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Recruiting and Retaining Unicorns: Q&A With Caroline Stokes

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Fully developing your emotional intelligence takes more than just a few deep-breathing and focusing exercises. Really boosting your EI takes work and time. For organizations, having a culture and brand known for emotionally intelligent employees starts with the recruitment process.

Caroline Stokes is founder of FORWARD, an executive headhunting and executive coaching company designed for global innovation leaders, and host of The Emotionally Intelligent Recruiter Podcast. She says that to recruit more top professionals (or unicorns), candidates must be treated with empathy and interest, not like a restaurant server. Her new book Elephants Before Unicorns: Emotionally Intelligent HR Strategies to Save Your Company, notes that creating that kind of culture has to start with leadership—especially CEO buy-in.

ATD recently interviewed Caroline to get her take on the most important EQ aspects people should focus on in their personal development, as well as how organizations can develop an EQ-healthy company culture that will attract more unicorns.

Your book covers an array of talent management skills, including change management and emotional intelligence mixed with talent acquisition and development and branding. Who did you intend to write your book for and did that change along the way?

When I set out to write a book, it was really targeted at the C-Suite, and how recruiters can sabotage their business. But the more I delved into the entire ecosystem it became apparent that multiple levels of the organization are impacted by this. It became important to demonstrate how many talent acquisition, talent leadership, and talent development aspects are impacted by emotional intelligence.

As a people leader, what is the single most important component, or subcategory, of emotional intelligence someone should work on?

Every component of emotional intelligence is important. There’s no shortcut. You can’t have one without the other, as they’re all intrinsically connected. It ebbs and flows, based on your stress levels and personal shifts. What’s important is to realize where we are and how we impact those around us, when our stress levels begin to impede on our decision making, or when we realize we’re not being particularly empathic toward our people or customers. These lapses can derail companies.

The biggest issue that can impact your own personal growth is low self-regard. A modestly normal level of self-regard is necessary for those in leadership positions to collaborate and communicate effectively.

What is the benefit of developing your emotional intelligence—even if you are not a manager?

With leadership comes greater influence, and the best time to start that leadership journey is before you become a manager. Fortunately, if you are reading this publication, you have a learner mindset, and chances are high that you are latently finding ways to evolve your emotional intelligence. That level of curiosity creates leaders. Those who continually seek to better themselves develop trusting relationships with colleagues and others. Whether you’re working at the entry-level or a mid-level or senior managers, pay attention to your curiosity quotient so you can start to develop a learn-it-all mindset.

As your career evolves, you will gain experience in different areas. Nurture this new knowledge and expand your skillset accordingly. An important step is reading books on new subjects and challenging your own beliefs by expanding your periphery. Other areas to focus on are your listening and coaching abilities as part of the emotional intelligence skillsets, plus the decision-making and stress management composites that will help you evolve naturally into a leadership role.

What if one of the biggest elephants in the company is the CEO who is resistant to change? Can attracting enough unicorns make up for an emotionally stifled leader?

A CEO that’s resistant to change often doesn’t have the vision for long-term organizational growth. These leaders are afraid to experiment or take calculated risks, and their decision making might be slow and arduous. For example, Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix shared a story on my podcast about consulting with a large banking organization who wanted to move fast and be agile with new ideas. She asked the question: “How many people does it take to get an idea through?” The answer was 30. And 20 of those people’s job was to say “no” sometimes. Why would a highly talented unicorn with experience in an agile environment—and who wants to make an impact in an organization—join a company with a significantly different cultural mindset?

A company’s reputation and culture spreads, and your connections will tell you if they don’t think an organization is the right fit for you because of that. I remember experiencing that for myself when my marketing manager at Virgin told me Sony wouldn’t be a good culture fit for me. When negative commentary about a brand grows, it’s up to the CEO and his team to change it. The only way to attract unicorns is to adapt the culture, and that starts with the CEO. If it looks like it’s a CEO that can and won’t change, all the unicorns in the world won’t make up for that lack of emotional intelligence at the top.

What recommendations do you have for developing programs that will looking to recruit and retain talent and attract “unicorns”?


From a coaching perspective, I like to review the talent acquisition, talent leadership, and talent development, as well as interview the C-suite to understand where they are and where they want to be in one year’s time. During this process, I like to interview people at various levels within the organization and conduct emotional intelligence assessments to pinpoint blockages and opportunities. Only then can a dedicated EI program be created for that company, because the program involves the people who are already there.

Say the CFO and the CEO have communication issues that are not fully understood. A quick coaching session with them both can uncover productive ways to ensure they can move forward. Supposing the CHRO and the talent leadership team and product team have challenges; everything can be diagnosed quickly to expedite growth.

You can do a version of this coaching program on your own, inside your organization by leading it with investigative interviews and assessments, but you need CEO buy-in if you want to see the results—where you are, and where you want to be—and make changes to the overall organizations.

I always say that “from understanding comes growth.” I believe this is a safe and fast way to understand the organization from the core. This level of understanding is essential before undertaking changes, whether just a few tweaks or seismic change.

What are your recommendations for starting a workplace diagnostic and getting leadership buy-in for such assessments and practice?

You can find out where your company falls on the emotional intelligence scale in my free diagnostic. It helps organizations identify how emotional intelligence scales throughout an organization, and where to start. I recommend having a vast group of leaders, new hires, your talent team, and the product team and developers take it—everyone is likely to have a different perspective. Then, do an analysis to see where there are gaps and what needs to change. The results will help your leadership team identify the investment needed to make the proper adjustments to change your current culture for the better!

Where do most recruiters and talent acquisition professionals go wrong with their hiring process (and end up with more elephants than unicorns)? What is the single most effective change talent development professionals can work on to train and change these recruiters’ style? Is to slow the recruiters down, support and train them on empathy and coaching styles, or is it train them on being more agile?

Recruiters and talent acquisition professionals can enhance their hiring approach when they can stop and get real one-on-one time with the hiring managers. This is an age-old issue and I want this to change in every organization. As one of my coaches once said to me, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.”

The first step is to understand exactly where the problem areas exist so you can make proper adjustments and investments and move your company toward being more emotionally intelligent—and one that people want to join. An internal EI audit or assessment will help to identify problem areas.

It’s imperative that the entire organization is involved in this EI process as every department is interconnected with hiring, the employer brand, the employee experience, and the product experience. You can’t do one without the other. By bringing the whole employer brand, experience, and talent journey together with the product and marketing promise, an organization will be better suited to identify the kinds of unicorns they need to hire, and sidestep the elephants—the obstacles—that can derail them.

How important is a company brand when attracting, retaining, and developing talent?

When there’s an employer brand dissonance, it leaves a very sour taste in people’s mouths from the initial conversation a candidate has with the recruiter, to the moment a candidate has an in-person interview, through to when the new hire joins the company. If the organization is not clear on their common brand, and how they present themselves to new hires, how are these new hires expected to behave once they’re inside the organization? Making sure that all stakeholders—including the new hire—are aware of why this person is being brought in, and what is expected of them, is imperative.


Can you talk about the cross-section of EI and onboarding. We often hear of onboarding as more than just an employee’s initial orientation, how do you continue to onboard and keep that excitement and energy alive?

When someone joins your organization, they will be in a state of heightened stress. They have to understand the new landscape of the work environment, learn new systems, understand the challenges, find the roadblocks, and adapt rapidly—all whilst networking and finding ways to achieve small wins. At every step of the way, there are opportunities for the person to be derailed and fail, making the new hire unsuccessful by not having the trust and respect of the people that had hired him to transform the product, system, or organization. When people fail, what system needs to be addressed?

When I started my career, I could see how the first 90 days set the new hires up for success, or failure. A company doesn’t plan to hire someone to fail, but typically the systems aren’t in place for an organization to support the new hire to adapt successfully. This was when I had my eureka moment as a certified executive coach.

At FORWARD we have a first 100 days coaching program for each new hire we place. It starts off with a kick-off meeting with all stakeholders so everyone is on the same page. Then, we have weekly coaching sessions with the new hire, an EQ assessment to determine where they are, how they may fall into a pattern of behaviors, and how to amplify positive behaviors and mitigate harmful ones. At the end of the coaching engagement, we conduct a 360-assessment with the same stakeholders and a debrief to enable the new hire to know where they’ve been successful and how they can operate for the next 100 days. The beauty of this system ensures the new hire knows how to course correct for success, with confidence.

When thinking about reskilling and career advancement for yourself or your team, what is the most fearful element? And what can be done to ensure buy-in from your team, your leaders, and yourself (to stick with your own reskilling plan)?

When you’ve got the dream team doing what they do so well, it’s easy to avoid change, because change can be painful and feel disruptive. We all fear change. We are creatures of habit. But change can be a great thing, and helping your team understand that and identify opportunities to do something new or different for the betterment of themselves, their skillset, or the overall organization is imperative to personal and professional growth. If you can embrace change as part of life—because it is the only thing that’s really constant—you will always be ready to help your team evolve.

One of my favorite sayings in this space is:

  • The CFO to the CEO: “What happens if we spend money to train them and they leave?”
  • The CEO to the CFO: “What happens if we don’t train them and they stay?”

To get buy-in from your team on this, conduct a quick anonymous survey with your former workers (ideally the ones that got away) and ask them why they left the organization. Was it because:

  • You weren’t learning enough?
  • You weren’t given more opportunities to evolve?
  • The leadership didn’t share a big vision?
  • You weren’t empowered to make market making decisions?
  • The company lacked emotional intelligence for tomorrow’s leadership needs?

Follow up that question by asking what would have encouraged them to stay:

  • Recognition of my work through promotion?
  • Recognition of my work through leadership training?
  • Recognition of my work through a pay increase?
  • Less hours?
  • Leadership with vision?
  • Leadership with greater emotional intelligence?

Their answers will help you identify where the gaps are in reskilling, and training your current employees, and where to invest your dollars in order to impact both your employees’ quality of life, and the bottom line.

Any parting words of advice for those looking to become or attract unicorns and move the elephants?

You’re a pioneer changing the way your business is run to keep your organization relevant tomorrow. You’ve got the power to make your company the best. What elephants do you need to work on to move forward?

About the Author

Formerly the senior content manager at ATD for career development and host of the Accidental Trainer podcast, Lisa Spinelli writes about career development and pathways. She is the editor and main author of Teachers to Trainers (ATD Press) and is working toward her ACC accreditation with the International Coaching Federation as a career and transition coach. Currently, she is director of content strategy at Degreed. Spinelli also volunteers her time outside of work coaching and assisting transitioning military service members and spouses as well as disabled entrepreneurs in their new career paths.

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