Learning from The Apprentice

By Mike. December 20th, 2010. Posted in Your career 1 Comment »

‘You’re fired’ – not words that anyone wants to hear, and especially not on BBC1’s ‘The Apprentice1‘ where it signals your exit from the competition to win a job in one of Lord Alan Sugar’s companies. Each week the contestants demonstrate working with each other can be trying at the best of times, let alone when tight deadlines loom and the pressure is on.

Teamwork in The Apprentice

For the last few weeks, the candidates on Wednesday night’s show ‘The Apprentice’ have demonstrated many of the behaviours which come out under pressure, as well as what reaction those undertakings get from other team members. Although ‘The Apprentice’ may not exactly mirror your day to day office life, there are still many lessons to be learnt from the behaviour and thought processes of the candidates.

The ability to work in a team is one of the most important attributes of a successful consultant. Like the candidates from ‘The Apprentice’, for any given project you may be asked to slip into a client team to solve a problem.

Your aim will be to ‘achieve as a team, but shine as an individual’ which leaves you in the difficult situation where you’ll need to decide what is required as far as individual recognition versus team achievement. Here are my recommendations as to where to focus your effort.

Keep your goal in mind

It is very easy to get dragged into deep discussions about side issues or focus on the method of achieving the goal, rather than the goal itself. Take the episode where the aim was to buy 10 items for the least amount of money. One team focused on getting all ten items and forgot to get them for the cheapest price possible, which was the whole point of the exercise.

And in the real world? Let’s say your client wishes to make things more efficient using technology of some kind. It can be very easy to create a new system which does lots of new and exciting things, but which doesn’t actually make things any more efficient. Having tons of new functionality may not actually make things more efficient, in fact it could be more complex to use.

When considering your approach to solving a problem, always take a step back now and then to ensure you are on the right track. Even if you have to admit you’re wrong, you’re far better reaching the right end result in a longer time than reaching the wrong result slightly faster.

Be Assertive

As you will see by watching any episode of any series, assertiveness is a key element to getting your ideas and point of view across.

However, it is how you do this which is important.

While shouting over everyone else is bound to get you heard, it tends to be a little less objective and can often turn other team members against you.

Many times throughout the series, the overbearing attitude towards a specific idea has ended up with that person being blamed for not listening and forcing something through which the rest of the team claim to have had no choice in.

As a consultant, your approach needs to be reassuring and measured, with the intensity of your argument matching the importance of the decision or item being discussed. You will also need to be aware of your own knowledge of a subject, be careful of being highly vocal in areas you are not familiar with.

Manage team responsibilities

Another lesson to be learned from watching these hopefuls go through their paces is managing the responsibilities of team members. As I mentioned before, each team member is looking to shine but if the team as a whole doesn’t win they are susceptible to being taken ‘back into the boardroom’ and potentially at risk of being fired.

It is clear from several of the episodes that if some of the team do not buy into the strategy and ideas being pursued then they undermine the whole team’s attempt to come out on top.

Therefore, the only sure-fire way of staying in the process throughout most of the series is to be on the winning team. This is something that consultants should be aiming for daily with their clients. Remember that being a member of a winning team is more important than being a good member of a bad team.

For you, the consultant, this means managing how the team is working together and how they view the project. Simply saying ‘it wasn’t my fault, the team didn’t do it’ won’t be good enough when the project is reviewed and found wanting, especially when they get the invoice. Part of your role as the consultant is to get the best out of people, make sure the team all accept responsibility for each part of the project and the project as a whole.

This can be done by keeping roles, responsibilities and goals as clear as possible, making sure everyone understands what is expected of them and where the project is going. Even if you are not leading the project, clarifying this information is a valuable role within the team and one which management will thank you for if you get it right.

Sometimes, however, knowing their role is not enough. As with Jamie on the interactive video task, team members may not agree with their role and responsibility and in that case they’ll need to be reminded of the overall goal. Or bargained with. Or both.


So there you go, my top three elements of good teamwork are:

  1. Keeping your goal in mind,
  2. Being assertive and
  3. Managing team morale.

In my opinion, these are the most important points from the series, however there are obviously plenty more useful points to be gained from watching others in these kind of conditions, and we will hopefully cover more of them in the new year.

1 – For those of you not familiar with ‘The Apprentice’, the basic premise is thus: 16 hopeful candidates are picked (from thousands of applications) to battle it out over twelve weeks, completing a business related task each week. In every episode they are split into two teams to carry out said tasks, and on the losing team someone gets ‘fired’ and leaves the competition. You can find more at www.bbc.co.uk/apprentice. ↑

This article was written by: Mike

Mike is based in London as a Managing Consultant for Espion, a BSI professional services company. He covers a range of activities including overseeing organisational development within the UK & international markets, maintaining existing client relationships and developing business opportunities as well as defining and developing service driven strategy for the UK operating unit. He also occasionally does some pentesting.

Mike's website

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