Meet purple squirrels: The new breed of star employee that companies need to be more open-minded about hiring

There is a rare breed of worker who can adapt fast, work across departments and transform your company
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s recent finding that top law and accounting firms are shunning talented working class applicants in favour of more privileged candidates made me think hard about diversity in my own industry, advertising. I’m sure many other business leaders reacted in the same way.
Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to just law and accounting. A recent report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) on the behavioural science of recruitment and selection found a multitude of evidence that business leaders hire people who are “similar to themselves in terms of leisure activities, experiences and self presentation style.”

TOP-DOWN APPROACH

These hardwired systematic biases are preventing businesses from building the most innovative and effective workforces. But how do you solve it?
Awareness is obviously critical, and it must start at the leadership level. If leaders are aware of what they are thinking and doing, they can work to combat this individually and filter the attitude down the company.
But alongside focusing on more traditional approaches to boosting workplace diversity, businesses also need to be open-minded about how they hire into specific roles.
Indeed, I am a great believer in hiring talented people with unusual skills, and then building a proposition around them afterwards.
These are people who don’t fit a stereotype or a job description; they may not even fit into one of your departments. Game-changers and innovators, we have dubbed these people “purple squirrels”.
Bringing them into your business will bring different working techniques. It’ll be rewarding for your employees and clients, and improve the work you produce. There are tangible business benefits.

PROVEN STRATEGY

First, being open-minded enough to hire purple squirrels makes the company a more interesting place to work and, as a consequence, makes it a more attractive place to apply for a job. Adventure and innovation tend to be infectious when they work well.
Second, there are proven commercial benefits to broadening the playing field. According to McKinsey, returns on equity are 53 per cent higher for companies that rank in the top quartile for diversity at an executive board level, than those in the bottom quartile.
We’ve known and proved this for many years at Ogilvy & Mather. We haven’t been particularly structured about it up until now, but I can safely say that some of the people who’ve made the biggest impact on our success in recent years have been purple squirrels – no two of them the same, by definition.
I won’t embarrass them by naming them, but these people usually tend to work across at least three, if not more, of our departments. Creative people who can code and think incisively, while also holding their own in a client meeting without anyone else there to take notes for them.
People who can flip into consultant mode dealing with complex data one minute, but write a powerful creative brief that leads to market moving work the next.
Technologists who have creative flair as well as the ability to actually invent products. They are all game-changers in their own way.
Ultimately, I hope we have to stop calling them purple squirrels. If we bring enough of them in, they will eventually become the norm, not the exception.

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