The square peg which surprised the round hole

Many is the time, particularly in recent months, I have felt at odds with the world around me and I have felt like a square peg being battered into a round hole. This analogy has grown on me for they way it encapsulates way I feel most days, especially from Monday to Wednesday when I’m sat at the day-job desk. And it was an analgoy that sprang to mind over the weekend.

Martyn Williams, stuck on 99 caps. Not bad for a square peg.

Saturday’s Guardian published an article on the growing internet campaign to ensure Welsh rugby player Martyn Williams gains is 100th cap. Stranded on 99 caps for over a year and with retirement imminent there is a emotive angle to this which even a hardened Newport fan should find difficult to be touched by, especially when you consider the story. Williams has made an enormous contribution to Welsh rugby for almost 20 years, yet he’s had his obstacles in getting there, not least at the start. Starting out as a player he wasn’t your typical openside flanker. He recalls,

“I remember when I was in the academy system that, if you could not bench press a certain amount, they said you would never play for Wales. It was not my strongest area in the gym and I had to develop my game to ensure I got the best out of myself. I wish I had been a couple of inches taller and a couple of stone heavier but, as Scott Johnson used to tell me, you cannot put in what God left out.”

That seems to have a familiar ring to it: have some skills but not necessarily all in the same package that the onlooker is used to seeing them in. And what would have happened if Williams had been overlooked for being the “wrong” package? As Paul Rees highlights in the article,

…there were those who questioned whether Williams was big enough to be an international open-side but what he lacked in size and height he made up for with his pace, athleticism, technique and reading of the game. [Yet] There have been few players, in any era, as effective as him at the breakdown.

Apparanlty the Springboks were “surprised and delighted” when both Wales and the Lions left Williams out of the team. That’s flattery of a strange kind but illustrates the impact he’s made. A square peg who’s made the number 7 shirt fit and in many ways contributed to the changing role of the open side flanker.

Not that Williams is the only example. As I rode (or should I say grovelled) up Gun Hill this weekend I noted with my companions how this particular hill has its place in British Cycling history. It’s the place where Mark Cavendish almost gave up and went back to banking.  That’s right, if Cavendish had climbed into Rod Ellingworth’s car that day there would have been no Tour de France stage wins for us to become complacent about and defintiely no end to British Cycling’s pursuit of a first world road race champion in 46 years. But the story goes back a little further than that fateful climb. When Cav applied to the British Academy he almost wasn’t taken on.

World Champion’s watershed – What if things had been different on Gun Hill?

Established in 2004, the Olympic Academy was further piece in the evolving Lottery funded plan to deliver Gold medals in Olympic cycling. Its foundations were firmly in the mould of Peter Keen, focussed on the science of sport and notable for its keen interest in “numbers”. HAd it been down to the number, Cav would have been out. As Richard Moore highlights in Sky’s the Limit

He wasn’t hitting the ‘numbers’ in the physiological tests; his scores in tests in stationary bikes were not up to scratch. Performing well in a laboratory was not his forte.

And why should it be. Like a job interview artificial performances give artificial impressions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but as he has gone on to show Cav has performed on the road and the track, producing results even when the going is bad. In this case the foresight and acumen of two individuals illustrates how rather than changing the shape of or battering into place the square peg, adjusting the hole and easing the peg in can be a more fruitful course of action. The first to see this with Cav was John Herety,

“He’s the only guy who’s won twenty races. You’re only saying no to him because he doesn’t fit the criteria – but maybe the criteria are wrong.”

Seeing beyond the initial requirements at what somebody offers takes courage yet opens doors to a range of possibilities. Herety’s intervention posed a challenge not just for the selection panel of that first Academy intake but for the British Cycling way of doing things. Had they adhered to the numbers the recent past for British Cycling would have been somewhat different.

Look in the distance – bikes shouldn’t have 2 legs.

Yet it also takes encouragement and coaching for those different talents to bear fruit. And here we come back to Gun Hill. I know it well. Too well. On both occassions I have encountered this hill, I have come off worse. It looks benign – not the wall of a Winnats Pass or the visible slog of a Holme Moss – but it is brutal. I’m not surprised Cavendish was reportedly in tears in a ditch one. And just as I had support to get up and on, so Cav did in the shape of Rod Ellingworth. As Daniel Friebe reports, Ellingworth’s words to the “pudgy teenager whose ambition, to paraphrase a famous movie, was writing cheques his body couldn’t cash” were:

“What are you doing to improve? Are you riding your bike and sticking to a good routine? Yes. OK, you’re already doing that, so there’s no need to apologize. Just stick at it. Now get back on your bike and let’s carry on working…”

The simplest thing for Ellingworth (save for the ear bending from an unexpected passenger) would have been to let Cavendish into the car, taken him back to Manchester and let him go from the Academy. Yet he took the hard route – some might say for both. It recognised the strengths already there, it provided encouragement, it recognised what needed to be done and put Cav on the path to achieving those things. Four quite simple stages which are so often overlooked in so many walks of life, but it take a good manager of people to recognise that and articulate it if the benefits are going to be seen.

These are just two high profile examples of where people have at first looked like they don’t fit the criteria or specification of the role they applied for. There are many others across everyday life. Where the selection criteria – the expectations of the perfect candidate – are rigidly adhered to there is a danger both of never finding that ideal, utopian figure and of missing the unique and beneficial qualities that the less obvious candidate can bring. Realising these benefits may require coaching and caring, but look at what those benefits can be.

I know from looking around me that some of the places I have worked in have missed these benefits by looking for the ideal “person on paper”. I increasingly know that I am not that paper person, that I cannot be everything some of these people want me to be. Faced with this what do we do? Giving up is one option, be that as the peg or the hole. That might seem the most efficient, effective and cost effective approach in the short-term. But what about appointing the candidate who doesn’t fit all of the bill yet displays real qualities in some areas and possibilities in others you hadn’t thought of might be another. Sure, it is a risk but if you don’t speculate you don’t accumulate and what is the worst that can happen? Look at it the other way, what could it end up delivering? It is all a question of give and take, about pragmatism over idealism, of realising how the straightforward isn’t always the best. But it is also about vision, about taking a risk and making an investment in a person. Round pegs in round holes come and go but overlooking the square ones just because they don’t at first seem to fit risks missing out on the other opportunities they might bring. Just ask Martyn Williams and Mark Cavendish.


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