Purple unicorns and mountain climbing

Oct 24, 2016

Skyscape of cold purple mountains with mist and fog close to Quetzaltenango in Guatemala

Recruiting top talent to small markets is an adventure, but with persistence, you can ride the horse all the way to the summit.

As I was discussing the need for a lead architect with a small firm in Nebraska, I was reminded of a quip by General Patton: “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.”

This is relevant to any recruiter in the A/E industry. There is always a mountain to climb when presented with a difficult position to fill. But once the right person is found and placed, the exhilaration of accomplishment makes all the hard work in the recruiting process more than worthwhile.

More importantly, every company has a need to fill that seems daunting. We often call these hiring needs “purple unicorns” since the position description can paint a picture of someone that doesn’t exist. In this firm’s case, it needed an individual to not only relocate to a tiny city in Nebraska, but he would also need his AIA and NCARB registrations.

The firm had previously engaged an outside recruiting agency that managed to present one candidate over the course of six months. As a result, the Nebraska firm had remained frozen on step one of a questionable process. I was then told that it had become obvious the outside recruiters had no formal plan of execution once the candidate disclosed that he would retire within the next two years. This was indeed a “purple unicorn” for the recruiting firm with little A/E experience.

But not for us.

So what did the Zweig Group executive search team do differently? First and foremost, licensure does matter. AIA and NCARB registrations reflect not only a commitment to hard work but they demonstrate a dedication to bettering one’s architectural skill set. Most outside recruiters and agencies don’t understand the importance of licensure or even bother to screen for it.

But that’s not the way we do business, so we developed a list of every registered architect in Nebraska. The list had more than 1,900 individuals. Next, we divided the executive search team by cities in Nebraska. Every single architect on that list from a firm that performed projects similar to our client’s was going to be contacted. We narrowed and focused the list and every single architect in those firms in Nebraska would hear about the opportunity.

Furthermore, although websites like LinkedIn, Monster, Career Builder, and Indeed will advertise any and all positions for firms, there is no reason to wait around for a resume. These sites cannot control who, if anybody, applies. The right person, especially an all-star, is never going to simply fall into your lap. More specifically, there is no substitute for pounding the pavement, getting on the phone, and both properly selling the client firm’s opportunity and screening potentially interested candidates effectively.

Next, the phone calls began. Emails were sent out. Social media was engaged. What ensued was largely rejection. “I’m happy where I am, but let’s stay in touch,” was heard the most. But with each rejection, the modern A/E recruiter should imagine taking a step up the mountain. With each rejection comes the opportunity to refine how the opportunity is presented and what career advantages come with it.

Whether the interested candidates you come across are beginners or more seasoned, recruiters must know who they are trying to sell to. Candidates don’t always see the advantages of the opportunity and the firm you’re representing right away. One very qualified architect told us that she would only be willing to discuss the position further if there were to be outstanding health insurance. After providing a copy of the insurance plans that the firm utilized, the candidate agreed to proceed. It may seem like this issue is a small, trivial topic but it’s exactly these little things that make the difference between a rejection and an interview. If firms want all-star hires, then free advice or information and addressing what is of the utmost importance to candidates make the mountain climb less steep.

Another disadvantage that recruiters and websites outside the A/E industry face is that they can’t adjust. Without experience there are no consulting tips to offer. On the other hand, the Nebraska firm accepted our expertise and interviewed candidates who didn’t have resumes.

Unfortunately, many firms get hung up on demanding a resume and it causes hiring managers to miss out on potential all-stars. Imagine what would have happened if the Golden State Warriors refused to meet with Kevin Durant because he didn’t have a resume ready. Again, although this may seem like a small adjustment in the hiring process, it does help streamline qualified candidates to the hiring managers.

Finally, after three weeks of heavy lifting, Zweig Group’s executive search team presented a young AIA and NCARB licensed architect who wanted to learn more about the client firm’s culture. We also found a more seasoned architect who was interested in joining a smaller firm after having worked for international firms for the past decade. All the hard work and each step had now placed the mountain’s peak in view. The small firm in Nebraska had choices, it had multiple conversations with all-star architects, and, most importantly, it had its needs on the verge of being met in a reasonable timeline.

In the end, the firm got its ideal person by landing the additional, future leadership it needed. But even as another mountain had been conquered, another purple unicorn ran our way.

Chris Patton is the team leader of executive search at Zweig Group. Contact him at cpatton@zweiggroup.com.

This article is from issue 1168 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.