The Apprentice: How not to succeed in business

'The candidates here aren’t the business leaders of the future – they’re sociopaths in M&S suits,' says one viewer

Chris Blackhurst
Saturday 22 September 2018 14:26
Comments
Lord Sugar interview fail

Brace yourselves. The Apprentice returns to our TV screens shortly, and already, column inches are being devoted to the wannabe tycoons who will strut their self-belief and thrusting aggression until just one is left.

As entertainment, Lord Sugar’s series fills a void. There are worse things on television. No, really. There’s a certain amusement in watching poor saps making fools of themselves by their ignorance and lack of empathy.

What it definitely is not, though, is a primer on how to succeed in business, not in the modern age. One corporate chieftain who has said as much is Jason Stockwood, CEO of Simply Business, the online provider of UK business insurance. Founded in 2005, Simply Business now has more than 450,000 customers and 400 employees, and was sold in 2017 to Travelers for $490m (£372m). Twice it’s been voted the best company in Britain to work for.

Where The Apprentice is concerned, Stockwood has not held back. “The Apprentice is a parody of real business,” he wrote. “There’s nothing here that resembles a sound recruitment process. There is nothing in the show that reflects how actual, successful businesses run, and certainly nothing that points to the radical changes in employment that we’ve seen over the last decade.”

In today’s economy, said Stockwood, “work is about cooperation. It’s about talented people sharing skills to solve problems. But that’s nowhere to be seen in The Apprentice. Instead, the show is about an aggressive, platonic ideal of individualism.

“It’s about backstabbing and intrigue, breeding a mutant offspring of Machiavelli and Mrs T. The candidates here aren’t the business leaders of the future – they’re sociopaths in M&S suits.”

Added Stockwood: “Great business is about empowerment, but instead, The Apprentice hones in on the poor participants’ negative qualities, and does everything it can to bring them out.”

Now Stockwood has put his money where his mouth is, and written his own guide, Reboot: A Blueprint for Happy Human Business in a Digital Age (Penguin). And I have to report, Lord Sugar, very good it is too. In fact, I’d go further and say that for anyone contemplating reaching the top in business, and staying there, it ought to be required reading.

In my case I rarely find a management manual that I agree with wholeheartedly. Many of them cross my desk and too often, either the language is pure management school jargon and/or the author is propounding a theory, frequently dressed up in a catchy phrase, that you just know in practice amounts to very little.

Not so, Stockwood’s treatise. His mantra is simple: it’s not enough to merely rake in more profits than the other team – a strategy evinced by, say, The Apprentice. Being truly successful in business these days is about much more than that.

As Dara Khosrowshahi, who took over as CEO of Uber after its aggressive expansionist culture was under severe attack, said: “The truth is that there is a high cost to a bad reputation ... It really matters what people think of us, especially in a global business like ours, where actions in one part of the world can have serious consequences in another.”

Writes Stockwood: “It’s not just the product or service you sell, and the balance sheet you show to investors, that matter. How the sausage has been made is just as important.

“Just as people want to know where their food comes from, they want to know how the businesses they buy from and work for behave and operate: do they remunerate their employees fairly, do they pay their fair share of taxes, do they try and limit their environmental footprint?”

Once, perhaps, companies could evade responsibility. Not any more, not in this increasingly connected world. A supermarket cannot simply say it didn’t know that its suppliers were providing ready meals that said they were beef but actually turned out to contain horsemeat. Likewise, internet platform providers cannot maintain they have no responsibility for the actions of their users, whether that is uploading extreme content or offending others. Similarly, gig economy firms cannot claim they have no responsibility for their workers or even try to deny that they are workers at all.

“This combination of changing conditions – from growing scrutiny of how companies behave to increasing expectations on what they will stand for – represents a fundamental challenge to leaders.” Adds Stockwood: “The work you do as a leader to build a thriving business is only half the job; in this more scrutinised, politicised and febrile environment for business, the way you do that has become just as important.”

Sometimes, pursuing those values conflicts with the financial concerns of the business. So it was in the England riots in 2011. Simply Business prides itself on supplying insurance that works, for being there for customers when a crisis hits. When clients suffered in the violence, Stockwood decided to pay out on the claims in full on the same day, ignoring the standard industry procedure of sending in a claims assessor to compile a report before agreeing to settle.

“As it turned out, two of the claims we received on that day were fraudulent, relating to damage that hadn’t actually occurred. So we lost money by paying out to those who would have been shown on closer inspection to be trying it on. Even so, I never regretted making that decision, because if we had prevaricated, we would have lost credibility not just with our customers but within the business.”

This was a point, notes Stockwood, when people “started to believe we were actually going to build the kind of business we had been talking about, one that went out of its way to help customers when they really needed it.”

Doubtless, the sneer on Sugar’s face if confronted in the TV programme’s famous “boardroom” by contestants who met a claim for money without checking it was valid, would be something to behold. It would chime, probably, with his view of Stockwood’s entire book. However, I know between The Apprentice and Reboot which is frippery, and which should be studied by anyone seriously contemplating achieving lasting success in modern business.

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm

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