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Hiring + recruiting | Blog Post

Your Unicorn Candidate: Finding the Right Candidate

Karine Roy

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A unicorn candidate is a stellar, hard to find future employee (candidate) that is a perfect fit for your job role and a perfect match for your team culture. When thinking about defining your ideal candidates, it is common and tempting to focus solely on skillset, but in doing so, one can overlook something much more important, attitude and mindset!

As Simon Sinek once said: “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.”  Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence also concurs with this school of thought, and once said that “skills, years of experience and business degrees matter, but they don’t make you exceptional”.

So if not skills nor degrees, then what? What makes exceptional employees and how do you find them?

Here we will shed light on the qualities and characteristics of a unicorn employee, and on the steps that will help you design your interview process to spot them from the get go.

The Mindset and Traits of Unicorn Candidates

Emotional Intelligence

Traditionally, IQ (or intelligence quotient) was what hiring managers and businesses were most interested about. Of course, a high IQ comes with an assurance that candidates possess strong technical skills that will allow them to understand the most technical aspects and processes of the job, that they will be able to learn new concepts quickly and apply their knowledge to solve problems.

Although technical skills will ensure the candidate will be able to get the job done, it may not ensure that the job will get done in a way that aligns with your company values.  Nowadays a high IQ alone, unfortunately, no longer equates to being successful in the workplace!

This is where EQ (or emotional quotient) comes into play and is definitely a Unicorn candidate trait.   Candidates with high EQ will be able to learn about themselves and others emotionally and apply this knowledge to communicate more effectively, make decisions and solve problems.

Research conducted by NIH even concluded that high EQ has numerous benefits, among them you will find improved mental health, improved relationships and higher job satisfaction. Many authors have written on the subject (Daniel Golman being at the top of this list) and have defined the characteristics of people with high EQ as follows: 

According to Daniel Golman, those people have:

  • High self-awareness: the ability to understand their strengths, and weaknesses but also, and more importantly, their thoughts and feelings; where they come from, how they drive their behaviors and actions and how they impact others (this is referred to as internal self-awareness). 

Self-awareness also includes understanding how other people view them, and the unconscious message their behaviors and actions convey to others around them (referred to as external self-awareness)

  • Keen self-regulation: the ability to think before acting, specially when emotions are high or in difficult situations
  • Inherent motivation: their own personal drive and proactivity to develop and always better themselves
  • Strong sense of empathy: the ability to understand and communicate with others, even in the toughest circumstances, without judgment, biases and without letting their ego get in the way
  • Social skills: the ability to engage, listen and communicate with others and develop meaningful and trusting relationships.

Other authors also add to this list curiosity, perceptiveness, cooperativeness, humility, independence and resilience.  All traits which you can inquire about during your interview process.  You will have a list of proposed sample questions later below.

Growth Mindset

In addition to having a high EQ, Unicorns normally depict a growth (as opposed to fixed) mindset. This trait is very important in today’s world as it translates to someone being excited about new challenges, not afraid to roll up their sleeves to tackle problems or tough situations, being comfortable with receiving and asking for feedback (and acting on it) and learning from failure.

Similar to EQ, these people are curious, open minded, and self-motivated individuals. Below you will find proposed questions on these very specific traits that you can integrate in your interview plan.

It’s important to note that people’s belief system largely influences whether they will have a fixed or a growth mindset. Beliefs are hard to change unless a person is receiving some form of professional coaching or going through a personal development program.

If candidates demonstrate high self awareness, they might be conscious about the limitations caused by these beliefs, how it is impacting their work and as a result, have a strong willingness to change.  On the contrary, if self-awareness is low and your candidates are demonstrating a fixed mindset, you might want to think twice about moving them forward in the process as this will sooner or later impact their work.


We cannot stress enough the importance of diversity when you are building your team. Diversity has been proven to be directly correlated to high team performance.  Since diversity not only includes cultural differences, when looking for your Unicorn, you can also consider diversity with the following lenses, which could all contribute to building a stronger team. You can look at diversity from the lenses of gender, personality types, age and generation, ethnicity, education, skills / natural talent, and of course IQ and EQ.

Designing Your Interview Process to Find Unicorns

Validating all of these traits in an interview is best achieved by using the behavioral interviewing techniques to learn how your candidates successfully managed difficult situations,  challenges and opportunities in the past. Learn more about this approach in our Expert Interview Guide – Using the STAR Interview Method.

As you start crafting your job description for your role, a typical starting point is often to determine the must-have, non-negotiable functional skills. When looking at these skills in light of finding your Unicorn, try thinking outside the box and look for transferable skills from other domains of expertise. At times those can prove to be quite valuable.

Also pay attention to differentiate between learnable and non-learnable skills. Although your candidate may not hit 100% of your technical requirements, some technical skills can be learned quite easily. Mindset, attitudes and EQ skills, not as much! 

Also take a moment to think about “What great looks like” . Beyond the actual skills or qualities, how would you differentiate a good candidate from a great candidate?  Remember that you are looking for your Unicorn!     

Key Questions to Quickly Spot Your Unicorn Candidate

Here are a few questions you can integrate in your interview process. Although those may look like a standard set of questions at first, your Unicorn candidates will stand out as they start answering. 

Self-Awareness & EQ
– What is most important for you at work?
– What core values drive your work? Your life?
– In the last few years, what new habit, behavior or belief has most improved your life?
– What are you afraid of losing? Or gaining?
– What questions do you ask yourself on a regular basis?
– What energizes you?
– What elements of your current or previous jobs made you accept those offers?
– What are your most important values and how do they translate to what you do?
– Who inspires you and why?
– How have you contributed to your own development (personal/professional)?
Growth Mindset
– What feedback have you received recently? Who did it come from? What did you do with it?
– What type of feedback best helps you grow?
– What are you currently doing that is difficult for you?
– What behavior did you have to change in the past years and why?
– Can you provide an example of a goal you failed to meet, and how you handled the situation?
– What was the hardest thing you had to learn and why did you do it?
– What work challenge did you have to surmount in the past years and how did you do it?
– If we were a library, which section would you gravitate towards and why?
– How do you celebrate success?
– When you have felt unmotivated, how did you recover from that?
– How have you responded to a co-worker challenging you in the past?
– Tell me about a tough personal or work related challenge you had to go through.

Trouble Finding Your Unicorn Candidate?

In this case you have a few options:

  1. Revisit your requirements
  2. Wait until you find this person
  3. Settle 

If you have the luxury to go with option 2, it is probably the best way forward.

If time is of the essence however, then exploring option 1 is probably your best bet. As you revisit your requirements, avoid removing too many Unicorn candidate traits. See for instance if all the technical skills listed are really critical to the job now or could some be learned or acquired as we go?  Are the years of experience or degrees requested really a testimonial of the quality and potential of a candidate?  

If you decide to go with option 3, you need to be mindful of what you are settling on and the impact it will have on your team and culture of the organization. Settling on your requirements for high EQ and growth mindset will have a direct impact on your employee’s (and ultimately your team’s and the organization’s) performance and success. 

Continue to explore the rest of Terminal’s content offerings. If you are interested in learning more about how Terminal can support your organization and accomplish your development goals, please get in touch with our team!

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