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How to Nurture an Office 'Unicorn'

A businessman wearing a unicorn mask in front of a laptop.

​Where can a manager find a staffer who has the "it" factor—someone who leads by example, makes a difference in tough times and outperforms on a regular basis?

That team member could be right under the manager's nose.

Say hello to the "unicorn": the workplace superstar who routinely displays skills that separate the individual from the rest of the team. Much like the unicorn of myth and legend, employee unicorns are rare. Workplace experts say a unicorn can be a game-changer for managers, blowing past standard team expectations and raising the bar for the rest of the team.

So how do you recognize one, and how do you nurture the individual's pursuit of excellence on the job, especially when other team members may not display the same level of performance?

The answer for managers, experts say, is to build a nurturing, open-door culture where unicorns can thrive and where managers may need to play favorites to get the most out of their employees.

[Want to learn more about managing people? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Identifying a Workplace Unicorn

Having the good fortune to work with a unicorn is a big deal, though identifying a genuine superstar isn't as easy as you might think.

The good news is that unicorns share common traits that managers can come to recognize.

"In my career—managing upwards of 5,000 people at one point—I was always on the lookout for unicorns to help our team achieve our business objectives," said D Sangeeta, founder at Gotara, a career advice platform for women in STEM fields, located in Seattle. "Even in a pool of thousands, the true stars always shine for specific reasons."

Here's how Sangeeta spots unicorns at work:

1. They consistently go above and beyond what's expected of them.

2. They suggest creative ways to build on or reimagine existing solutions.

3. They pull the team—or even extended teams—together because of their collaborative and inspiring working style.

4. They identify ways to solve a problem or meet a customer's needs in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

5. They identify and help their companies avoid potential business disasters. In some cases, they spot and suggest solutions to problems managers hadn't even considered.

6. They understand the company's financials—and work strategically to help the company achieve those goals.

"Every unicorn I worked with was self-motivated," Sangeeta said. "But everyone—even a unicorn—appreciates when her efforts are recognized. What genuinely motivates her is when you offer her opportunities to grow her skills. She's like a racehorse; you need to let her run ahead of the pack."

Managing the Unicorn Experience

Properly harnessing a superstar employee also isn't easy, particularly when the individual isn't aware of his or her own talent.

One key is recognizing potential early on.

"My unicorn crushes everything on her to-do list, ensures everyone who works directly for her also continually outperforms expectations, and then enjoys spending her free time solving problems and finding solutions in nearly every other area of the company," said Sarah Kitlowski, chief executive officer at Omeza, a medical technology company based in Sarasota, Fla. "Her team of five does the work of 10."

When Kitlowski interviewed her unicorn, she immediately recognized the individual as an overachiever who was already committed, driven and passionate about her work.

"That said, I also discovered that she'd likely never been challenged to work at her true peak potential," Kitlowski noted.

After the employee's first few weeks on the job, Kitlowski set about building confidence in her unicorn by giving the staffer long lists of easy but important tasks. "Once she cleared that hurdle, our leadership team started to truly challenge our unicorn," Kitlowski added. "She was pushed to learn, take responsibility and deliver on challenges completely different than anything she'd done before."

Kitlowski saw the unicorn was capable of succeeding with all assigned projects before the unicorn realized the same thing.

"I know she was privately brought to tears by some of the difficulty of the first big projects, and yet her absolute tenacity carried her through," Kitlowski said. "The continual build-up of confidence, trust and feedback until success is critical, until you have talent that feels comfortable to really play big and take risks—and that's where the unicorn magic happens."

Tips on Getting the Most out of a Unicorn

Unicorns may be majestic forces on the job, but they do have horns. Consequently, your unicorn likely requires special handling. Start that process with these tips and strategies.

Don't get in the way. True unicorns are humble but know what they bring to the table and don't want to be held back.

"Many high-performers have been told to calm down, stifle their strength and hinder their successes because others can't achieve the same thing," said Diana Venckunaite, managing partner at AMP Learning and Development, a business presentation skills company in Denver. "To me, that is a terrible idea. I would never hinder a person's success on my team, [a person] who is doing an amazing job for our clients and for our company. A unicorn should be treated well, or they can leave a company. Who wants to lose a star?"

Don't let a unicorn supersede management authority. One of the issues with overachievers is they may go directly to the CEO to demand extra assets and try to steamroll office competitors.

"Managers should [insist that] a unicorn adhere to your organization's hierarchy and address their immediate director on all issues," said Jennifer Bennett, founder of Law Office of Jennifer Bennett in Chicago. "Additionally, don't allow overachievers to single out associates whom they view as failing to meet expectations. State that it's your work as a manager to assess and [motivate] team members. Any objections ought to be carried directly to you."

Recognize their leadership skills and reward them. Kitlowski promoted her unicorn within the first 90 days and began building up a team below her.

"I'll continue to do so," Kitlowski said. "Her feedback is continually sought and trusted, and we've given her unilateral decision-making in a lot of areas. When she needs my time, she always has it, [although] unicorns require less management than normal employees, as they are often internally and intrinsically guided."

Give them the space and platform they need to do their best work. High-achieving employees are natural-born leaders, so give them the opportunity to manage a team of their own.

"Let them make key workplace decisions, create teams and manage projects with higher levels of responsibility. That way, the rest of your team can follow in their footsteps and learn from their successes," said Anthony Martin, CEO of Choice Mutual, a final expense agency based in Reno, Nev. "You might start with one high achiever, but if you hand them the reins, you could end up with a team full of them."

Don't "kill" the unicorn. Equally valuable to grooming a unicorn is ensuring you don't lose one.

"There are plenty of examples of managers doing actual damage to unicorns," Kitlowski said. She cited the following examples:

*Dismissing extra work they perform as unnecessary.

*Failing to give feedback on exceptional performance.

*Assuming they want to stay in their current position.

*Failing to provide opportunities to grow by trying new projects.

*Giving them too much busywork just because you know it'll get done.

*Failing to treat them like the leaders they are—even if they aren't in a formal leadership position.

"Above all, always keep your word with a high-achieving staffer," Kitlowski said. "A [unicorn] must trust themselves and the organization to be able to make choices and take risks."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).


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