Recruiters are often asked by clients to find them a “purple squirrel,” slang for a perfect candidate with several qualifications not often found together in one person.

Once a client asked me to recruit them a chief information officer who could also be in charge of physical security for the corporate campus, because they didn’t want to hire two people. Another asked for someone who had run both nonprofit and for-profit health information exchanges, because they wanted a person who had “credibility” with nonprofit prospects.

It is tempting to be creative and seek a profile not found in nature to optimize the organization. But I usually counsel clients against it, for several reasons.

First, without beating the metaphor into the ground, there is no such thing as a purple squirrel, aside from a one in a billion mutation. Most purple squirrels are brown squirrels that someone spray-painted.

Similarly, it is rare for first-rate candidates to have disparate skill sets that do not normally develop together. So if you are seeking a purple squirrel, you will be unlikely to find one in a timely manner. Also, the odds that their skill sets are mediocre goes up.

But let’s say you do find your purple squirrel, and they are everything you are looking for. Are you home free? Unfortunately, no.

One key to operational excellence in scaling an organization is to not have the organization dependent on unique skill sets.

Rather, roles should be designed so that competent people can do them competently, and high performers can hit the ball out of the park.

If your purple squirrel leaves, are you back to seeking a needle in a haystack? If you grow the organization, you will have to re-engineer the purple squirrel role into a simpler one to efficiently find others to get the work done?

Bottom line, the ostensible “creativity” that went into designing your purple squirrel will hinder you at multiple points in the future, when you are hiring or scaling up the organization.

There is a better way.

The key to designing effective roles is to construct them simply and elegantly so they lend themselves to being filled, and to being scaled up into a larger organization in the future.


Twin Cities executive recruiter Isaac Cheifetz can be reached through