Appendix B
Episode 011 -

The Cost of Unicorn Hunting

Appendix B Episode 11, text is present that reads, "The cost of hunting unicorns."

In Higher Ed, when job descriptions are too broad, and there’s not enough specificity about the required skills and responsibilities, they end up attracting employees who try to do it all. And that often leads to burnout.
Instead, what if we left it to the potential employees to interpret the roles? What if we let them guide and shape the roles over time? Joel and Kristin think this will happen more and more as folks realize their worth and the value of their time.
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Carl Gratiot: From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B on this week’s episode, the cost of unicorn hunting and why it might be beneficial to write job descriptions that are open for interpretation by potential candidates. Here is Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.

Kristin Van Dorn: So you have a job description. You’ve had people say around the search committee, we’re really gonna need to find a unicorn for this.

Joel, what do you think we do instead? Don’t.

Joel Goodman:  Don’t. I think the root of this problem is usually not that people want a unicorn or even realize that they want a unicorn. It’s that when you’re writing a job description, the responsibilities for that role are so broad that you kind of back yourself into a corner with the types of people that you can hire.

And that gets even more difficult once you start getting applications in because if you’re not a unicorn yourself, how are you able to suss out what someone is really good at and what they’re not good at, and if they’re even going to be able to live up to everything that you need? So, we see this a lot on the business side of things, like when Bravery was doing hiring, we knew what we wanted.

We had kind of a mix of things like, let’s say when we were hiring our Director of Marketing,  Kevin Knecht, also the producer here named Carl Gratiot. Same person. When I wrote the job description, I knew broad goals of what we wanted to happen. In my mind, I had some skill sets that I wanted that person to have, but I left it open for interpretation by the person that I was hiring because they need to have the ideas of pushing forward and saying like, hey, you need to go into video more, or you need to do more on audio, or we need to really like hunker down on writing. And you know, the things that resonate with me are a little bit more intangible than just, you know, hey, I’m real good at code. You know, if it goes for a developer, I can code stuff.

It’s like, well, yes, but can you also like take designs and turn them into code and is your code clean and is it optimized? And do thoughts on that and you know, it gets into a lot more, for me at least, philosophical realms. I think with job descriptions in Higher Ed, you end up, especially when you’re talking about web marketing, you end up wanting someone to do the job of seven or eight people because you need all those things. But there isn’t any sense internally about the amount of work that goes into each of those, or the amount of expertise that goes into each of those. And so you think you can get by with someone that does content strategy, but they’re gonna be a strategist, they’re gonna be a writer.

They’re also gonna probably end up doing some usability testing and interviews and things like that. And then they’re probably gonna be building information architectures for you and all that sort of stuff, and then probably you’re gonna have them do video and photography and that’s just basically how that happens.

Social media management. Yeah. One, I mean, that’s not a stretch at all. We see that a lot in Higher Ed still even with clients and prospective clients that we are speaking with. When it comes to web, you want someone that’s a designer and a database admin and a server admin and can turn design into code and can do front end and can do backend and knows WordPress and PHP and Java and C#.

And well probably not C#, but you know, like just a ridiculous amount of information in someone that can span these different roles and then, oh, guess what? They also need to be able to pull analytics data and tell you what’s going on with the analytics and suggest things to happen. Those are three or four different positions that you’re trying to compress into one hire, and what happens is, I think there, I think the decline in the desire to be a unicorn, which,  I think is happening.

I felt that happening and I’ve seen that different places. A lot of people don’t want to be in that position anymore.They are learning what they’re worth. They’re learning, as they’ve gotten older, they’ve discovered that time is very precious to them and has a lot of value.

And so they want to have some time, or they want to be paid very, very well for the time that they’re giving to their employer. And universities just can’t pay that. Like they, they, they can’t pay the money for it. But, but still, If you had a unicorn that’s supposed to be doing these seven jobs, you should be paying them for, for seven different roles.

And like that’s, you know, out of the gate. Like if you were doing market rate for each one of those full-time positions, like you’re looking at close to a million dollars for one person and then that doesn’t make sense. They’re not gonna get the work done, right?

Kristin Van Dorn: And I think another piece of it is that unicorns have started to realize that they’re actually not as marketable outside of Higher Ed as they are within Higher Ed.

That someone doesn’t want that Jack or Jill of all trades. They want a specialist and they want someone that’s committed to a specialization that takes a lot more discipline and thought and creativity. Like, to become a master of analytics is very different from being able to open analytics and just report out what the site traffic and bounce rate is and maybe make some intuitive guesses about what causes some fluctuation.

A real expert in that can set up a lot of different pathways for users to move through the site and figure out some insights based on that, to rethink their information architecture, to think about their user journey. Like those are things that come with a lot of deep experience, not just the, I’m gonna bandaid a bunch of different skill sets together.

Joel Goodman: And outside of Higher Ed, this kind of decline of the unicorn. I think the folks that do know that they can do a lot of things are starting their own businesses. Or they’re realizing that they need to enter in at management,  at someplace. And there isn’t that space in Higher Ed because Higher Ed does tend to be several years behind the general market in terms of business practice.

And so it’s very difficult to, you know, they’re not as wanted outside of Higher Ed in these lower level roles, and they’re not even applying for them in most cases because they understand their value. They understand that they should be starting their own company, they should be entering at a management level.

But on the Higher Ed side, you’re exactly right about the data analytics side of it, about all the different roles that I was talking about. The reality is, I think in Higher Ed, it comes down to whether or not institutions know how to hire for these highly technical roles or these roles that require deep expertise.

If you don’t have someone on staff that knows how to do that, who are you talking to to help identify those people or even help identify how to break out those skill sets for various roles because, if you need someone that can help read your data, you shouldn’t be advertising for a front end developer.

Or if you need someone that does marketing strategy and ad buys, you probably shouldn’t be hiring a content strategist. You should be hiring someone that does those specific tasks and is able to make that happen. But then the core of that comes down to how limited budgets are. And I think we’ve talked about that before on this show.

You can’t fund a single role and expect to cover the entire gamut of what you need for digital marketing and for web marketing. You need to look at how many people are required to hit the goals that you want? How many different skill sets are required for that? And then base your budgeting off of that number and that need.

Kristin Van Dorn: I think part of the problem is how unicorns happen is maybe there isn’t a job description that starts off with 18 different specializations, but it starts off with three that are kind of broad buckets like content strategy, a little bit of design, little bit of web management, and they’re nebulous enough that the applicant doesn’t know exactly what you need and then what the applicant discovers is that you don’t have anyone covering those gaps, so they panic, realizing that’s what the institution needs, and they spin their wheels and spend their energy gaining and upskilling those knowledge areas so that they can cover the gaps until ideally you hire someone to backfill some of the stuff that they can’t handle or don’t wanna do. And so what happens is, is you wind up with a person that’s sort of willing to do everything because they know it’s necessary.

And then a leadership team that doesn’t totally understand exactly what it is they’re doing or what’s working or not working, and their response is always like, well, it’s working right now with the person that we have. Do we really need to give them more bandwidth? I mean, we’re getting away with it.

It keeps going like this.

Joel Goodman: Yeah, and then when that person leaves those peripheral things that they’ve taken over, just get chopped up to other duties as assigned. And then you try to fill that gap. And so there’s never a real filling of gaps. There’s a little bit of a bridging of gaps, when that person’s in the role, but then you realize how dysfunctional everything actually is when that person decides to leave, and that’s never a good thing.

Carl Gratiot: Thanks for listening to Appendix B. If you’ve got a minute, we’d really appreciate a review on Apple Podcasts because it definitely helps folks who might be considering which Higher Ed show to listen to. Also, be sure to check out our Higher Ed Hot Takes newsletter at, and we’ll be back next week.