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Monthly Business e-Tips Vol 1
Issue 13

What Small Business Can Learn From The Apprentice

Do you watch "The Donald" on The Apprentice? I watched last year to see why so many people were smitten with the show. I was so turned-off by Trump's theatrics and how he pit people against each other; I found it difficult to watch. I was horrified that people viewing the show might assume treating employees in this manner demonstrates good leadership skills.

Feeling there must be some value in the program, I decided to watch again. Trying to be more open-minded this time, I was hoping to identify lessons that could be learned from the show. This time I concentrated on the makeup of the teams and what made one more successful than the other. I analyzed the affect certain leadership styles had on the outcome. Now the program had significance to me. Now I could identify the implications for small business.

Though Trump has worked his way to billionaire status, his style is not always appropriate.

Entrepreneurs should not emulate Mr. Trump by:

  • Pitting employees against each other. It creates hostility and backstabbing which are destructive to a business. It brings out the worst not the best in people. Stacie, who was fired from this season's show, did not work well with her team. Teammates accused her of having emotional issues. However, it seems she is a successful and competent businessperson in real life. Recently, she was brought back on the show. With different teammates and without the pressure of competing, she was a valuable contributor. I have heard similar stories about other fired apprentices.
  • Not allowing for mistakes. Mistakes are how people learn and grow. Though poor judgment can be deadly in business, normal everyday mistakes are necessary and part of human nature. Having no tolerance for errors is not realistic or healthy for a business.
  • Leading by intimidation. This type of leadership does not bring out the best in people. Businesses need risk-takers to help them grow. Employees afraid of being fired are discouraged from taking risks. On The Apprentice, project managers are most often fired because they did not take charge or take the steps necessary to win.
  • Making employees feel they are constantly being judged and criticized. Fear of being criticized creates a defensive culture. This results in a stifling and unproductive environment.

On the other hand, the show demonstrates some ways to be successful that small business owners can apply:

  • Using people's strongest talents. For example, when Maria was managing the doggie business assignment, she sent Elizabeth out on a task in the field. Elizabeth is over-analytical. Maria was concerned that her constant questions would slow down the team delaying progress. Doing research in the field allowed Elizabeth to use her analytic skills and contribute to the success of the project. Recognizing the strength and weakness of teammates and using them appropriately made Maria a winning manager.
  • Leaders make the decisions. Team members, though happy to have a voice, have been frustrated with project managers who cannot make decisions. Being decisive is a requirement of leadership. If the decision is not working, good leaders cut their losses and change direction. Hesitating and looking toward the group for answers does not instill confidence or provide adequate direction to employees.
  • Team success depends on cooperation. When its members are too competitive, teams are more likely to fail. Getting team members to work well together is the main ingredient for success. Originally, members of the all-female Apex Team didn't get along and consistently lost. Trump realigned tams by exchanging members. The new team configuration worked better. Develop teams whose members compliment each other rather than clash. It makes all the difference. If one member consistently cannot contribute, then it is time to declare, "You're fired."
  • Give clear direction. On the show, Trump gives concise instructions. Though he doesn't tell people how to do it, he does tell them what he expects. He also gives some direction and offers resources for the teams. In small business, there is often an expectation that employees can read their boss's mind or know what to do instinctively. You must communicate what you want and identify the success factors. It is essential for your employees to get it right.
  • Accountability is king. Many of The Apprentice project managers were fired because they were held accountable for their decisions. Though you should not consistently fire employees, they do need to be held responsible in some way for their actions and inactions. Reward exceptional performance. Respond to employees who have a negative impact on your business, providing both feedback and consequences they will remember.

The Apprentice offers many lessons. My strong recommendation is to watch, identify what makes a project successful and apply those methods to your business.

Yes, I guess I am a fan of The Apprentice after all.

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