Take a chair, Tom: The Apprentice Final

After thirteen weeks, I can take that fork out of my leg and celebrate: we have a winner. Pleasingly, the person most of the office here picked a few weeks back, not least on the grounds that hindsight is better than myopia or having a crystal-clear view of your own adoring reflection. As the four finalists presented their business plans to Lord Sugar’s hired human ‘demolition balls’ (thankfully, with the emphasis on the demolition – His Lordship’s testicular fetishism has rivalled Gordon Ramsay’s in this series), it went mostly as you’d expect.

Jim (despite the revelation of a real concern for decent business education for school children, witnessed by his own voluntary unpaid efforts) produced a detailed seduction note to AMS, liberating his initials, and spewing clichés like a binge thinker: there was a germ of an idea, although possibly a non-profit or public sector idea, but there was no market research. His response to the Blessed Margaret’s request to describe himself without using clichés – “I am what it says on the tin” – was pure comedy: the edit gentlemanly spared Margaret from having her despairing facepalm shown to the nation.

Susan buried some nuggets of wisdom, and a successful trading history, in a candyfloss of enthusiasm: her projected turnover and profit figures had a huge element of soufflé about them. Her flaws – naiveté and a breezy way with detail – weren’t fully countered by her strengths: genuine entrepreneurial drive and spirit, tenacity and zest, and a largely unrewarded ability to see and make sense (even if that sense sparks rather fitfully). 

Helen was designated The Woman Who’d Have Won Any Other Year, which I’m sure cheered her up no end. Poised, polished, elegant, efficient and charming, she produced a business plan that was total begonias from beginning to end. His Sweetness was visibly a bit gutted. (I half expected him to say “I’m sick as a parrot, Brian”, like a deflated football manager.) Invincably knowledgeable about bakery and pies, she suggested a concierge service – remarkably similar to several that I spent the early noughties trying to talk a number of would be dot.com millionaires out of launching. And at least I got paid for organising the graphic design and the programming. You’d hire her as a PA in an instant, but you probably wouldn’t lend her 250 grand to start anything but a chain of pie stands.

Tom’s business plan was, it seems, little better, but he won for being a man whose skills complement Sugar’s: innovation and product development. His Lordship is a product man, as he said himself. A business plan for a chair that forgot to use the word ‘chair’ suggests there’s work to be done, but at least it’s work that has somewhere to lead. (Although a fiver says it might not be a marriage made in heaven, or a long-lasting one.) Tom’s winning performance in the final boardroom encounter was also a coup de grace: geeks don’t necessarily always pick their moment, but when they do they pick them with scientific precision. (No Helen, the final showdown is not the time to field Business Plan B (posh bakeries)). Good luck to them both and, speaking as a guitarist, I look forward to a nail file designed specifically for the needs of the finger-picker. And they can have that idea for free.

The problem isn’t the winner, it’s the series. The prize is fundamentally different – a business partnership. The final – not a task, but a grilling on their plan – wasn’t the culmination of a series of tasks, but a dramatic sharp turn. The series, with the exception of the preceding episode (selling pies, Helen: do pay attention), didn’t lead up to this year’s final or prize. Throughout our reviews of the series, we’ve suggested alternative approaches that might have been educational about business for both contestants and audience. Show the contestants in their current roles: past performance isn’t a predictor of the future, but it’s at least as valid an observation as a spurious task. But there is a more sea-going suggestion to be made.

Many years ago, ASK built an on-line learning programme for a client. (Jim, are you listening?). Although it was, at one level, systems training that showed how various parts of a complex software package supported major business lending decisions, it was more fundamentally about the people learning and about showing them that the software wasn’t there to make their decisions. As they progressed through the training – mirroring how they would use the software in reality – they compiled a draft of a final report, which they would ultimately review and submit. They didn’t get eliminated for not selling enough scrap iron or nodding dogs along the way: they acquired additional knowledge and insight that could inform their final output, and were encouraged to learn how to apply their new learning.

Given Nick’s comments about the programme’s role as encourager of entrepreneurialism, Sugar’s role as Gordon Brown’s former Enterprise Tsar, and particularly Margaret Mountford’s role as a Trustee of the Bright Ideas Trust, what we need is a programme that episode by episode allows a group of contestants – possibly fewer of them – to refine and review a fledgling plan as they add a new skill, knowledge or angle to their personal portfolio. Judging the pies episode with an industry panel of experts was just a fragmentary example of how this could be implemented: feedback is more educational than a bald bottom-line, after all. As Lord Sugar said in this year’s final:

The current business idea needs tweaking and that’s what business is all about.”

TV is not short of people humiliating themselves for our ‘entertainment’. But business is short of people with well-thought through ideas that can be developed into businesses that generate trivial little things like employment, growth and export revenue. The Apprentice 2011 left me with the lingering impression that most of the people involved with the programme knew this perfectly well, but went for the easy option.

As one of the watching audience, that feels like a shame and – something Lord Sugar would surely loathe – a missed opportunity. There’s a gap in the telly market for something amusing to watch that the audience can really learn from. Let’s hope someone at the BBC encourages Lord Sugar’s production team to have a stab at filling it.

Filed under: authentic leadership, coaching, HR, leadership development, leading performance, recruitment, talent management

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