Sheryl Adkins-Green, CMO, Mary Kay Inc. led The CMO Club Virtual Roundtable discussion, Attracting and Retaining Unicorns, where she looked at the challenges in finding and retaining that special breed of employee.

“It’s a challenge that I’ve experienced,” Adkins-Green said. “How do I attract and retain those individuals that are going to bring the creative, the collaborative skills, the leadership skills, and at the same time have that mix of hard skills – analytics, digital savvy, and financial acumen.”

Why “unicorns” are difficult to find

An individual may not necessarily know he or she is a “unicorn,” Adkins-Green said. That person may have chosen or been steered toward a path, perhaps through their college major. Maybe they’ve been working with numbers, but they’re not excited about it. Or they’re in a creative role and are restless for a role where they can see a more measurable impact, she said.

“The implication for us as CMOs is we have to work harder to recognize them,” she said.

At the same time, there arenot many of them out there and increasingly, every organization is looking for these individuals. High demand and short supply make them harder to find, Adkins-Green said.

Identifying the unicorns in your midst

There is an element of trial and error in identifying those unicorns, Adkins-Green said. She shared several ideas from Mary Kay that are successful:

  • Internships are a way to identify potential unicorns, she said. “If you can catch them early, an internship gives this person who wants to explore a career experience outside their major the opportunity,” Adkins-Green said. This might be someone who studied finance but is curious about marketing, for example.
  • Internal internships. Mary Kay has a formal internal internship program through which an individual from any part of the company, with their manager’s support, can ask to take on an assignment in another department. “It really does encourage that individual who wants to learn more about opportunities outside of their function to explore but at the same time, not take the bigger career risk of changing jobs or changing functions,” Adkins-Green said. Through this kind of “cross-pollination,” Mary Kay is able to identify individuals that have that unique set of skills, she said.
  • Lunch and Learn events. Open to the entire company, the marketing team hosts these events where any employee who’s interested can learn more about what’s happening within marketing, digital, etc.,she said. “Some who turn up from other functional area may be your next unicorn.” she said. “You see who shows up; who’s asking questions, then you follow-up to get to know them.”

“When you find those that really have consumer, customer empathy, that really relate to the customer experience, those who even in their own lives have that heightened awareness of their experience when they’re a customer – those people are going to inspire both the creativity and the results-oriented motivation,” Adkins-Green said. “They love delighting a customer.”

Nature vs Nurture

As leaders, we can nurture unicorns by the experiences and exposure we give them. Often, we may not know what people are capable of until we give them the chance. Inspire and motivate each employee as an individual, and customize their experience, since every person is different.

“Retention starts with your understanding of theindividual, and what’s most important to them,” she said. “Money and perks can buy you time, but I don’t think they buy you loyalty.”

At the same time, unicorns are curious and they love to learn, Adkins-Green said. Provide them with a variety of experiences, from in-market visits to conferences, art events and more.

“Being very intentional about the kinds of experiences that will fuel their creativity,” she said.

Give them the opportunity to experiment. Unicorns believe in possibilities, love to learn, and can be fearless about trying things that haven’t been done or people say can’t be done. As a manager, be comfortable as well when that experiment doesn’t yield the exact results that were expected, she said.

Last, don’t act like a “donkey.” Don’t be that person or group that gets stuck in the tried and true, and finds reasons why something won’t work, Adkins-Green said.

In closing, Adkins-Green said she’s proud of those unicorns she’s attracted and retained but knows that every day she needs to continue thinking about how to keep them.

“We create new career paths that are going to motivate these individual with these unique skill sets that don’t necessarily align to traditional organization roles,” she said.

Check out more CMO Club Virtual Roundtable recaps and join us for upcoming Virtual Roundtables.