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Ken Keller: What can you learn from watching ‘The Apprentice’?

Brain Food for Business Owners

Posted: March 11, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 11, 2012 1:55 a.m.

There are many ways an individual can learn to improve how a business runs.

A person can work in a business, or several businesses. They can observe other business operations if the owners will allow it. Knowledge can be gained by reading books on business and industry, even from biographies and autobiographies of successful businessmen and women.

It is possible to learn about business from watching a movie; two of the recent ones that come to mind are "Moneyball" and "The Devil Wears Prada."

People interested in learning more about business can attend a conference, sit in a workshop, enjoy a magazine article in a general business publication, the local newspaper, perhaps. Or maybe even watch a television show.

One pioneering television show on business is "The Apprentice." This NBC show is known for Donald Trump telling at least one person that "You're fired!" at the conclusion of each episode.

The former hit show is in trouble. Failing to reinvent itself successfully, the audience has shrunk from more than 28 million in the first season finale in April 2004 to slightly more than 8 million viewers when the season ended in May 2011.

The decline of the show's viewers can be a direct reflection of how a business can be impacted without making positive changes.

Given the drop in ratings, it is way past due for NBC to let Trump know he is out of a job.
But the perceived failures in the show concept can provide some solid lessons that are worth sharing, and more importantly, worth thinking about for any business.

The first is that the premise of the show is that people who are soloists are supposed to come together each week in a group, create a team that performs better than the competition and win a prize for doing so.

This would be great except there is no cultural structure, no one on the team has any skin in the game except for their own ego, no one is in charge and, even when someone is in charge, he or she lacks the authority to discipline or terminate anyone.

The second is that none or very few ever played from the same sheet of music before. You cannot put a group of people who have never been team players together and expect anything but disaster.

Third, because many of the participants are highly competitive, they cannot set their own egos aside and focus on beating the other group, their official competition. Instead, they spend most of the time fighting against each other.

This is unfortunately, how many companies actually do business. If all that energy was to be focused on the competition, the company would be much more successful. Instead, they fight over petty issues.

Fourth, there is no goal except to win the weekly event. Teamwork doesn't count except not to screw up and make a mistake that will get you fired. In many instances, the leader of the winning group seems to do most of the work alone because they become so disgusted with their teammates.

That is like the manager who refuses to trust the staff. The manager actually does the jobs of the subordinates. And then wonders why he or she is frustrated and resent his or her subordinates.

Fifth, communication issues abound. No one seems to actually listen. No one writes anything down. No timetables are issued, no milestones determined.
Chaos reigns. This is the same reason why many business meetings are a complete waste of time.

Sixth, the motives of each individual come clear from the start. Many participants wonder why they are participating and choose to simply withdraw from assigned tasks.

Seventh, there is no real authority within the group, even for the leader. Sometimes people essentially quit, doing next to nothing and remain on the show for few more weeks.

While "The Apprentice" is created for entertainment, it might be a little more like the real world than some company owners would care to admit.

Ken Keller is CEO of STAR Business Consulting Inc., a company that works with companies interested in growing top line revenue. He can be reached at (661) 645-7086 or at Keller's column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.




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