What ‘The Apprentice’ can teach us NOT to do in business

Clueless recruits fluffing their tasks and vying for the attention of the boss, unscripted snipes and asides, fireworks in the boardroom and car crash TV appeal to the masses…. No, it’s not the Brexit process we’re talking about, but season 12 of The Apprentice (UK).

The Apprentice is a BBC staple for the Autumn season, filling that gap between the end of summer and the arrival of Christmas. As the days grow shorter so does the list of candidates, as Alan Sugar casts off the dead wood in the hunt for a protégé with a business plan worth investing his £250,000 in.

After 12 seasons, keyboard critics on social media are calling this current batch of hopefuls the worst contestants in the history of the show and they’re probably right. Yet, as Oscar Wilde, said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” For that reason, plans are no doubt afoot for season 13.

As with every successful reality TV programme, the producers have cast their net wide to bring together a rogue’s gallery of distasteful personalities, pumped up on hubris, narcissism and tacky ‘how to succeed in business’ rhetoric. The format remains the same, the tasks remain the same, Alan Sugar’s scripted jokes remain the same and at the end of the programme, one of the candidates will be leaving in a black cab.

In the middle, the candidates will flounder, rip each other apart like the inhabitants of Lord of the Flies island and generally prove themselves incompetent. End result: Viewer is left with a feeling of smug satisfaction that actually, they could do a lot better than this bunch of numpties.

The Apprentice: What does it teach us about how not to do business?
Where to start?! The candidates repeatedly fall into communication traps, that the editing team is only too delighted to highlight. In their desperation to stand out and make an impact, they frequently talk over each other and fail to listen to good advice despite the fact that team members may have experience relevant to the task at hand.

While this may be exaggerated on the small screen, real life comparisons can be made when working as part of a team. Successful teams are made up of individuals with unique skill sets and thrive by applying these towards a common goal. Being prepared to take constructive criticism and bend your will for the collective good are essential skills in any working relationship.

Behind any successful team is a good team leader, or project manager to use Apprentice parlance. Good leaders know how to manage people, to listen, to trust the ability of others and to lead by example. Yet again, week after week, this TV show delivers examples of astoundingly bad practice as a succession of ‘PM’s’ misinterpret their allocated role as a licence to strut around like a tin pot dictator imposing their will because their job title says I can.

In the present series, one of the contestants opened his pitch to a room full of cycling retailers by telling them how popular cycling had become since the London Olympics. An essential part of the preparation process is knowing your audience and doing your homework to make sure your content is relevant. Few things are more likely to turn off an audience than blatantly disrespecting their intelligence.

Part of the success of The Apprentice is in watching candidates squirm. While there is no magic formula for getting it right, there are lessons that can be learnt which can prevent candidates from any business sector from getting it so disastrously wrong…

Luan de Burgh

November 2016

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of The de Burgh Group – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.