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CareersA ‘purple squirrel’ is a metaphor used by HR to describe the perfect job candidate. Because purple squirrels in the real world are extremely rare, finding that perfect candidate in the corporate world can be a near impossible task. However, they might still be worth pursuing. Much is made of the ‘purple squirrels’ that got away purely because they were turned down during the recruitment process: Steve Jobs was rejected by HP and Jan Koum and Brian Acton (the founders of WhatsApp) by Facebook.

According to Business Excellence, “Today, Ukrainian-born Koum is a good friend of Facebook’s Chairman and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. He has also joined Facebook’s Board of Directors, but not before Zuckerberg paid him and Acton $19 billion for WhatsApp. The HR people at Facebook must be kicking themselves. If only they had the foresight to employ Koum and Acton when the two applied for positions at the company. They could have saved Facebook a huge amount of money. Or, they could have made Facebook a huge amount of money!”

Unfortunately, we only recognise these people after they have gone on to do groundbreaking things elsewhere.

Now, before you go running off to find your own purple squirrels, ask yourself a few questions: What is the nature of my business and do I need such incredible talent? How does my recruitment process support this? Does my company have the latitude to accommodate such people who will surely not be able to function within the confines and constraints of traditional management?

In our rush to adopt best practices, we often forget that most industries do not lend themselves to innovation. This, however, does not mean we should not look for the ‘best and the brightest.’ It is just that we should know what we are getting ourselves (and the purple squirrel) into.

Let me end by asking: How many purple squirrels have you hired and how many did you let slip away?

– Leon Menezes
The writer is a senior HR practitioner, professor-of-practice and an executive coach.

First published in the Careers Section of The DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on November 30, 2014.