Appendix B
Episode 010 -

No More Unicorns

Appendix B Episode 10, text is present that reads, "No more unicorns."

If you work in Higher Ed, you’ve likely either worked with a Unicorn or, you’d describe yourself as one. Either way, you probably know that they typically have a wide range of skills and can do many different things well. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. Unicorns typically experience burnout, high turnover rates, frustration with slower-moving colleagues, and being underemployed. 
Subscribe to Bravery’s Newsletter / Follow Joel / Follow Kristin / Check out the Bravery YouTube Channel


Carl Gratiot:
From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B. On today’s episode, no more unicorns. Here’s Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.

Kristin Van Dorn:
So Joel, tell me what you think about unicorns in Higher Education.

Joel Goodman:
So I was the unicorn and the thing that really was awful, was how much money I got paid for doing for doing tho that kind of work, right?

Because I was putting in at least 50 hours a week. At my main job because of my unicorn status, but I wasn’t getting paid the money of someone that was a developer and a designer and a writer and QA and usability person, and like all of that stuff. So I kind of don’t like the idea of unicorns because I don’t think they’re generally very helpful, especially in Higher Ed.

But I also think they are rare, right? I mean, that’s whole point of the mythical creature. They’re, they’re, I mean, they don’t exist. Yeah. But they’re rare. If they existed, there’s meant to be very, very few.

Kristin Van Dorn:
Okay, so let’s back up for a second and define what we’re calling a unicorn, just in case people are not used to this spelling out what unicorn is.

So, in my mind it’s that Jack or Jill of all trades, master of none, but it’s the person that comes in and can do all of your digital strategy and therefore you only need to rely on one person and hopefully they never go on vacation or need a medical leave.

What would you say?

Joel Goodman:
I think that’s exactly it and I think the nuances as a generalist, they’re not just mediocre at everything. They can do everything, like they’re good at all of the things. They may have a couple that they’re very good at.

I wouldn’t say that they, you know, you run up against, You run up against the edges of what is humanly possible when you’re that good at a lot of different things. And so, you know, when we think about how marketing offices in Higher Ed work right now, like they’re not good at everything that they do because they’re stretched so thin, and that’s what happens to these unicorn employees as well.

It’s just kind of like amplified. But, so like I think here’s a chance that when you talk about generalists or or Jacks and Jills of all trades, you kind of think like, oh, well they’re, they can do stuff. They know a little bit about a lot of things. Unicorns are people that know a lot about a lot of things and can execute to a high standard on the majority of those things, and that’s the only reason why it sort of works for a while.

Kristin Van Dorn:
Yeah, so when I think about unicorns, I often think about the drawback. And, you know, full disclosure, I would probably say I was a unicorn at one point in my career, or at least I advertised myself to be. So, and I think when I think of the drawbacks for unicorns, it’s often that, one, they get better jobs, you know, eventually they just move because they need to.

They have skillsets that set them apart from other applicants, and they’re highly desirable. So they’re not something that you can rely on forever, that they’ll just stay in the same department role, but having that broad of a skillset, you know, comes from a lot of experience, comes probably from overwork.

So they’re prone to burnout because in order to gain all that expertise in various areas, I mean, you have to push yourself towards the point of burnout. And then on top of it, maintaining all those skillsets, as those skillsets are evolving takes a lot of self-discipline and work. And it’s not humanly possible to maintain all of those at the pace that people are expected to run.

Joel Goodman:
And I definitely ran into that where, I mean, As someone that still knows a lot about a lot of things and can do a lot of things at a very high level, there are definitely gaps or those areas of proficiency have changed and ebbed and flowed over the years. So when I was working on web projects at a university, getting to the point where, oh, web standards are moving so, so, so, so fast, and I have all of this work until what I don’t have extra time to figure out how to do what I’m doing, and so I think like there’s a limited lifespan to how effective a unicorn in any given industry is going to be. Unless they’re, unless they’re super magical. Right? Like a super unicorn pegasus. Right?

Kristin Van Dorn:
Yeah. Well, to increase my list of drawbacks, you know, I think that unicorns come with some negative traits too.

And maybe this is not usual, but, probably is. If you have one of those positions where you’re kind of a generalist for digital marketing and you’re responsible for all of these different buckets of measurement and production and research, and you’re doing all of those, well, you know, usually that means you’re underemployed, right?

And that you’re gonna be frustrated with other people that don’t move at your pace, that don’t have the respect for the information and the knowledge and the ability that you bring to the table. You know, you’re probably in a position class that is not totally indicative of the actual skill that you’re taking on and that the work that you’re producing all the time.

And so that tends to lead to grumpy employees too. High drama, frustration, exhaustion, like those are all real things that we experience with a lot of unicorns, and the other thing that I wanted to talk about was, how does someone become a unicorn? And oftentimes it’s people that are vulnerable to exploitation.

So you look at people that, for one reason or another, haven’t been picked for management or director level positions, and that might be people that fall on the LGBTQA spectrum or they might be people of color. You often see people that have needs at home, so that they can’t take on higher level positions of management.

So they might have a family that they’re taking care of or any other kind of like heavy level life stuff. That just means that we’re looking at a broad range of underserved folks that operate in these generalist positions and do so efficiently and do so at a high caliber because life would otherwise give them better opportunities except for the fact that they have something holding them back.

And do you wanna be the kind of institution that takes advantage of that?

Joel Goodman:
Right. And a big part of that is those people make themselves indispensable in these unicorn roles to the point where they will never be considered for that promotion to management or anything else. So it’s kind of a cementing and to no fault their own, like, I mean, this is organizationals, this is, this is the responsibility of management, it’s responsibility of organizational structure, HR, all of that.

But through no real fault of their own, other than being amazing at what they do, they’re cementing that place kind of in the middle, because they work in an organization that’s not going to recognize the value of that level of proficiency at a management level.

They need to keep you locked in where you are at, because if you leave, everything falls apart. And that’s, you know, this is more encouragement that people shouldn’t be unicorns at all. Not that people shouldn’t hire unicorns. I think it’s that, reassess if you want to be a unicorn because I think the hardest thing for those of us that are proficient in a lot of stuff is focusing on one thing and keeping secrets.

Some of those other things that we’re really, really good at, and gaming it because we want the attention, we want the control. Maybe that’s not for everyone but me, I want the control. I always want the control.

Kristin Van Dorn:
Well, and the last thing that I was gonna say is that one of the tricky parts about being a unicorn is if you have such a broad set of skills, all of your professional development, all of the conferences you go to, all of the workshops you take are devoted to maintaining that broad set of skills, but that rules you out for the professional development you need in management training that you need in finance in order to level up and be eligible for those promotions that take you to a different spot in your career.

Carl Gratiot:
Thank you so much for listening to Appendix B. If you’ve got thoughts, we’d love to hear 'em on Apple Podcasts or on social. Quick question for you. Are you wondering what to do with your leftover budget? What about something that will make your office look good as you move into the new fiscal year? We’ll help you audit your website’s content, technical performance, or SEO.

We’ll help you look at how well your marketing teams configured to meet your goals, or what about some insight into how well your messaging and program offerings compete with similar institutions?

Learn more at

Thanks, and we’ll see you next week.