The Apprentice

June 27, 2007

350px-tovenaarsleerling_s_barth.pngMy curmudgeonly view of The Apprentice is largely focused on the view that it presents a distorted and undesirable role model for would-be business leaders. However, it can be argued that the series exposes dubious business practices, and that subsequent debate can be healthy.

Why should the owner of a large corporation risk public ridicule while seeking high-profile visibility for himself? In the news at the moment has been Sir Alan Sugar, and his BBC TV show The Apprentice. That other knight, Sir Richard Branson, has an even longer tradition of self-publicity, and would probably also be tempted into TV stardom given the opportunity.

One difference may be that Sir Richard’s publicity stunts have, mostly, been associated with his beloved Virgin Brand. By and large, the restlessly innovative brand and the image of RB seem pretty compatible.

So what about Sir Alan and his business interests? He has stated that he is doing the show because he enjoys it, and because he thinks it worthwhile to communicate the excitement of the world of business.

I note this without recalling the original source, but I can’t recall that he says he is taking part because it’s good for his business interests. On the other hand, it’s a pretty safe bet he doesn’t consider it to be harming his commerical net value.

What’s happened to Amstrad?

AS a matter of record, as Sir Alan’s public visibility has grown, so has the share value of Amstrad. Significantly. Over six times their quoted value in early 2002.

So Sir Alan’s show has helped Amstrad?

Well … it’s not as clear-cut as all that. A few years ago in 2002, the shares had plummeted to a price of 20p, suggesting that the company was a near basket-case.

At present, financial analysts see Amstrad’s main business is in the highly competitive one of selling set-top TV boxes. There is no evidence of great growth there. The vitality and entrepreneurial flair brought to the company in its early days by Alan Sugar seems have disappeared. My scanning of the financial press suggests that the company’s future prospects are not rated highly. [This is a personal view, and not, repeat not advice from a successful share-tipster.]

As part of a strategic response to corporate difficulties, the TV exposure hasn’t worked.

Is The Apprentice a good showcase for business?

Sir Alan says so. The BBC have commissioned another two series, and have increasingly talked-up the status even of those would-be apprentices ejected from the house (I meant, those fired from the programme). As each is evicted (sorry, ‘fired’) he or she has another brief period of celebrity.

By and large a consensus seems to be emerging beyond the vested interests of the BBC that The Apprentice throws as much light on Business as earlier and better-scripted series such as Steptoe and Son, Are You being Served, and Only Fools and Horses.

One article highlighted some undesirable elements if the show was intended to mirror business life.

“I think I would be very uncomfortable being Sir Alan Sugar’s solicitor now,” says Nicholas Lakeland at London law firm Silverman Sherliker. “I wouldn’t say his approach is consistent with what employment lawyers would advise.”

Although at interview you are only protected against discrimination after a year at an office, you can claim constructive dismissal, and where bullying is really bad, protection from harassment. If Sir Alan behaves in his company like he does on TV, warns Lakeland, he could find himself in hot water.

Bullying can prove very expensive for businesses. Last year Deutsche Bank had to shell out £800,000 to workplace bullying victim Helen Green. In 2003 Steven Horkulak was awarded nearly £1m in damages by the courts after months of abuse by his boss, president of brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald International. Employers be warned.

My case is, that the omnipotent boss as acted out by Sir Alan Sugar in The Apprentice, is a poor role model for much of today’s business. He illustrates many of the characteristics that have helped him achieve success for a self-made multi-millionaire. The vital ingredients of determination, resourcefulness, energy, single-mindedness are not so obvious as a kind of unthinking and gratuitous bullying. The style is by no means universal among successful business leaders. I have suggested elsewhere that such tyrannical behaviors are most often found concentrated certain industries including the media.

These objections have been raised elsewhere.

Steve Carter, head of recruitment firm Nigel Lynn, condemns the unrealistic “brutality” of the show’s recruitment process. “The idea that people should set about stabbing each other in the back to succeed is not good business,” he says.

To that I would add another misgiving. The episodes are followed by tired radio productions which remind me particularly forceably of the culture of Celebrity Big Brother.

The Case for the Defence

I have been inclined to rant a bit about a programme which I have trouble watching for more than a few minutes. So let me have a go at defending The Apprentice. It has revealed one example of muscular leadership. Wannabe leaders can discuss what they have seen. In pubs and workplaces this is already producing discussion. Maybe this in turn will allow people to figure out ways of coping when they come under fire from a bullying boss. Even better, some bosses may perhaps review their own leadership behaviors towards employees, and consider alternative patterns.


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