talent management


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 …)

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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.

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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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We’ve introduced you to the runners and riders for this penultimate hurdles challenge of the season, and let you review their form in the paddock. So let’s get the cameras rolling and take you to West London for the Burlington Arcade Handicap Chase. And who better to set the scene than contemporary business’ very own Burlington Bertie from Bow? Lord Sugar, for it is he, sets up the challenge to create affordable luxury items. Roll up, roll up, get yer entrepreneurs ‘ere, ladies and gentlemen. (One of the candidates makes a remark about the final heat being the one to sort the men from the boys. I’d man up if I were you, Jade. Or cuff someone.)

The trick of the task is presumably in the non-sequitor. Charged with creating the product, the branding, a retail environment and an industry experts pitch, market positioning and retail strategy will be critically important here. Not so much as little nuggets of poshness for poorer people, but more as the kind of pampering items that still sell even in hard times. (The BBC has presumably slipped up somewhere on the socio-economic inequality indicators, but we’ll let it pass.)

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I’m not sure about this additional episode. In one way, it’s the Personal Statement section of the application form, where we get to understand their individual drivers and see their pitch in terms of strengths. It also provides Karren and Nick – who, we should attempt to remember, are the two people who have actually witnessed and observed the participants over the long string of tasks they’ve completed. (Lord Sugar’s acquaintance with them is limited to task-setting cameos, a quick game of whiff-whaff one afternoon and the Boardroom session, which focus mostly on the losers.)

In televisual terms – and for televisual reasons – it’s also the sob story/background bit. Is this supplementary information that you’d normally welcome in a recruitment process, or sentimental special pleading masquerading as light entertainment? This is the kind of material that’s usually filler in X Factor, surely? If this was Big Brother, a cartoon Geordie would announce at this point that “You decide”.

But we don’t. Lord Alan, Nick and Karren decide, and we don’t know if they even care that so and so loves his Mum or comes from good stock. After all, so do – in their different ways – Edward VIII and bowls of dripping. I’m not sure I’d want to invest in either. What really drives them? It’s too easy and tempting to say “A cab, with luck”, but here is a summary of the runners and riders for the semi-final.

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Last week’s episode engineered a cliff hanger, which saw Stephen escape Lord Sugar’s laser-guided firing finger by millimetres. This week, he’s parlayed his way into being PM whatever the task, and winning. Assessed on past performance, he’s left himself no option but to polish his petard until it’s as blindingly shiny as his suits and pray that he’s not hoisted aloft on it like a white flag. If there’s any justice, he’ll address a few other points too: dealing with his five o’clock shadow (fine at 5pm, but all day?), curb his patronising approach to the others (and especially the female others – let’s hope Karren is taking notes), and start taking responsibility rather than directing to others the moment anything as much as threatens to turn nipples-skyward. Last week, he had what we can assume was his first real close shave, and was only spared a free cab home by the thickness of his faux mohair waistcoat.

This week, regardless of the task, it’s his own brand that sorely needs a 24-hour makeover and a drastic repositioning. So it’s very tense on my sofa this week. Not only I am missing Lewis for this, I now realise I’m also missing the final series of A Town Called Eureka. Dramatic tension, complex problems to unravel, radical innovation, rendering of justice – and all of it on other channels.

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