June 2012

Ah, Jubilee time. Fireworks, flags a-flutter, and BBC TV series about that other fond memory of 1977: punk. (That jubilee coincided with my seventeeth birthday: specific memories are hazy, but bunting, sausage rolls and pogo-dancing were involved.) Our old acquaintance – in the Auld Lang Syne rather than the sedan chair sense – Peter Cook has already made the connection, understandably given his own Punk Rock People Management micro-book (and series at HRZone). So excuse me a little while I wax briefly nostalgic about what all that stuff about Mohican haircuts, bondage trousers and ‘No Feelings’ was all about at the time. (And I’ll try not to wax poetic about doing so with a Melody Gardot CD and a book about gardening at my right elbow. Everything gets old – even, pace Andrew Marr, bloggers.)

As the BBC’s Punk Britannia series helps to explain to those younger than me, the ‘explosion’ of Punk had a longer fuse than casual observers might have noticed. As a musical phenomenon, it had rather long roots – including the American garage bands chronicled on the Nuggets CD series, the New York bar band scene earlier in the 1970s, and British mod bands of the 1960s. “Here’s three chords, now start a band” is not only a popular misquote, but a misquote of a fanzine published long after a long, long fuse had finally connected with the powder-keg. Whatever it might have been, it was no epicentre of musical originality: even the Sex Pistols played cover versions. Versions shorn of musical finesse and infused with a splenetic vigour that was a deliberate assault on ear-drums attuned to the prevailing musical forms of the time, but cover versions none the less. (Were I so minded, there’d be a very bad taste joke about extra-ordinary renditions to be had …)


There are a lot of truths in this world, relayed to us at varying volume levels and frequencies. Some of the most interesting or illuminating, however, are uttered so rarely or so quietly that they almost go unnoticed. In business, one of the great taboos is losing. We regularly hear that it is not an option, unthinkable, a sign of deplorable weakness and so on. Much less often do we hear that it is a natural occurrence: despite the parable of The Midas Touch (and King Midas seems to have had more than one problem with being unable to control either his wishes or his mouth), our desire for invincibility and endless glory shouts louder than our counselling wisdom. And that quietness conceals something else: that losing can be a great teacher, but you have to learn how to be a good loser to make the most of the opportunity.

If you’re not suffering terminal Apprentice fatigue (and I may be in mortal danger, after reviewing the whole series), the final delivered one interesting lesson: that the contender who loses best can be the winner. Having been on the losing team many times, we can perhaps argue that Ricky Martin was a man who had had plenty of practice. But then again, practice makes perfect: Mr Martin may not have racked up 10,000 hours of losing – if we accept Malcolm Gladwell’s recipe for mastery – but he’d grasped the ideas of learning from mistakes, reviewing personal expectations and managing those of others, and something close to the idea of purposeful practice in honing efforts on specific areas to improve performance.


I’ll be honest before I type anything more: this isn’t the most fully-thought through contribution I’ve made to this blog. But the thoughts that are swimming around here have lurked at the margins of several recent posts, particularly those exploring new approaches to working, the nature of our changing relationship with work, and that chestnut du jour – employee engagement. If there’s a single trigger for this half-baked piece, it’s a review by John Lanchester in The Guardian of Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy. Sandel, as Lanchester points out, is no kneejerk anti-marketeer: his primary concerns are morality and justice and – by extension – the moral impact of market-based thinking and behaviour. As Lanchester quotes him, from what he takes pains to point out is neither an angry nor a simplistic book:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

As the reviewer explains, the book is an assault on the idea that ‘the economic approach to “utility maximisation” explains all human behaviour.’ I’m not about to wax either philosophical (I lack the mental apparatus) nor political (at least not intentionally – this is not the place), but I saw echoes of this pondering the place of marketisation in other recent articles and writing, more directly related to work, employee loyalty and so on – areas that are much more the ‘home turf’ of this blog.


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.


So here we are at The Final. Even if I’m not entirely about the numbers (as my MBTI and other psychometric experiences confirmed), I can calculate on the spot pretty well for someone whose background and strengths are mostly on the creative side of the fence. So if time really is money, I  reckon this series has cost me about a grand at my going rate. Ok, it’s had its moments, but any sense of a meaningful return has been a little difficult to identify.

Nor am I entirely proud that I’ve reviewed the episodes as if I’ve been watching televised pantomime, but that is what much of the series has felt like: the reviews are at least honest. And few reviewers – except one or two written by people taking themselves rather too seriously (or trying too hard to sell their own services) – have treated the programme with much more respect. There has been wisdom on offer, but all too often it’s been Norman Wisdom rather than Business Wisdom. No disrespect to Nick Hewer, Karren Brady or Lord Sugar himself: I’m sure your intentions are entirely honourable and your hearts are in the right places. But a lot of the audience are laughing up their sleeves rather than taking notes. There also seems to be a consensus that this hasn’t been a bumper series: the candidates have neither shone with brilliance nor dazzled with ineptitude, and the format feels tired. (If you can’t be clever, be likeable and all that …)

Indeed, the format is now an ugly cut and shunt job. The title never really belonged: whatever the programme has ever been, a structured learning programme with constant mentoring isn’t it. The task format worked while it was about picking an employee, but has not been amended now that it’s about identifying a partner to invest in. As The Telegraph pointed out, this year and last year’s eventual winners were both the candidate in the final who had been on the losing team the most often. (Although this criticism also overlooks the factor that annoys me: the worst or weakest performance can easily be on the winning team, while someone else must be fired.) The selection process may introduce a ‘reality tv’ level of suspense into the series, but as a model of business selection criteria it needs a stern word in its ear. (Claude, do you have a moment?) As models for assessment centres go, It’s A Knockout is an unusual choice.

Interestingly, the ‘The Final Five’ and the ‘Why I Fired Them’ programmes gave the viewer rather more beyond slapstick and buffoonery than the actual episodes: they had moments of a sober reflective quality that reviewed business strengths and personal qualities in ways that the tasks themselves have not. And as Lord Sugar reminded us in them, the process is also about the person: as well as an investor, Lord Sugar will be a business partner with the eventual winner. Good luck with that, as they say. And are you sure you didn’t want that dog?

Anyway, here we all are at the Institute of Directors, and each finalist gets a couple of sentences to outline their business plan. Nick offers a one-click facility for any recipe on the internet so we can buy the ingredients in one fell swoop. Tom is punting a hedge fund based around investments in fine wines. Jade is offering a call centre the size of Wales. Or perhaps Nepal. And Ricky is proposing an ethical recruitment service aimed at the scientific industries.



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