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Lessons From The Donald

December 30, 2004
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I’m a big fan of "The Apprentice," the reality TV show starring billionaire Donald Trump. I like it because of what it shows us about the business world, namely what a seriously dysfunctional workplace looks and acts like.

    Although the show purports to be about business, it has about as much to do with running an enterprise as "The Sopranos" has to do with family relationships. The show is really about individualism and winning no matter what it takes. Competitors on "The Apprentice" will say and do just about anything to win and seem to care very little about who they may have to step on to do it.

    Last fall, Stacy Blake-Beard, an associate professor at the Simmons School of Management in Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe, "The message of ‘The Apprentice’ is that to the extent that you look out for yourself above all else, you will be rewarded. Organizations talk about teamwork, but few of them promote it. They promote the star."

    There are lessons to be learned from "The Apprentice," however, and they can be applied to any business and workforce anywhere.

    Lesson No. 1: Leadership--even a little bit of it--matters. Although it is largely an individual competition, it’s not surprising that the winners of "The Apprentice" were the people who showed some basic team leadership skills, at least at a very minor level.

    The pattern was broken somewhat with Kelly Perdew, the latest "Apprentice" winner. He had great credentials as a West Point grad and Army intelligence officer with an MBA and law degree from UCLA. In his final task, Perdew had to stage a charity polo tournament by managing some of his defeated "Apprentice" competitors.

    Despite his impressive background, Perdew seemed to lack the leadership spark, choosing to park himself behind a laptop computer where he endlessly crunched numbers rather than managing his workers. He seemed to resist much personal direction of his team, and it is testament to the complete lack of leadership skills showed by his competitor that Perdew’s half-hearted, last-minute management of his people was enough to win.

    Lesson No. 2: Second-guessing is fatally disruptive. "The Apprentice" is a show where the second-guessing goes nonstop. Competitors constantly second-guess one another’s motives, appearance, work habits, leadership skills and everything else. And Trump is the worst, using the weekly boardroom appearance by the losing team as an opportunity to second-guess everything before he summarily fires someone.

    In this regard, he is like the boss from hell who gives little to no guidance to his staff about what he wants and then cans someone when she can’t read his mind. His actions in the boardroom devastate and demoralize the losing team each week--just as they would do in real life.

    Lesson No. 3: It’s good to be a selfless team player (even if Trump doesn’t think so).

    Each week on "The Apprentice," two of the competitors are designated as "project managers" for that week’s task. The manager of the winning team gets a small bonus: They can’t be fired if their team loses the next week.

    This past season, one winning project manager chose to waive his right to be protected from getting fired the next week in an attempt to build some esprit de corps among his losing teammates. He thought his solid performance in a losing effort would keep him from getting fired, but his strategy blew up when Trump pounced on his "weakness" and canned him for his selfless action.

    Although this made for great television, it would have been an act of madness in a real workplace. Getting people to put the larger team above their own personal self-interest is one of the real keys to success for most any business and not a reason to fire someone.

    But firing people adds drama, and that’s what makes "The Apprentice" fascinating. As the New York Times put it, "The show’s firing ritual is somehow more plausible than voting people off islands. It reflects the musical chairs quality of corporate life: top management keeps taking away seats so that only people no one would ever want to work with are left."

    Somehow, I think that’s the real business lesson from "The Apprentice" worth remembering.

Workforce Management, January 2005, p. 8 -- Subscribe Now!

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