“Small circle, I ain’t never really round squares…”
Romelu Lukaku cryptically quoted this line twice on his Instagram account during his one-year return to Stamford Bridge. Then he was gone.
This post is football-ish and I follow Chelsea. The short version of it – In August 2021 Chelsea FC paid €115m (7th most expensive transfer) to buy Lukaku’s services after he scored an incredible 64 goals over 2 seasons while playing for Inter Milan. In June 2022, the new Chelsea owners decided to ship him back to Inter Milan for a paltry €8m loan fee, and in the process, removed him from the payroll and the team’s dressing room. Reason for taking a €107m loss? A return of 8 goals is probably one, but “problematic figure, attitude issues” and “disruptive behaviour” seemed to be the commonly reported unofficial reasons.
I found this footballing news interesting for several reasons.
It was one of the first major decisions made by the new owners of Chelsea Football Club. The old regime had a peculiar habit of holding on to expensive misfiring footballers — to the extent of hiring new managers with the hopes of reigniting their careers. The decision to take a €107m financial hit came shockingly swift.
But more importantly, Lukaku was meant to be the final jigsaw piece to complete the puzzle and was supposed to lead Chelsea into a new era of glory. Was. Turned out that the prolific goal-scorer was a square peg in Chelsea’s round hole.
Recruiting creatives is never easy.
Portfolios are the final output of an individual’s work. The short interview process doesn’t reveal much either – the candidates usually want to claim credit for everything while trying to avoid giving credit to the people they worked with – the Creative Directors, the UX/UI/Art/Copy Directors, the Strategists and the Planners, and everyone else (client servicing and clients) who probably contributed to the project.
A live project is when the employer discovers the new hire’s real strengths and weaknesses. It leads to moments of doubt – How much help did that person get on what they claimed as their own works in their portfolio? To ensure that the show goes on, the bosses assign additional help and support to the project, hoping that the new person will quickly acquire the knowledge and skills, transforming into an asset instead of a liability.
Sometimes, it’s not even about the new employee’s skills and talents. It could be purely a Lukaku moment – the talent who can’t fit into the system and culture. In a studio setting, the square-peg-round-hole problem comes in many common forms – such as attitude and behaviour; project management and time management; interpersonal skills; or an individualistic, detached, non-team player demeanour that drives everyone mad.
Even if the person is a world-class talent, so what?
“How do you deal with a person who doesn’t fit in?”
My answer? Move decisively, and move on as soon as possible, even if it means taking a financial hit. I know – it does sound cruel and brutal.
When I was a young boss in my 30s, I saw fitting a new person into my studio as my responsibility, even when the new person was obviously not the right fit.
I was wrong. It never ends well.
Through guidance and experience, skills can be taught but personality, behaviour and attitude are just tough monsters to change. I am not referring to “bad” behaviours or attitudes – lateness, rudeness, lack of respect towards colleagues, offensiveness or laziness. These are valid reasons to dismiss employees. But you can’t punish someone for being introverted, or detached; neither can you punish someone for being eccentric, and inaccessible; nor for being lacking in confidence, while their approval-seeking tendencies are annoying everyone with 10000 questions daily.
My idea of being kind is to be patient and accommodative – to accept that every individual is different. And to do that, I am asking my team to be the same – bear with this individual, work with the new teammate, and hopefully (wishfully) over time, it might become better.
But, why should the whole team be realigned, to happily accommodate one individual? The Athletic reported Lukaku’s mess: “Tuchel (Chelsea’s coach) was caught in the middle and made decisions on what was best for the dynamic and chose the group over an individual.”
This scene never ends well. The “give-him-a-chance, he’s-new-card” wears off pretty fast. The individual is eventually isolated from the rest of the organisation, being delegated jobs/tasks they could do without supervision or the need to interact with others. Basically, the company has to look for the hard-to-find square holes designed for this misfitting square peg.
Why not send the person off where they can actually fit better into the system and culture? Why the procrastination?