VIEWPOINT: IEDP Editor, Roddy Millar, is not convinced that another series of The Apprentice is what business needs right now.Further Information:
This Spring the BBC brings back to our screens the eighth series of The Apprentice, fronted by Lord Sugar. The format, first established by the US version with Donald Trump, is to pit 15 ambitious candidates against one another to establish which one displays the greatest business talent. One candidate leaving each week until the final three battle it out for the winner’s prize of, originally a £100,000-a-year job working for Lord Sugar, and now a joint-business venture into which Lord Sugar invests £250,000.
It is undoubtedly great television and compelling viewing – and presumably has drawn in the viewers so consistently that the BBC cannot resist the temptation to commission further series.
What the programme is not is an education in how to run a business, or indeed what skills or behaviours are to be valued in the business world. Lord Sugar himself is not exactly a great role model – a man who has undoubted sales ability but appears to display very little management or strategic ability. From having built his consumer electronics company into the lead player in the UK in the mid-1980s he then failed to capitalise on the brand and leverage its opportunities as the market expanded dramatically in the 1990s. It is reported that the vast proportion of Lord Sugar’s wealth has in fact come from property speculation – which perhaps underlines the weakness of the programme, Sugar is a trader at heart, buying cheap and selling high, but not actually a creator of anything. There appears to be little left behind from his business ventures that have added value.
The Apprentice is a gladiatorial contest of sales machismo and hubris. The challenges the participants have to compete on, are largely evaluated on short-term cash results. They are the equivalent of City traders who close their books each evening without having any regard to long-term impact. Research for products and markets is conducted in half a morning (is that any template for an entrepreneur?), suppliers are haggled and berated for the lowest price (with no idea of building a sustainable, mutually beneficial relationship for both parties), customers are flogged product at whatever price and low level of service can be achieved (with little attention given to the idea that it might be worth cultivating some loyalty in the client-base to make them want to come back). But above all these negative business approaches it is the characters of the participants that are so damaging for anyone hoping that today’s youth might want to run their own businesses or will want to become managers at all.
Whether it is the programme’s editors or Lord Sugar himself, the choice of participants and the way they are portrayed champions aggressive, dictatorial, egotistical and entirely individualistic management and leadership styles. These are completely the reverse of what business research tells us – and can prove – is required to build strong, innovative teams that achieve greater productivity over the long-term.
Organizations are consistently shown to perform better when there is a strong element of trust amongst employees towards their managers; when there is an environment where mistakes are tolerated if honestly made in the pursuit of better practice and innovation; where leaders can admit their weaknesses and build on others strengths – and where strong positive relationships are built with other business stakeholders, critically suppliers and customers, but also employees, directors and the surrounding community. Happy workers are much more productive workers.
None of these aspects are encouraged in The Apprentice, in fact they are actively refuted in the old-fashioned cartoon-world type portrayal of the dog-eat-dog businessman out to screw every penny from everyone he (although in The Apprentice, it is frequently a ‘she’) can.
The BBC has run several programs that do display the nurturing and growth of leadership and entrepreneurialism in a really effective way – Gareth Malone’s transformation of a run-down housing estate in The Choir – or Jimmy Doherty’s A Farmer's Life for Me. It is just that Lord Sugar, who extraordinarily was appointed the last government’s Enterprise Tsar in the dog-days of Gordon Brown’s premiership – is not the role model for business that the country needs.
The Apprentice should come with a viewer’s health warning ‘This programme bears no connection with reality, and any action taken by viewers to emulate those portrayed could seriously damage the health of your business’.
The Apprentice series 8 airs on BBC1 on 21st March. The Apprentice website
The BBC's series The Choir
The BBC's series A Farmer's Life For Me
For some alternative approaches to leadership
The Introverted Leader - article in Developing Leaders
Mindfulness - article in Developing Leaders
Neuro-science for Neuro Leadership - article in Developing Leaders...and some selected leadership programs that may give a better insight into how to do it....
IMD's High Performance Leadership program
Rotman's Integrative Thinking program
Henley's Developing Leaders program
IESE's Developing Leadership Competencies