Organizations everywhere are coming to the realization that to be successful and relevant tomorrow means undertaking innovative action today. A major factor in making this realization a reality is building up foundational capacities, and this starts with your people.


Disclaimer: I am not a fan of labels and stereotypes, as people are usually a combition of “types” or may transition between them throughout their career based on the positions and level of authority they hold. That said, stereotypes can be helpful in understanding general groupings, so letʻs slap some labels on our unicorns and see what all the fuss is about!

While it helps when building a strong corporate culture to identify “non-negotiables” or ideal employee psychological profiles, innovative and forward-thinking companies must prioritize hiring a range of creative, multi-disciplinary thinkers and doers with diverse experiences. When you bring the right mix of people together, they push and pull an organization in such a way as to create dynamic tension and shift mindsets and workflow.

The employees who bring the ability and desire to move fluidly across disciplines are often described as “unicorns” because they are rare and harder to find and we imbue them with the quasi-magical ability to help resolve any business challenge. However, in the business world unicorns come in many colors—today’s most sought-after unicorns include the Intrapreneur, the Swiss Army Knife, and the Change Agent. The differences between them and how each type adds value to the organization is key to developing the right hiring process.


The IntrapreneurWe tend to think of this internal entrepreneur as someone who is honing their skills inside your organization until they break free from corporate shackles and build their own version of freedom. It turns out that this is not necessarily the case—many intrapreneurs simply share some of the key characteristics of entrepreneurs but don’t aspire to venture out on their own. Serial entrepreneur David K. Williams identifies The 4 Essential Traits of Intrapreneurs that make them valuable to any organization.

  1. Money is not their measurement—These folks are value focused and driven by something larger. They see and make connections that others don’t and, as natural systems thinkers, understand the business landscape and ecosystem in such a way that leads them to breakthrough ideas and solutions. This is why their solutions are often unexpected and solve wicked problems.
  2. They are “greenhousers”—Throw them a problem or share an idea and watch it germinate. It’s been said that every breakthrough is created twice—first in the mind of the visionary and second when they create it. That is the mental process of an intrapreneur. Highly strategic and natural systems thinkers and creative problem-solvers, they have an ability to mentally work with and evolve something into a fully envisioned outcome.
  3. They know how to pivot—Energized by opportunity and committed to the vision and outcome, they are comfortable with trial-and-error process and changing course when necessary. For the intrapreneur, failure would be staying on the wrong course and compromising the integrity of their goals.
  4. They behave authentically and with integrity—My personal favorite, and what Forbes has identified as the most important trait, is that they are able to strike the tricky balance between confidence and humility. Guided by value-based contribution and committed to the outcome, the best intrapreneurs are successful because of their foundation of integrity.


The Swiss Army KnifeEmployees are often categorized is as I-shape or T-shape, the Is being highly skilled in one discipline or knowledge area while the Ts are specialists in one area with the bonus of being generalists in others. In his 2005 book on globalization, The World Is Flat, author and columnist Thomas K. Friedman introduced the concept of a different type of employee, a “Swiss Army knife employee” with deep experience in two or more areas in addition to broad knowledge across others.

Swiss Army knife employees drive innovation in companies in many ways:

  • They act as catalysts for change
    Innovation usually takes root only when a company is willing to open its closed or “siloed” environments and support cross-functional teams. A Swiss Army knife employee embodies by definition a cross-functional mindset and naturally bridges practice areas, making it easier for teams to find common ground and fluidly collaborate.
  • They are agile
    For blended skill employees, the variety and challenge of managing and contributing across many projects and disciplines is exciting rather than chaotic and overwhelming. Driven by a desire to learn and with a natural interest in many disciplines, these employees lead the way when you need to quickly change focus and ramp up in new areas. In fact, they are typically two steps ahead and are a support system for others.
  • They thrive when asked to scale up
    Successful growth along a steep trajectory requires an organization and its processes to be scalable. The tricky part is remaining profitable during the most intense segments of the growth phase. It’s unlikely efforts to staff up to meet demand will happen (at least successfully) during crunch time. Having Swiss Army knife employees already within your ranks to support scaling up (or down) eases the transition. They can train new hires across multiple areas and often make great mentors who internally develop the talent to replace them.
  • They offer a unique lens through which to evaluate the business ecosystem
    Like a camera lens, a Swiss Army employee can hyper-focus on more than one area and then quickly zoom out or up to see the entire situation holistically. They often identify potential challenges and blind spots as well as opportunities for growth and improvement long before most other people. This ability is priceless.


The Change AgentAlthough the drivers and champions of change can be people with highly independent or even aggressive personalities, when work environments are collaborative and a team mentality is part of the organizational culture, these kinds of unicorns can help take your organization from what is happening to what is possible. These valuable creatures fall into two main categories and understanding the difference is key.

  • Change Leaders
    The change leader champions innovation within an organization and maintains overall responsibility for the process. Whether or not they have developed the idea or strategy being implemented, their role (and the expectation) is to improve the odds of success through establishing clear expectations, facilitating the process, and providing support and guidance as needed. Given the painful and disruptive nature of change, leaders must also develop strong, trusting relationships with their teams, and monitor and manage risk in order to recalibrate the process as often as necessary.
  • Change Makers
    Typically, part of a small group, changemakers usually spearhead centralized innovation within a large, traditional organization. Their role is to create the pathway for the organization to achieve bold objectives. These innovators have blended skill sets and subject matter expertise across multiple areas. They are often identified from within because they possess the desired qualities and mindset (i.e., creative thinking) to handle ambiguity while remaining resilient, passionate, imaginative in seeing opportunities within every challenge, and action oriented.


The right resources, skills, and competencies can infuse an environment with innovative thinking, agility, and action, and effectively take it to the next level. Yes, your people are your biggest asset and can bridge the gap to what’s possible. The magnitude and difficulty of driving change, however, makes this easier said than done.

The challenge is not in the training and hiring, but in the preliminary stage where we understand and design the right approach for your organization—one that takes into account the uniqueness of every organization and connects where you are with where you want to go.

So, you want find and hire a unicorn (or maybe a stable full of them), now what?

  1. Create a capability blueprint (not a job description) to map existing factors to future needs—this will help you gain clarity around the right people who can get you there.
  2. Know the considerations and elements of organizational structure that are necessary for this new breed of employee to stay and thrive in your environment.

The bottom line: have a clear vision of the future, invest in the preliminary work, and then develop and hire the people that can game change your organization.

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