All Articles Leadership Strategy How to build and lead a "unicorn-ready" team

How to build and lead a “unicorn-ready” team

Want to be a unicorn? Do the hard work of hiring with the future in mind.

5 min read




Overnight success is a myth. This is true for leaders as well as for the companies they lead.

While everyone agrees that starting a business is hard, the long journey toward making that business successful is the real challenge. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it usually takes a decade or even longer. That is why in the most recent quarter, the 15 best performing stocks in the S&P 500 had an average age of 50 years.

If your company is going to not only survive but also thrive for a decade and longer, you need to be prepared for the changes that will test your team. For leaders desiring to build a “unicorn” company — a privately owned business with a valuation of $1 billion or more — this challenge is even greater.

Following are some tips for assembling and developing a team that can help you navigate your forthcoming obstacles to growth, including the industry shifts brought on by the speed of innovation.

Make hiring decisions wisely

For companies growing at an accelerated rate, when you hire can sometimes be just as important as who you hire. Increasing your staff too quickly can lead to cash flow issues, resulting in downsizing and unengaged employees.

Rather than hiring based on some abstract growth goal, make sure the decision to hire is based on an immediate or impending need. Put together organizational charts for how your company will look at five, 50 and even 500 employees and use them to inform which positions you should fill first and with what people.

It is important to remember that the decision of who to hire should also be based on your future needs. While your current situation may require you to hire a single sales resource, look for someone with broad potential who could eventually grow to run a division. This will set your team up to successfully accommodate the rapid growth of your firm.

Adaptable people are key

Over the next 10 years, your company is going to travel over a very unpredictable trajectory. Your entire industry is also guaranteed to go through massive changes to which your employees will need to be able to adjust.

When building your team, look for talent that has a proven record of adapting to change and who are excited by the unpredictability your company will experience. As stated above, individual roles will change and current skillsets may not be as relevant five years from now. Focus instead on candidates who have worked for companies or in industries that have experienced change and who have demonstrated their ability to thrive in that environment.

Develop a deep bench

While you should hire employees who can someday become leaders in their own right, the fact is that most of the top talent in your company now will not be around in 10 years. They will go elsewhere, drawn by new opportunities, or they may even start companies of their own. This means that your future executives will be the lower-level talent you are able to identify today and develop for tomorrow.

Align your employees with the company’s vision

A recent survey found 67% of millennials would leave a job that lacks growth opportunities and chances for leadership development. However, it isn’t enough to simply offer training to help develop your employees’ skills.

In order to build a team that is future-proof, you need to align the training and career planning you offer with the vision you have for the company. As you are working with employees to outline their career paths, make sure you are sharing the long-term plans for your business and how their growth is connected to that plan. When employees’ roles are clearly articulated as a valuable piece of the company’s future success, they become more engaged and invested in achieving that vision. You will see a greater contribution from your employees today and higher retention through a vested interest in participating in the growth of tomorrow.

Expect plans to fall apart

While planning and employee development are critical to building a team that will help you weather 10 years or more of growth, the fact is that employees will still leave you, innovations will shake up your industry and the plans you have carefully laid may have to be changed.

Your ability to adapt to those changes and go with a “plan B” or even a “plan C” will go a long way in determining your company’s chances of survival, not to mention your ability to achieve the coveted “unicorn” status. Learn to pivot quickly as things change on a dime.

No leader can build a successful business alone. But creating a team that is forward-thinking, adaptable, engaged and unified under your company vision will help ensure your business thrives no matter what the world throws at it.


Mark Flickinger is chief operating officer of BIP Capital, a venture investor in the Southeast serving entrepreneurs, investors and operators to grow the emerging-company ecosystem. Follow on Twitter @BIPCapital.

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