Effective techniques for unicorn hunters

This is a follow-up to my earlier rant about unicorns.

As with the data challenges of genomics, I feel like we’ve been talking about this unicorn thing forever, or at least long enough that it’s awkward to keep pretending that it’s a new thing. There has been plenty of time (years!) for the community to pivot and for people to train up to meet our needs. If they haven’t done that, I think it’s because we’ve been unclear.

Terms like “unicorn” allow sloppy thinking. Instead of “unicorn,” we should go ahead and post the actual requirements.

A typical unicorn posting might be fleshed out like this:

  • Must have worked at a Silicon Valley startup that imploded because of culture issues.
  • Must already know our VCs / founders from the climbing gym and/or Burning Man.
  • Must be white, male, and creepily fascinated with virginity. Horn optional.

I’m just kidding, of course. Here is a more serious attempt:

  • Full stack development experience, including node.js and python
  • Devops experience with continuous integration, test, and deployment tools like Jenkins, Travis, and Bamboo
  • Systems engineering experience, including container technologies like Docker, orchestration tools like Kubernetes, infrastructure tools like Terraform, and configuration managers like Puppet.
  • Solid grounding in Agile development
  • Familiar with information security principles.

Admittedly, that’s a lot of tools, but unlike the list up top, it is actionable on the part of the job seeker. With a couple of years of evenings and weekends, a bright tech person could spin up on that whole stack.

Well written job descriptions also serve to counteract existing biases in your hiring process.

If we want to solve the unicorn shortage, this is the path. Clear, actionable, specific job requirements. The local climbing gym just isn’t big enough to satisfy the needs of a growing industry.

Language and listening

A friend and mentor once described language as “the operating system of organizations.” They said that a large portion of effective leadership lies in actually listening to the words that a team uses to describe their situation.

It’s a subtle and powerful way to work, and it doesn’t come naturally (at least to me). I lost count of the number of times I sought my mentor’s advice on a challenging situation only to have them ask if I had asked the problem person (employee, peer, or even senior stakeholder) why they were doing something in some particular way.

The answers were surprising, and they almost always contained the kernel of a real solution.

Spoiler alert: It usually wasn’t all about me.

This was part of a larger philosophy rooted in the idea that people, by and large, are doing their best. The complexity is that it’s actually “their best, as they understand it.” The real performance gap, I came to understand, was almost always in the space between the organization’s needs and the way that the team members understood those needs and how to achieve them.

In other words, a gap in performance is very, very frequently about leadership and communication, especially listening. It’s about taking the time to listen to the words that somebody is using, accepting that it’s not all about you, and asking that person what they mean until you understand where they’re coming from. It’s hard work. Changing behavior in this way requires us to put in not just hours, but also emotional energy.

It’s incredibly powerful.

This is true at all levels: Whether you are leading a cloud transformation or just getting that problem colleague to actually deliver on what they promised – language and listening is often the key to unlocking things.

Spoiler alert: The “problem colleague” doesn’t think of themselves as the “problem colleague.” They are probably not even thinking about you at all.

The same mentor was also ruthless about the concept of culture. They taught me that “culture is made out of behaviors.” If you want to change a culture, change the behavior. To do this, we need to get incredibly specific about the behaviors to be changed, and even more specific about the way that we intend to replace them.

Cultural change frequently starts with listening to the words the team uses. Routine patterns of conversation come to define people’s thoughts and understanding.

It is well worth your while to listen for specific words and themes in your workplace conversation. If you can learn to spend most of your time in conversations and meetings listening, rather than talking, the answer is frequently right there in the conversation. People want to be understood. They want to do a good job.

Spoiler alert: It’s usually not about you. When it is about you, well … you know. That’s part of why this is hard work.

It’s totally worth it. Language, starting with listening, puts handholds and control levers on the otherwise slippery and massive thing that is “culture.” Learning to hear and adjust the language that a team uses, it’s root level access to your team’s operating system.

And once you have elevated privilege on the OS, you can do anything.