Lessons from The Apprentice


Finally got caught up on my Apprentice watching this weekend. Well, kind of. I think I missed the first episode. I watched the one with the bathing suits (um, yeah…attractive) and the Star tours (kind of annoying) and the El Pollo Loco bowls (Paradise Bowl? And who is your target market?).


First,  let me say that I hate the tent thing. It doesn’t really add anything to the game except whining. Trust me, I would be the biggest whiner there. Then again, I didn’t stand in line for my shot at a totally humiliating job interview. I think it takes a special kind of person with a desire for fame and business success to go there. Oh yeah, and potential humiliation. And pretending that nepotism doesn’t totally tick you off. Because Ivanka and the lesser Donald add so much to the show.


I won’t be recapping the episodes blow-by-blow, as I mentioned before. Part of that is my waning interest; it’s enough to watch the show, but not enough to take meticulous notes and painfully pull from my snark reserves. And it may just be that it’s early in the season, or that I took last season off, but this year, even the annoying ones are kind of milquetoasty. More on that I am sure in future posts.


 So what I am left with is kind of my original intention behind even watching the show in the first place: the parallels between the she show as an interview process and an actual interview process. Also, the parallels been the tasks and working on teams. Come on, it will be fun to pretend that something on this show is rooted in reality. Because the last time you screwed up something at work, you were forced to sleep outside and shower with a hose, right?


Unfortunately, on The Apprentice, there’s not one “lesson” per episode that is harped on continuously so viewing audience, which producers must really disdain, will “get it”. Have you ever watched “Seventh Heaven”? Come on, admit it. You noticed how one family’s troubles on any given week all revolved around a theme (“lying is bad”, “tattling is bad”, etcetera). That isn’t the domain of The Apprentice.  So I am just going to blog about cross over between what I see and real-life work situations.


So my first post is going to be about troublesome managers. There will be time to talk about leaders in these challenges later. I am talking about the big boss manager…the Trump, who will not hesitate to humiliate you in the meeting room. I’ve seen these kinds of managers before. Their thinking about their team members is binary. Either you are making them look good or they want you gone. It isn’t really about what’s right for the business but for them and their career. And disagreeing with them? Forget about it. Ever been there? It would be less humiliating if you all got into a conference room and orbited around them like the sun.


The problem is that when you are in an interview situation, and you are the interviewee, interviewing the manager isn’t so much crossing your mind. But it should. This is the person that can, and hopefully will, be paving the way for future career moves. They will be championing your projects, talking you up to senior management, providing you resources. or making your life a living hell. We are all putting on a good face in the interviews, even toxic managers.


So while the Apprentice contestants knew what they were getting into, the rest of us have to piece together a manager’s style profile during an interview. There are some things that you can do during the interview. It takes some reading between the lines, because nobody is going to say “I’m incredibly difficult to work for. I won’t trust you most of the time and when you are successful, I will take credit for your work”. During the interview process, you should be asking questions that will give you subtle insight into the manager’s personality. Some ideas:


1) Ask the manager to describe their management style. It’s kind of an open ended question. Ask it and let them talk. This is an interview tactic, by the way. You can tell a lot by what a person leads with. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. If the manager talks about weekly reports, ask what they entail and how much time team members spend on them. There’s a big difference between the manager that wants some bullet points on how things are going if they are asked about the team’s progress or wants to balance workloads, versus the manager that wants to get all up in your business. Ask how the manager uses the reports. Careful with phrasing, since managers could be threatened by this if they feel you going to be questioning their every move. “What role do these reports play in workload balancing”, could be a way of asking the question. Also, think about questions like “how often would we meet?”, “do you prefer to communicate through meetings, e-mail, other means?”, “what types of decisions would I have the autonomy to make and what types of decisions would require approval?”. There are a bunch more questions in the genre you could use.


2) Ask other people on the team about team dynamics. Pay attention to what is said and what is not. If you just ask “what is it like working for so-and-so?”, it could raise an eyebrow. But if you ask more broadly about the team and how the manager interacts with the rest of the team, you could get some interesting information.


 3) Ask the manager the qualities that make the most successful people on the team that way? This will give you insight into how the manager evaluates success and their ability to recognize individual strengths. It will also show you the manager’s relative comfort level in championing the strengths of others.


4) Ask about turnover on the team. Think about the balance between people who left the company, made moves within their career path and were encouraged to leave. There’s no “right” ratio. In fact, good managers not only nurture those that show promise but are honest with employees that might not be in the right job. You can also ask about whether the team has been growing (headcount growth is generally a signal that a team is considered successful). Internal moves onto the team can be suggestive of the team’s reputation at the company.


5) If you can, discreetly find an external reference. If you know someone who has left the team, or works in the same department on a different team, call them and ask what they think about you joining that team.


Some other readers might have some ideas about how to evaluate a manager’s style. In my professional experience, my relationship with my manager is the single most important factor in how I feel about my job. And I do my best to emulate some of the great managers I have had. I’m interviewing people for an open spot on my team this week and next. So while I am thinking about this from the perspective of the interviewee, I am also thinking about it from the perspective of the manager.


And that kind of brings me to the reason why I would never try out for the Apprentice. It seems pretty clear that the Donald would throw you under the bus if you weren’t successful, in his mind. I miss Carolyn.

Comments (9)

  1. todh says:

    Some really good advice Heather, thanks. And I agree about Carolyn…I enjoyed her the most during the second season where she was much more vocal than the first. Now that she and George are history, so am I.

  2. Bad_Brad says:

    My first thought of the tent thing was the same – getting beaten out on something at work does not result in sleeping outside and showering with a hose.

    However, for purposes of this show, I kind of like it.  I think that having some sort of undesirable physical consequence provides incentive for individuals to get hungry for a win and for teams to come together.

    I agree 100% on Trump’s kids.  George and Carolyn were seasoned professionals with long track records of good work for Trump.  They have since been replaced with Trump’s spoiled 20-something kids.  No two ways about it, it’s pure nepotism and it stinks.  It hurts the show’s credibility, IMHO.

    That said, I’ll still watch it, as it’s one of the few weekly shows I enjoy on network TV these days.

    Is it me, or in past seasons, didn’t Trump do some sort of brief talk about some leadership or management principle at the start of each episode?  Usually, it would be one that would prove to either be the downfall of the person who got fired on that episode, or the secret of success for the project manager who won on that episode.  It seemed to give the show some focus.  Not sure if they did away with it or if I have just missed it on the LA episodes so far.  If they did away with it, they should bring that back.

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    todh-  thanks

    Bad_Brad – yeah, they did do that in previous seasons. It made the show kind of relevant in an often over-stretching way. Like, let’s squeek some relevance out of this supposed business-related show. I think the tents took it one step closer to Fear Factor or Survivor. I might be over emphasizing the tent thing because of my severe dislike for camping. Also, I think it’s designed to keep the losers losing versus motivating them to win.

    I wonder if there’s a relationship between the move to LA for this season and the ligtening up on the substance of the show (loss of "real" business advisors in the board room, lack of business lessons to kick off the show) as well as the addition of tents for dramatic effect. I’m not dissing LA because it’s still kind of home for me, but it does have a propensity for appealing to people based on flash versus substance. If I had to guess, I would say that maybe some behind the scenes production has changed as well. You know the "we are taking the show in a different direction" kind of thing.

  4. Kevin says:

    And yet, somewhat irritatingly (depressingly?) it’s the Donald Trump’s of the world who "make it big".

    Your "I’m incredibly difficult to work for. I won’t trust you most of the time and when you are successful, I will take credit for your work" phrase really hit home; in a previous position I ended up having a new boss hired in to replace one who left, and Mr New Guy was that to a T. I spent my entire working life acting as a buffer between my team, who just wanted to get the job done, and his paranoia. The other managers who worked for him did exactly the same, too. Very divisive, very hard to work for, and ultimately the single reason I left a job I really liked – and have since been followed by quite a few others for the same reason.

    But he’s earning several what I was, has since been promoted (doesn’t someone, somewhere think "Congratulations, your team have all left, so we’ll promote you!" seems a little odd?) and is doing rather well for himself.

    Maybe Donald’s style isn’t great to work for, but it seems to get results!

    Kev

  5. HeatherLeigh says:

    Kevin – I hope that’s the exception though. I’ve had a number of managers that have been really great and are doing well for themselves too. I do think it’s odd/troubling when senior mgmt/execs aren’t looking at things like turnover and team morale.

    Doesn’t having had a manager like that make you more conscientious as a people manager? I know it does for me.

  6. Heather, great article your suggestions are wonderful.  Everyone has added so much with their comments.  

    Here are a some of my observations.  

    1) Trump is an ass, I wouldn’t work for him in a million years.

    2) This season, they aren’t doing and "real business tasks" at least so far.  In the past they have actually had to solve some real business problems.  Those are the episodes I like best.

    3) Haven’t read why George and Carolynn are gone, but my guess was that the "Donald" couldn’t handle someone else having notoriety.

    4) The tent city idea is incredibly lame.  If you can’t get motivated to win for a million dollars, then why are you there in the first place.  The tent living IMO, gives an ‘incumbent’ advantage to the winners.  How do you do your best to compete while living in those kinds of conditions?

    5) The arrogance of Donald is unbelievable.  He can’t even show general business courtesy by introducing his guests by using their names.  He just turns to them and says "Your name please."  What a putz…

    6) See my first comment.  😉

  7. HeatherLeigh says:

    Restaurant Recruiter – your point number 1 was what inspired the post for sure…I was thinking about what it would be like working for him, especially after all of his public tirades lately.

    I do think he cares a little too much about his public profile. I didn’t watch last season, but this season is considerably less interesting than the season I recapped.

    And I totally agree that the contests are really light on business fundamentals. For example, I get that the swimsuit competition was really about understanding your market. But the part where they had to design a swimsuit? How many leading CEOs are adept at swimsuit design? It just gives the Donald stupid reasons to dump people.

    Now I love marketing. But I am hoping that the challenges address some other areas of business besides marketing; otherwise, the contests will all seem the same. As it is the El Pollo Loco one was similar to the BK one a few years ago (and yes, the chicken suits *are* how they get people into EPL and they are much better than that creepy King head). How about a challenge on investing capital? How about one on supply chain? How about one on vendor/partner selection? I’m just throwing those out there but I am guessing we are going to see more marketing challenges because simple marketing is easier for people to understand than more sophisticated marketing or other business concepts.

    Also, what the heck is wrong with those contestants? If someone introduced me to the tents, I’d be out of there immediately. I’m not super high maintenance, but who camps and then goes straight in to work?

  8. Bad_Brad says:

    Heather – you make good points, but the thing you are missing is that simple marketing contests are what the various businesses (El Pollo Loco and the rest) want when they sign-up.  It’s a product placement thing for them.  And it’s a much better product placement if you have a bunch of young, reasonably attractive and intelligent men and women talking up your product and eagerly trying to sell it, as opposed to the same group, say, trying to figure out the most efficient supply chain or the right supplier.

    And I completely agree with Restaurant Recruiter that the "your name, please" bit by Donald shows not only arrogance but also a general lack of professionalism – when presenting someone to a group, always introduce them by name.  This is a major faux pas by Donald.

  9. Ben R Alonso says:

    The first two season’s were much better. In them, many times the team’s were forced to get their own suppliers and figure out logistics. Remember the lemonade selling episode or the home remodeling episodes from season one? In those initial challenges, the team’s had an opportunity to demonstrate amongst other things their resourcefulness. Not anymore, it’s a lot more about marketing. The tent thing? Well, a totally dumb idea. Even the way they set up the sleeping area for those in the house.

    I still watch. However, I am amazed at the contestants lack of know-how. Do these people really have the pedigree they say? What does that tell us of the best universities in the United States?