People are often surprised that I’m a fan of the BBC business competition, The Apprentice. But as far as I can see, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of how British business operates.
The Apprentice is classic for illustrating what happens to corporate ego-maniacs when the pressure is on. They lose it. They bully others or go into meltdown. Post show, on Apprentice: Your Fired they wince at clips of themselves and agree that family and friends wouldn’t recognise them for the selfish, aggressive and often toxic way they behaved towards their fellow contestants.
There are a few exceptions. Tom Pellereau (last year’s winner), for example, is a nice guy, but rather than being given a job, Sir Alan gave him a £250,000 cash injection to start his own company. It was the first time Sir Alan altered the usual format of offering a role in his company.
The year before, Stella English’s ruthless determination had me back her as the winner from the start. She pulled out all the stops for a chance to work for notoriously bullish, Sir Alan. Impressed by Stella’s clinical determination to finish first, Sir Alan was happy to announce her his winner.
Fast forward a couple of years and Stella is taking Sir Alan to the Employment Tribunal.
It’s textbook old-school business. People at the top are hired for their ruthless ambition until chaffs someone else’s ruthless ambition – and war is declared. Before you know it, it’s hit the papers.
What I worry about, of course, are the support staff working in the Sir Alan and Stella environment. Can you imagine their day to day? Their stories aren’t going to make the papers. It’s these apprentices I think about; those exposed daily to temper tantrums and hostility, who must eventually believe this is how business operates. And, hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
It’s telling that Sir Alan’s assistant on the show, Karen Brady, reprimanded a number of the female contestants on Stella’s series because of their appalling infighting. The candidates behaviour was so bad, it prompting a number of British CEOs, including an ex-Tesco boss, to claim that this wasn’t a true reflection of UK business. I’d argue that it is and becoming more so. That’s why I watch it. There’s no PR or spin other than what laughable ego-driven self-promotion the contestants provide for themselves. It’s warts and all city ambition.
But Stella’s story also reveals something else about the nature of this kind of business. Winning your dream job may be difficult, but that’s just getting a foot in the door. Once it’s yours, the real battle might just be beginning.
The Apprentice shows us that working together to achieve success is often at odds with the traditional UK business model. I don’t know about you, but I think maybe it’s time we give it a try.