What can leaders learn from The Apprentice?

Nothing, is the easy answer. But Russell Saunders, associate director at comms agency Fishburn Hedges has managed to glean a few choice pearls from Lord Sugar's reality TV debacle.

Last Updated: 14 Oct 2014
Squabbling. Back stabbing. One-upmanship. And, amidst it all, the odd good idea.
All that, and probably a good deal more besides, kicked off this week with the latest series of The Apprentice.
The format of the show clearly lends itself to all kinds of forced odd and unhealthy behaviours. Just like its distant reality show cousins, The Apprentice probably has more in common with East Enders than it does with real life.
As a result, we’ve rarely seen convincing examples of leadership, despite the show now embarking on its ninth series. If apprentices were more willing to draw from a conventional management rulebook, would they have a better chance of getting through the rounds?
Here are five areas in which this year’s project leaders can improve on previous apprentices, and some suggestions for how managers and leaders in the real world could learn from their mistakes.
Better briefing
Managers should bring clarity of purpose to any task. In episode eight of last year’s series, for example, apprentices were charged with convincing urban artists that they were the people to help sell their work, and then racking up sales.
Neither project leader defined a clear strategy at any stage in the challenge. The result: individuals selected and pitched to artists based on subjective impressions, and took no consistent message with them. And when it came to selling, efforts were disorganised and potentially lucrative contacts were ignored.
Planning as a team can help make sure each objective is a shared one. Agreeing an approach - and keeping it front of mind - will help people know their role and make better decisions.
Enthusiasm for your people
The Apprentice project leaders face an unrealistic conundrum – people who are your team-mates one minute can become enemies the next. Nevertheless, willing your people to succeed, perhaps through taking the time to understand their strengths and work out how to put them to use, would both encourage loyalty and increase productivity.
Having a leader who listens helps people take ownership of tasks and allows the leader to delegate the right jobs to the right people. Charged with buying and selling second-hand stock in episode four last year, Tom’s team didn’t agree with his strategy. But none of them spoke their mind.

Why? Because he’d already shown he wouldn’t listen. He lost many of his team from the outset, and it didn’t end well.
Encourage feedback
Whether it’s one person selling far more than another or a team-mate going off-piste, it’s telling that the content of so many of the show’s boardroom debates reveal big surprises to those participating in them.
A complete lack of communication is the staple of any episode of The Apprentice. Ongoing feedback, sharing of successes and failures and keeping key people in the loop not only improves performance, but helps everyone understand – and agree - what was behind good or bad results later on.
A better balance
The show is littered with examples of project managers either trying to assert control through micro-management, or carelessly granting complete freedom to their team.
In episode four Laura somehow managed both, and then blamed her team for failure.  They’d spent too much on material, she argued – a decision she’d delegated to them. She also blamed Gabrielle, who had got carried away with an idea around upcycling.
In both cases, Laura had failed to strike the right balance between offering freedom to run with ideas and setting boundaries. Gabrielle was an enthused maverick who needed boundaries as well as encouragement, and the buying team needed to be more closely monitored.
No doubt we’ll see some tell-tale mistakes as the series progresses. People are only human. But hopefully some of this year’s apprentices will choose to set a better, more engaging example of real leadership.

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