[Life Back West] January 2014 – How Do You Care for Unicorns?

You know them when you see them – which is seldom – and fully appreciate them after they’re gone and not when you have a chance to know them.

White unicorn on red

They are the type of people who rare; people by dint of background, experience, situation, skills or simply by being who are highly unique in a world where many of us are commodity plug and play.

I think of them as unicorns.

And how would you feel if you were them when you look around a room and see people who are not at all like you?

You would feel different.

It’s the same way with most unicorns: you just don’t notice the difference until someone points it out to you.

And if that’s the case – think of a giraffe without the presence of taller trees and brown savanna – blending in can be tough.

Like golfer and member Darla Moore at Augusta National or former CEO Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae, they are few-of-a-kinds not looking for a special deal but rather a fair shake with their unique status. Things like avoiding pointing out the obvious differences unless they’re relevant, and focusing on the common similarities that are important.

I still cringe when I think of the story a friend I’ll call Trudy told about the first staff meeting of her new CEO boss. As somebody who worked her way up the ranks – not unlike General Motors new CEO Mary Barra – Trudy started working straight out of school and never had much opportunity to go to college or B-school.

She knew the business frontwards and backwards, and every troubleshooting assignment became a chit on the wall someplace marking her success. But when her new boss started staff introductions by asking people to say where they’d gone to college and grad school, Trudy knew she that though she was a unicorn, unicorn hunting season was now open; she wouldn’t be staying with the firm much longer.

You’d never guess her lack of a formal degree – Trudy might have well as had her doctorate in the more valuable school of real life – until somebody thought to make it important. What she otherwise brought to the table was worth far more that 4-6 years of formal schooling.

Or a friend I’ll call Betty who went to her first global meeting with 25+ other managing partners from around the world and had a first thought of “where are the other women?” as she noticed she was the only female in attendance.

Or a househusband I know I’ll call Joe who observed that the playground circuit was filled with nannies and stay-at-home wives and that he seldom got invited to “have coffee” with the other caregivers he’d bump into. When you’re an obvious one of a kind in a setting it’s hard not to notice the differences and think that people are acting based on that difference as opposed to the personal you.

As a parent of the only boy with two dads at my son’s school, unicorn thinking has become a part of the way I spend my life. Not different until somebody by word or deed points it out, and then you really notice.

Through the lives of the Trudy’s and Joe’s and Betty’s of the world I’ve gotten a sense of some of the important points though of unicorn care:

  • Observe the elephant in the room.  You don’t need to make a big deal (“Hey! There’s a househusband in our midst!” ) but stating in the obvious is a good place to start. It clears the air. It frames the setting. (“It’s great to see you join us Joe. We wish we had more househusbands in the group and thank you for being one of them.)
  • Ask for and offer help. Todd Wanerman at our son’s preschool was terrific. Todd said something to the effect of “We haven’t had much experience with 2-dad families. What should we know about your family that would help with us your son, and would you mind helping us get up the learning curve along the way?” Todd’s statement gave us permission to point out when things went south (or north) and also enlisted us to make things better for others following behind us.
  • Be authentically curious and caring.  Like asking the vegan at the carnivore’s brunch “how are you doing?” in a way that communicates that you’re keenly sincere,  learn to listen when unicorns make suggestions. Unlike like a species like the self-promoting hyenas for example, unicorns are prone to make few sounds so it’s important to get it right.
  • A little humor goes a long ways. We live in a world that can be rigidly PC (and rigidly politically incorrect as well) so having some heart and humor to share can be a salve on any real or imagined wound. You saw it when President Obama saluted John Boehner in his 2013 State of the Union speech and at the same time reminded people of his humble beginnings – “how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth.”

So the care and feeding of unicorns is not so different than taking care of anyone else in your life.

The difference? You frequently only get one chance with unicorns because there are so few of them around.

My advice if you’re lucky enough to know one of these rare people?

Enjoy them while you can; they’ll be gone before you know it.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.


 White unicorn on red. Photo credit: Wikipedia.






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