Q&A Session with Katie Wright, Apprentice 2012 Candidate

When one of the contestants on this year’s The Apprentice favourited one of our tweets about the series, we were flattered (we are human) and intrigued. As we’ve often wondered how the experience feels on the other side of the screen, we plucked up the courage to ask. And as – to our pleasant surprise – the contestant in question, Katie Wright, did not rebuff our request, we’re delighted to present below her answers to our questions about the series and her experience of taking part in it.

(You can also read Katie’s Personal Learning Profile in the Guests section of this blog.)

Our thanks to Katie for agreeing to take part in this Question and Answer session, and for her thoughtful and honest answers – and our best wishes to her in her future career. And if any other candidates from this year’s series are reading and would like to comment – or even volunteer for a Q&A Session of their own – we’d be delighted if they would Contact Us.

An obvious – and impertinent – question to start would be “What were you thinking?” Putting that more kindly, how did the experience of being on The Apprentice compare with your expectations? And how true a picture do you think the viewing public get of the candidates’ experience, given that it’s edited down to an hour? Did you feel like your contributions were represented fairly in what was broadcast?

The quick answer is ‘a momentary lapse of common sense’. The longer answer is that I wanted the opportunity to test myself. For years I had watched the show and ‘armchair audited’ the candidates. I knew it was always going to be tougher than it looked but rationalised that the pros must outweigh the cons.

Funnily enough, I never contemplated winning. This may be down to certain insecurities but I had just felt so humbled to be invited onto the show.

The process was definitely harder than I thought – not just in terms of the tasks themselves but actually the social, physical and psychological barriers placed upon us. We had no contact with the outside world (apart from a weekly 10 minute phone call); we could not watch the news or read the papers. This, coupled with a severe lack of sleep, made the stupidest mistakes inevitable.

After living in captivity, the programme airs. I was very worried how I might be perceived – so many days are edited into a one hour show that it felt inevitable that negative traits would be highlighted. However, I was quietly pleased at the finished product. I don’t feel the public necessarily saw the real ‘me’ but I do think that I appeared human. Mistakes are inevitable and can be harmless so long as responsibility is taken and humanity implemented. The Apprentice really only showed a few versions of me: inevitably, the professional and the goofy.

I have no want or need to criticise the editing process. Editing works in your favour when you win and against you when you lose. The only ‘regret’ for me was that my day job was never really mentioned. I have always been a political researcher, which I thought would have been an interesting angle for me.

We appreciate that the ‘prize’ has changed significantly since the programme began, and that the title is arguably now pretty misleading, but the programme still – certainly from Nick Hewer’s interviews – aims to educate as well as entertain. What did you learn from taking part that has been valuable to you, or will be valuable in the future?

The biggest lesson for me in The Apprentice is understanding the ‘bigger picture’.

Furthermore, I learnt that the biggest risks in business, and in life, provide the biggest rewards.

Watching the programme with a variety of hats on – regular TV viewer, reviewer, and employee of an organisation that advises on (amongst other things) assessment centres – we regularly scratch our heads at the idea of The Apprentice as an example of best recruitment practise. The tasks are condensed into extraordinary timescales, and seem to repeatedly test one set of ‘skills’ at the expense of many others. And the best individual performances can be on the losing team and vice versa. You’ve also said elsewhere that you felt ‘robbed’ when you were fired – and the You’ve Been Fired audience agreed with you. If you could redesign the programme, how would you change it and why?

I would not change the format of the programme. The Apprentice is an entertainment show that demonstrates some of the biggest pitfalls in business.

As a contributor, I obviously felt that restrictions made failure inevitable but the show would not be as valuable for the viewer if barriers were removed.

On a personal note, in any recruitment process all applicants should be treated equally. There is a feeling on The Apprentice that ‘success over adversity’ is more of an achievement – for example, someone who is not used to a formal pitching process being forgiven for a poor performance. In reality, you would want the ‘best’ person for the job.

Furthermore, the ability to sell carries more weight than any other skill on the Apprentice. All Apprentice candidates are good sales people; they sold themselves against tens of thousands of people to even get on the show.

In your own line of work – politics – most people would assume that a relatively thick-skin is a pre-requisite. But we can’t help but notice that the overwhelming majority of reviews of the programme take the line of making fun of it and poking holes in the candidates. Is that a sense the candidates – or even the panel, if you wish to comment – get too, and do you think the programme could change that? The ability to laugh at yourself sometimes is valuable in any job, but you do work very hard on the programme: we’re guessing you must be annoyed at some level at how it’s generally perceived?

The one show we were allowed to watch when filming The Apprentice was a weekly pre-record of the X Factor. I quickly noted that every evictee was treated so kindly: Gary Barlow would wish them well and Dermot would give them a hug. No such luck on The Apprentice when Lord Sugar calls you useless, Karren Brady glares and Nick Hewer screws his face up. Where was my hug, I wondered?

Joking aside, you do need to be very thick skinned to go on The Apprentice. The criticism is endless, especially now with the emergence of social media.

At no point was I ever truly upset by my treatment. I entered The Apprentice with my eyes wide open. The saving grace will always be the ‘You’re Fired’ show where candidates can explain themselves and prove that they too are smart enough to see where they went wrong.

Working in politics arguably provided me an advantage- I knew it was entertainment and I knew that my ability to handle criticism was going to allow me to make a success of myself beyond the show.

One thing about the programme continues to puzzle me, and it’s a different aspect of ‘realism’. Despite being armed with smartphones, at no point do we see anyone do the sensible thing and Google for suppliers, locations or even spellings. Are you actually banned from doing that, or is any use of the web (which is, after all, what a lot of people do in their working lives all the time) edited out? It’s an essential research tool nowadays, so its omission seems very odd. (Oh, and why do you all hold the phones like they are StarTrek communication devices?)

The internet is not allowed on The Apprentice: no computers and (usually) no calculators. This is inevitably to really test the raw ability of the candidates.

Imagine doing your day job without the internet!?

The phones are held they way they are so that the cameras can catch the conversation. It was disabling though, as hearing each other was difficult and it often led to snappy responses and a lack of patience!

Another blogger, watching the last series, identified the ‘trump cards’ for a candidate to hold as being: Intelligence, Sales success, Commercial acumen, Strategic thinking and Lord Sugar’s respect and liking. Do you think he’s right, and do you think these are what Lord Sugar should be looking for?

The Apprentice is a back edited programme. The show needs to justify each firing and follow the story of the finalists. It is easy to omit or highlight any given strength or weakness.

That said, I believe Lord Sugar is looking for sales success, commercial acumen and, most importantly, the guts to take a risk. I actually think that intelligence is sometimes the missing ingredient. The university educated or emotionally intelligent candidate is at a disadvantage on this show.

As I’ve always thought recruitment processes are a two-way street, a different question. While the viewing public don’t get to see anyone’s business plan until the closing stages of the programme, would you have still wanted to go into business with Lord Sugar if you’d been given the opportunity? (We appreciate that, within the format of the programme, you couldn’t really say ‘No’: assume for the purposes of this question that you’re off camera and he’s a potential investor.)

There are pros and cons to winning. The show itself will provide every candidate the platform to follow their dreams. Winning means giving 50% of your business over; time will tell whether this has been something worthwhile for the winners.

Of course, I would have liked to have won but it didn’t really cross my mind that I would… especially after I had had such a poor start.

A chance to blow your own trumpet. What skills, experience and ability do you think you have to offer to a potential business investor and, more specifically, which or your strengths do you feel the programme didn’t give you an opportunity to demonstrate? And from what you saw of them, did the other candidates have positive qualities that weren’t allowed to shine?

Inevitably we lost a lot of candidates in the first few weeks that did not have the chance to show their strengths. I would have loved to have seen how Bilyana and Jane would have done given a few more weeks.

For me, I feel I didn’t get the chance to showcase my presentation skills, intelligence and political knowledge. I have a first class degree and Masters from the London School of Economics, have worked with some of the most influential politicians in the world, and have been in senior level management positions for the last 5 years.

More importantly, I get on with everyone. I am very personable and down to earth – this can sometimes be to my detriment though where people might underestimate me. The ‘Blonde Assassin’ quote was a TV blip but did hold some resonance in my career, where I had been constantly underestimated in a world full of men with status, class and money.

The Apprentice, for me, has allowed me to step out from the shadows. It has provided me a voice.

I am now back to my day job as Editorial and Research Director for a public policy publisher. I have been offered a number of opportunities but I am taking my time in making decisions. One thing is for sure… you will not see me in any magazines or reality TV shows! Back to normality for me!

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