But if you are struggling to attract the candidates you want, chances are there’s still some work left to do on your end. That’s good news, because it means your unicorn is still out there, waiting to be found. Here’s why you might not have connected with them yet.

Unicorns Are Already in Great Roles

The Bay Area job market is full of outstanding people who are working for fantastic companies. Odds are, the unicorn you want is already thriving in a rewarding role, and the only thing that will entice them to leave is a genuinely superior opportunity. If your company is on a faster growth trajectory than their current employer, you can use that as a selling point. Perhaps that means they’re likely to be promoted faster, accelerating their success.

“Odds are, the unicorn you want is already thriving in a rewarding role, and the only thing that will entice them to leave is a genuinely superior opportunity.”

But your best bet for winning over a unicorn is to offer them a position that represents the next step in their career. Clients often want to hire someone for the same position they already hold. However, unicorns don’t want to make lateral moves; they want new challenges and responsibilities. A willingness to take a risk on someone who is smart and talented but will be stepping up into the new position broadens the range of interested candidates you’ll see. For instance, if you want to hire a controller, you’ll want to meet with assistant controllers or candidates coming straight out of public accounting. This may seem like a compromise on quality, but hiring someone from a lower position benefits the company. The person who is graduating into a higher-level role will be more committed to the job because they feel they have something to prove. They’re not going to get bored because their day-to-day responsibilities are more of the same. Someone who checks six or seven of your ten must-have boxes can be trained and molded into your ideal fit for this role.  

Your Compensation Offer Doesn’t Match Their Needs

Many startups will ask candidates to take a step down in cash compensation in exchange for generous equity. That would have been an attractive offer several years ago, but the economics have changed. The cost of living in the Bay Area has risen to a point at which it doesn’t make sense for most people to accept equity instead of cash. Even if a candidate wanted to accept the equity, their financial obligations might not allow it. Most people cannot afford a salary reduction from $250,000 to $200,000, despite the fact that the equity will be worth much more to them in the long run. You can open up your candidate pool by increasing your base compensation and bonuses to accommodate a wider set of people’s financial needs. Better still, give them a say in their compensation structures. Allowing people to decide whether they want more cash or equity prevents you from alienating great people based on their financial circumstances.

You Don’t Know Who Your Unicorn Is

Clients often assume they need to interview several top-tier candidates before choosing their unicorn. But you don’t have the luxury of being overly deliberative. It’s a candidate’s market, and if you don’t move quickly, you will lose your number one pick. To ensure that you don’t miss out, get really clear about who your unicorn is. What are the non-negotiable traits you want to see? Be specific about the type of person who will be a cultural fit for your organization. The more detailed you are about who you want to hire, the better a job we can do of vetting candidates. Then, when you meet someone you like, you can hire them quickly and with confidence.

You’re Thinking Too Long-Term

In many ways, long-term planning is a good thing — but not when it comes to hiring. While you want someone who will stick around, it’s misguided to try to hire someone based on their potential trajectory within your company.

“Hire the people you need today and know that you’ll be able to repeat the process successfully as you grow.”

I sometimes see situations in which companies try to hire someone into the controller role who might later become CFO. This puts an incredible amount of pressure on the decision since you’re trying to hire the right person today for a seat you want to fill five years from now. Instead, focus on finding the very best person for the current position and be OK with the idea that the startup might outgrow that person within the next few years. You can hire someone new at that time, which is not a bad scenario for a fast-moving, high-growth company. When your startup is young, it’s simply not big enough to attract the people you ultimately want in your executive seats. Hire the people you need today and know that you’ll be able to repeat the process successfully as you grow.

How To Catch a Unicorn

Ultimately, recruiting a unicorn comes down to the overall offer and experience. In addition to providing great compensation, you must also show them you’re enthusiastic about bringing them on board. A great interview panel — preferably one that includes a current on-staff unicorn — can demonstrate the dynamic, diverse team they’ll be joining, while strategic events and meetings will give them a sense of what their day-to-day experience would be like. Unicorns are busy and in demand, so you need to make a compelling pitch for why they should work with you.  

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