Wanted: More Unicorns

By Steve McKee

Picture the scene: Big new client. Exciting, innovative engagement. Enthusiastic team. Off to a great start just as the days are getting longer and the summer sun growing warmer. Yet before the end of Labor Day weekend, the project had gone totally off the rails.

The company’s CEO (I’ll call him Chris) recounted the story to me in chilling detail. It was not only a new client he was dealing with but also a new product which still had a few kinks to be worked out.

“We were trying to build the machine and put stuff through it at the same time,” he said. “It was more complicated than we thought.”

The complexity his team faced was exacerbated by secondary effects. Other vendors’ timelines started slipping, which caused a cascade of delays. “Parts of it were coming in over budget, too,” Chris said, “but because we were late, there was less time to do anything about it.”

In an effort to speed up and hit promised timelines, some members of the team took shortcuts. “The client needed proposals, budgets and schedules,” Chris said, “and they were all just late. We were missing deadlines, he was being difficult, and it created a rat’s nest of issues.”

Disaster loomed. Sure enough, by Labor Day weekend the unhappy client sent Chris an angry text: “You’re late, this is coming in over budget, and you’re sending me proposals that don’t make sense. If this doesn’t change, we’re done.”

Chris — one of the most conscientious and responsible men I’ve ever met — had all but given up. “I wanted to quit this guy and never talk to him again.”

Until the story took an unexpected turn.

One of Chris’s key staff members took it upon herself to change the project’s trajectory. “She just picked it up, put it on her back, and did what it took to fix it,” he said. She had done nothing wrong herself, and the fact that the client was highly annoyed made stepping up to fix things even less appealing. But she ran into the burning building anyway.

“She went and set up shop at the site for three weeks,” said her somewhat stunned boss. “Just claimed an office. Planted herself there. Took control of all the vendors, filled the leadership vacuum, got everybody talking, and willed the team to work together better.”

Because she was present (in more ways than one), she ended up forming a bond with the client. With each passing day he began to loosen up, soften up and trust her. It wasn’t long before the project got back on track.

Around Christmastime, Chris received another communique from his customer, this time with a more cryptic message: “We need to talk about your involvement in the next project.” Expecting to be fired, Chris was stunned when he spoke to the now-chipper client who told him he wanted to award them a new assignment — almost three times the size of the first one.

“She was the catalyst that changed the relationship,” Chris told me, referring to his key staff member. “She’s a unicorn; I knew that,” he said. “But that was ‘unicorn of unicorn’ stuff. I’ve seen her act that way with her team, but to see her do it with a guy who she never expected to give anything back shows her fabric. For the good of the team, the company, and the project, she was willing to put herself in that position. I wish I had 10 of her.”

Oh, to find more unicorns. We all know people who are capable of putting a project on their backs and willing it to success, but they tend to be rare. It’s difficult to identify someone with the kind of character that refuses to write off apparent lost causes — a leader (regardless of rank or title) who is prepared to seize the reins, step in to serve, invent on the fly and deny the temptation to take offense at every slight.

It’s one thing to say in an interview, “Tell me about a time when things went downhill and you fixed the situation.” You might get a good answer, but you also might get a tall tale (or at least an embellished one). Nobody is going to admit that they don’t have the will or ability to fix things. Yet few do. If only we could bottle their pluck and mettle.

As Chris recounted his story, it made me wonder what I would have done in a similar situation, and also to be grateful for the people I know who regularly exhibit unicorn behavior. The list isn’t long.

Perhaps the best way to find more unicorns is to begin by looking in the mirror and cultivating unicorn behavior in ourselves. Make it less about bottling pluck and mettle than developing pluck and mettle. Less about finding another strong back than strengthening our own.

I suppose if we all did that, not only would we have more unicorns, but more people would see what unicorns can do. Unicorns would then beget more unicorns, and soon enough we’d have plenty of unicorns to go around.

They’d be less rare, but no less special.

Originally published on SmartBrief on Leadership

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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