Next Tuesday, the ominous tones of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights will flood out into living rooms across the UK, and this can mean only one thing: Lord Sugar is back to cast judgement over the most recent crop of Apprentice hopefuls. Whittling them down from twenty to one in twelve weeks, the business mogul known for his plain-spoken approach will go into business with the last one standing, fronting £250,000 for a 50% stake in the victor’s company.
The biggest draw of the first episode remains the same every year, with each participant giving a short monologue to explain in excruciatingly hyperbolic terms exactly why they are not only worthy of a place on the show but in fact are doing Lord Sugar himself a favour by being there. These brief interviews are intended to provide insight into their lives and attitudes, but the contestants have realised over the years that the more outrageous their claims, the more talked-about they are likely to be. Encouraged by a production team who recognise a ratings pull when they see one, the result is often toe-curlingly obnoxious.
This is all very entertaining and in a sense, it’s what they’re there to do: convincingly sell their expertise and ability in the hope of landing life-changing investment from one of British business’s most recognisable names. However, watching the short clips made available by the BBC in the run-up to next week’s programme, I am starting to wonder whether the self-inflating statements made do anything but diminish the credibility of the whole process. To get ahead and be successful, there is no doubt that you have to be a strong and confident leader with clear idea about what you want and how you’re going to get it. To remain successful, however, the narcissism that many of them seem so proud of will need to take a back seat to make way for more rational, big-picture thinking.
Another issue I take with the series is the sales orientation of almost every task; it’s well-known that Lord Sugar started his career hawking TV aerials as a market trader and it is therefore an area of particular interest to him, but the constant emphasis on selling within the programme gives a distorted view of what it really means to run a business, and makes many of the strategies only applicable to those operating within the retail sphere. Not to say that sales aren’t important, but in many firms they account for only one part of the process and there have been very few tasks that represent an accurate cross-section of the UK’s skill set within the professional environment.
It would be great to see some challenges that, for example, allow the candidates to demonstrate some real skill in engineering or manufacturing, both of which are increasingly prominent sectors that should be given just as much attention on the show as flogging soft toys, ice cream or whatever else is thrown at the candidates on a weekly basis. After all, Lord Sugar isn’t just looking for a door-to-door salesperson; he needs to test the skills required right the way across the corporate spectrum to ensure the winning business partner is capable of building a long-term venture.
I don’t question that programmes such as The Apprentice help to foster an entrepreneurial spirit within those who watch it, and it offers some sterling advice in certain areas for those hoping to become a success in the business world. In terms of representing the majority of aspiring professionals or the majority of business practice, however, it should probably be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Here’s hoping that this year we get to see some challenges that deviate away from the cookie cutter norm of ‘sell, sell, sell!’