Square Pegs in Round Holes and the Dennis Rodman Effect: An Opportunity for Jobseekers and Employers

Why Fit In When You Can Stand Out?

2020 has been undoubtedly discombobulating for most of us one way or another and every dimension of “normal” life has changed. However, any crisis contains an element of opportunity – and this is no different. We can decide what “normal” is in future. Of course, those finding themselves out of work should be supported and my views on the wider Coronavirus “response” could fill several other blogs, so that is not the focus here. This is about how we can review, reflect and implement positive changes to the world of work, both as individuals and as employers.

I titled this blog “Square Pegs in Round Holes” because that’s how I have felt many times in different jobs and it’s a recurring theme that comes up in our career coaching. As an individual it’s a hugely frustrating and draining way to feel, and for an employer it can only hinder performance to have people in roles that don’t fit with their drive, values, skills or personality. It’s a lose-lose situation. On both sides, it requires a mix of ingredients to avoid: time and space to step back and think about who you are (as a person or a business); a dash of vulnerability to step outside a comfort zone; a handful of humility to accept that new ways of doing things might be better; a sprinkle of bravery and self-belief. The results are potentially huge for any organisation: talented people pulling in the same direction and playing roles that suit who they fundamentally are and what they believe in. The icing on the cake: more and more talented people will want to be part of this, fewer will want to leave and so piece by piece a healthy system of recruitment, retention and resettlement is built simply by recognising that every successful team is made up of the right pegs in the right holes.

I entered a period of reflection of my own this Summer. It doesn’t take much for me to do that anyway, to be fair, but this was pre-planned: when I started Mightify 5 years ago, I said I’d be brutally honest in reviewing it in 5 years, a deadline which has just arrived. A deadline which also coincides with my 35th birthday and all that mid-life thinking entails and shows that we can’t separate our work and our life. Of course, a business needs constant review and strategic decision-making, as should a career path being proactively managed, but true fulfilment comes when those professional and personal elements are in tune with each other and aligned to our core values and goals. Which is why I say to our clients until I’m blue in the face:

“What do you want your life to look like as a result of what you do?”

This Summer, like many others, I’ve been gorging myself on The Last Dance on Netflix. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Whether you like basketball or not. There are a few reasons why it fits very well into this whole piece on individual and group fulfilment, building high-performance teams, coaching and understanding who each of us really is and what we can truly achieve. Obviously, the Chicago Bulls teams featured are arguably the greatest ever across any sport, not to mention Michael Jordan transcending sport to become a cultural icon (and sell a lot of trainers). Speaking of MJ, he was 35 in the 1998 season that forms the focus of the series – so although we share nothing in athletic ability, bank balance or cigar consumption, maybe there is a very small crossover.

What I really find fascinating about those Bulls teams goes beyond the highlight reels though. I highly recommend the books Eleven Rings (by the team’s coach Phil Jackson) and The Mindful Athlete (by George Mumford, who “taught” them mindfulness). Behind the scenes, years of work on creating a tribe, mastering mental performance, recruiting the right people rather than the right players, setting and embedding a shared goal, balancing individuality and collaboration – it’s a blueprint for any organisation.

Although MJ is clearly the star of the show, the series uncovers fascinating subplots, none more evocative of the “square peg in a round hole” issue than Dennis Rodman. I’m not sure what shape you could possibly describe Dennis as, and that’s the point – on other teams he’d been the odd one out, hadn’t fitted in and hadn’t been understood. Dennis didn’t really do rules. According to Phil Jackson, who brought a lot of Native American philosophy into his coaching, Dennis would have been seen as a “heyoka” or “backwards-walking man” – someone who made others laugh and lightened the mood. Where others might have been playing golf, Dennis was in Las Vegas with Carmen Electra, wrestling, or co-starring in Jean-Claude Van Damme films (effectively completing the 1990s as a concept).

“Other coaches treated Dennis as if he were a child and tried to force him to submit to their will with rigid discipline… Once he told reporters that what he liked about me was that I treated him like a man.”

This is where team sports and sectors like the emergency services do align – how do you create an effective and consistent system whilst also eliciting the best innovation, creativity and performance from such a range of characters? In my experience, far too many organisations/businesses set an “operating manual” or “standard operating procedure” and then expend effort on squeezing people into this mould rather than letting those procedures flex for innovation. Mantras take the form of: If someone doesn’t fit in, tough. This is the way we do things around here and (eyes down for crap leadership bingo) “if you don’t like it, go and work in Tesco”.

People’s wider skills and value are neglected for the sake of compliance with the system. Example: how many police forces really have a grip of what their officers can do as people – languages, technical skills, previous careers, voluntary work and so on? Not many. The skill and capability we spend millions on bringing in or procuring from frameworks often already exists, it just needs to be allowed to bloom. PC Rodman would have been sent home from Hendon on day one for turning up with green hair.

What does this mean for you as a career changer or job seeker?

What does it mean for HR, recruitment and Learning and Development?

How can you find a role that respects and invests in your individuality?

Why am I talking in rhetorical questions like a post-match Arsene Wenger?

Well, step one is to truly understand who you are, what you can do and where your energies will get the most traction. Sounds twee but it’s a step most people skate past and then find themselves back doing things because they can, rather than because they really want to. Practicality is always a consideration in terms of hours, money and location but give yourself permission to do something simply because it feels right, and it will make you happy.

Step two falls to business leaders, recruiters and HR managers to look for people rather than job descriptions. To also invest time and effort in understanding who people are and why they do what they do. Time after time we work with people leaving organisations like the police, NHS or teaching because there is no appreciation that the carefree, enthusiastic 21-year-old they joined as might, ten or twenty years later, have different life priorities as well as a broader skill set and perspective.

There’s a brilliant emerging concept in some professional sports of “train the person, not the player” – I’d love to see that more widely adopted and applied at all stages. Recruit the right people. Develop them as people. Support their onward journeys as people. Sound fanciful or idealistic? I don’t think so – it’s not too difficult to convert that into financial returns on investment. It didn’t do the profile, career prospects or subsequent bank balances of anyone from that era of the Chicago Bulls any harm…

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