Skillsoft Blog

The Quest for the Purple Squirrel

By Kyle Gingrich


Do you remember when you were a child and always on a seemingly endless quest to find a unicorn or a dragon or some other mythical creature? Well, what if it turns out, the search is over and what you were looking for is, with a little tweaking, right in front of you?

The term ‘purple squirrel’ is used by recruiters to describe the perfect, checks all the boxes, job candidate. And just like our youthful futile searches, this perfect candidate, the ‘purple squirrel’ that so many hours are spent looking for, in truth doesn’t exist. Of course everyone wants to find and hire the perfect candidate, but given both rarity and the difficulty in finding such an individual, is it worth all the effort? Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lance Haun addresses this very question and asks us to consider the following problems with this approach: the recruiter’s wasted time, the stress on the team waiting to fill the opening, the lost productivity or innovation due to a missing team member, the cost of recruiting other openings… the list is endless.

But what’s the alternative? Settling for a lesser candidate?


If you can’t find a purple squirrel, you must create one!

What do I mean?

Say for example you are looking to find a new Network Security Administrator- hey who isn’t??

Rather than wasting time looking for a ‘purple squirrel’, rethink the process.

Start by identifying a candidate who has the core qualities you’re looking for in the ideal candidate, I’m not talking about specific skills like x years of experience managing Oracle databases or fluency in Python, but rather the characteristics, the fundamental traits needed to succeed as a Network Security Administrator, or whatever position you need filling. What traits does the person need to possess? Does the role require the person to be detail-oriented? Patient? A good collaborator? Methodical?

Now look at the candidate you have in mind. They have the traits required and they have several years of experience in network administration and more recently have expressed a keen interest in branching into security. Additionally they come highly recommended. However, then you discover that they are missing the security experience listed.

Rather than simply eliminating them and having to start from scratch, decide instead to provide them with on-the-job training – in this scenario perhaps for certification in something like CompTIA Security+.

Now you have the ideal candidate. In other words, you have caught a ‘purple squirrel’.

What’s even better is that investing in an employee isn’t just about filling an immediate need; it’s also an investment in developing and retaining skilled employees for the future. Giving them the skills that allow them to remain relevant to your organization as it grows. Another win-win for everyone. And employees are constantly telling us that they want to learn, they want the opportunity to develop and progress in their careers and will stay longer for a company if the possibility to do so is present.

So again, by not dismissing candidates simply because they are not ‘purple squirrels’, you are creating a workplace that meets the needs and desires of modern employees.

Take a new look at all the squirrels around you, put on your technicolored glasses and see all the purple squirrels!

On a side note

When I first started to speak about the purple squirrel, I didn’t think they existed — that was, until I presented in India at the Skillsoft Perspectives conference. At the end of my session, I was politely informed that the Indian Giant Squirrel which although not purple à la Barney, its fur can, under certain lights, take on a purple hue.

Who knew? Wonder if that means there might be unicorns out there too?

Kyle Gingrich is the VP of IT and Certification at Skillsoft.

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