In Search of the Purple Squirrel (and NFL Championships)

If you have worked in talent acquisition and recruiting in the last decade, you have certainly come across the term “purple squirrel.”  For those not familiar with the term, purple squirrel is used to describe the “perfect candidate” that meets each and every job qualification (you know, the person your hiring manager expects you to have found yesterday!). Just as purple squirrels do not exist in nature, the perfect and flawless job candidate is what all recruiters aim to find and as we all know…do not exist either!

Legendary Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi (of the greatest professional sports franchise of all time*) was once quoted as saying to his team:

“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”

Coach Lombardi and his teams chased perfection, winning an amazing five NFL Championships in seven years in the 1960’s, but even he was not able to achieve the “purple squirrel” of football and have a perfect, undefeated record during his tenure. However, Coach Lombardi’s words should be a lesson for us all, not just in recruiting, but also for life in general.

So, what are some ways that recruiters can still “seek the purple squirrel” and “catch some excellence” during the recruitment process without feeling like it is an impossible journey?

Know specifically what you are looking for. In my opinion, this is probably the most important part of the recruitment process. While is true that “even a blind squirrel (not purple) finds a nut once in a while”, this is not the way to go when recruiting. Conducting a proper job analysis, regardless of whether it is a new position vacancy or a replacement, will help both the recruiter and the hiring manager to identify the core functions and requirements of the position, determine the experience and skills needed to be successful in the position, and finalize other critical details (salary, training, travel, etc.) that are essential to the position. I would equate initiating a recruitment without first conducting a job analysis with the hiring manager to being sent to the grocery store to shop for someone else without a shopping list,…where would you even begin?

Level the expectations. Once most of the major details about the position and the recruitment have been identified, setting and often leveling expectations is usually a prudent next step. Often times, hiring managers (and recruiters) are stressed to fill a vacancy as soon as possible. Managing the expectations, with an understanding that a balance between filling a vacancy as soon as possible with still conducting a thorough search, will almost always result in better and more quality hires. Be realistic.

Put out some nuts. If you are looking to attract squirrels, you find out what they are most interested in and where they gather. When recruiting, some basic research to determine what attracts employees to your organization can help you market both the position and employer to prospective candidates. Also, reaching out to where candidates may gather (professional organizations, clubs, student career centers, etc.) can also put you in the best position to reach to more potential candidates. Don’t wait for them to find you, go out and seek them out!

Communicate, communicate, and communicate. This is as obvious as it reads, but make sure that all parties involved, hiring managers and candidates, are communicated with promptly, regularly, and transparently. It is a well-known fact that candidates that have had a negative experience with a prospective employer will tell others, likely to others in their own field or industry. Being torched on Glassdoor or on social media platforms for poor practices will just make your job harder. Ensure that candidates are treated like your best customers and even if/when they are not selected, leave with a positive view of your organization. They may be your next “nearly purple squirrel” for a future recruitment.

Don’t spray paint a grey squirrel purple. It can be tempting to “sell” a candidate to a hiring manager that you know does not meet requirements or is clearly not suitable for the vacancy, but still do so to “satisfy” the recruitment. Don’t do it! Having worked in a contingency staffing agency firm in the past, I know the feeling of having a sales manager ask for “anyone, just anyone” to present to the customer. I’ve found that if you don’t have candidates that remotely match the requirements, don’t “paint them as a purple squirrel” and hope for the best. Your efforts will be better spent by taking the time to source and find the best suitable candidates to maintain future credibility both internally and with your customers.

So, whether you are “searching for the purple squirrel” as a recruiter or leading a professional football team as a head coach, “chasing perfection” is still a winning strategy. While we may not necessarily catch a purple squirrel or hoist an NFL World Championship trophy (not coincidently named after Coach Vince Lombardi) each season, catching excellence is still a worthy outcome for your efforts.

*Footnote – The editor of this post is a shareholder of the Green Bay Packers and has an unapologetic bias toward this legendary NFL franchise celebrating their 100th season.


Super Bowl I, II, XXXI & XLV Champions


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