The Apprentice: James a dickhead? Yes, but that doesn’t make Roisin an entrepreneur

I’ve been a bit stressed lately (it’s that time of year), which may explain why my wife and I had a mild disagreement over the outcome of The Apprentice on Wednesday night. In short – when it came to James Hill’s firing – I thought I spotted professional bullying. Meanwhile, my wife thought I was defending ”a bit of a dickhead”.

Of course, I was. But I saw something of myself in that “bit of a dickhead” and – contrarian that I am – thought he’d been unfairly treated by those knowing they could verbally outwit him.

For a start: since when did being a dickhead stop you being a successful entrepreneur? There are those that would cite dickheadery as a common attribute among entrepreneurs due to their inability to fit-in with standard workplace hierarchies and practices. Good for them. In fact, many become entrepreneurs because they lack the silver-tongued polish of the professional classes, which excludes them from lucrative mainstream careers – such as the law or accountancy. That said, such exclusion can be highly motivating when it comes to the cut-n-thrust environment of entrepreneurialism.

I guess this forms part of my on-going objection to the entire structure of The Apprentice, and the fact the process was intended to source an able leader for work within a big organisation: a long way from the attributes determining a successful entrepreneur. That’s why snakes do well – they’re good talkers and great back stabbers. While cheeky chappies such as James and Daniel Lassman are disliked (at least going on Twitter feedback), though are the more-likely entrepreneurs.

Think I’m being too hard on the ice-cool Roisin Hogan: she who wielded the knife on Wednesday’s show? Well, here’s her “quote” on the BBC website: “Manipulate, persuade, conquer. I would identify opponent’s weaknesses and pick them off one by one”. Sorry Roisin, but that sounds pretty snake-like to me. And how does that make you an entrepreneur, exactly – rather than someone adept at climbing the greasy-pole of corporate life?

So the youthful but enthusiastic James was put to the sword by the slick professional Roisin. His somewhat defensive clumsiness when dealing with others (a trait I can empathise with when feeling belittled) led him into a trap sprung by the better-educated professional. For the kill, she used her greatest weapon: articulation – leaving Lord Sugar with seemingly no choice but to “with regret” fire him.

Make no mistake: being inarticulate did for James. This is odd because I live in a part of London known for its entrepreneurialism (and was even where Sugar started out). Yet it’s an area jammed full of small businesses run by men and women with only the haziest grasp of English. Again, it’s their very exclusion from mainstream careers that made them such strong entrepreneurs. That said, many are being put out of business by the likes of Tesco, a multinational company run by articulate professional graduates that look, sound and act very much like Roisin and Mark Wright (the other candidate  that makes me want to add the epithet “snake”).

Finally, let’s deal with James’s seemingly fatal mistake of calling the hot-tub business owner by the wrong name. Yes, I agree, a mistake. But it’s a mistake that everyone, at some point, makes. Come on, be honest, have you never gotten someone’s name wrong? I have, on several occasions. I hate it and feel embarrassed. But, usually, I’m put right immediately and – with my humble apologies – we move on. The great Dale Carnegie would wince at the error, but would also surely note that – unless there was already a prejudice against you – it’s unlikely to kill a deal. Indeed, he’d even view offence at the error for what it was: vanity – even pomposity.

What such mistakes are, however, is a jolly good chance for an opponent to stick-in the knife. Given this, my feeling is that James didn’t tell his team because he didn’t want to give them that chance, which – given the nastiness fostered within all the candidates by the Apprentice process – is hardly surprising.

Ultimately, it was James’s rough edges that meant he lost out to the smooth-talking professionals. What he needed – as he pointed out in probably the most heartfelt and genuine speech of any Apprentice candidate ever – was guidance. He was crying out for a mentor. In firing him, Sugar not only showed that he was uninterested in mentoring (disavowing the show’s very name). But that, he too, fell for the age-old trick of the professional classes: of using all that training to verbally destroy less-articulate opponents.

Out in March – The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made By Insiders

Are entrepreneurs the grumpy gits of business?

Since becoming deputy chairman of the Centre for Entrepreneurs I’ve marveled at the ingenuity of those I’ve come across in this zone. Nearly always, successful entrepreneurs have thrived on innovation. Yet this isn’t always obvious: in many cases it’s what renowned entrepreneurial author Daniel Isenberg (in his book Worthless, Impossible and Stupid) calls minnovation: small changes to existing offerings or business models that are, nonetheless, incremental.

Yet there’s something else I’m starting to realize. That much of this innovation is negative. It’s based on dealing with things people don’t like – or have found annoying – rather than offering something they like. Sure, technology and food are two sectors bringing the world positive and novel sensations as a way of building market share: Mindcraft and Russian Fudge come to mind (at least while regarding the post-supper detritus on my kitchen table). But, just as often, innovation – especially in areas such as services and hospitality – comes from dealing with what we dislike or even hate: from what angers or irritates us. And it also comes from areas where we feel previously excluded.

In fact, I’d wager that the majority of minnovation (to adopt Isenberg’s term) comes from a cantankerous dislike of the existing offerings. From people irritated to the point of action by the old way or the big company offering. Certainly, this is true in my own case. Moorgate counts itself as an innovative public relations agency. Why? Because, at the outset, we looked upon the existing offerings in our space and found them wanting.

From my own experience as a banker and financial journalist I’d been annoyed by every agency I’d encountered: for knowing too little of the technicalities of the sector they were representing (something that became painfully apparent in the 2008-09 crash); for being unable to write good copy (something I considered vital for good PR); and for being, frankly, lazy and expensive (which made them dependent on churning rather than retaining clients).

I put this grumpiness to good use when creating my own agency: getting to the bottom of the financial instruments on offer, excelling in strong copy and in working hard and offering value. Of course, I had no experience of the PR sector. But that, I now realize, is another near-prerequisite for entrepreneurialism. The reason entrepreneurs have spotted the flaws is often due to them being outsiders, looking in. Those immersed in their trade may spot numerous new ways of increasing their margins: often by charging more for less. But they’re less adept at spotting the pitfalls – or even the gaping holes – in their industries.

Outsiders are also more able to break the rules – sometimes because we weren’t aware of them in the first place (though this could be willful ignorance). Meanwhile, insiders are acutely concerned by their status within their peer group – so are more attuned to their own fraternity, and are certainly unlikely to break any rules (including those of business etiquette). Most insiders see their advancement as something likely to occur within existing structures – usually via a smooth ascent of a greasy-pole. This makes them conformist and conservative. Those not invited to climb the pole, meanwhile, are more likely to be radicals – and love nothing more than applying a revving chainsaw to that greasy pole.

Good for them!

Yet the innate grumpiness of the entrepreneur has a downside: public irritability. Of course, TV programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice tap into this to create tension-laden TV programmes that sacrifice “timewasters” or those not on top of the numbers like Christians at the Roman circus. Indeed, who doesn’t enjoy watching Alan Sugar, Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden dismantling some hapless candidate/pitch? It’s impressive stuff – even if hammed up for the cameras.

Just as often, however, the grumpiness is genuine and highly damaging. Anyone squirming along to Richard Branson’s recent Channel 4 News interview with Jon Snow (days after the Virgin Galactic crash) would have hardly warmed to Branson, a man that trades on his chirpy outsider popularity. That said, they may have felt better disposed towards Bob Geldof (very much an entrepreneur, however you look at him) after his SkyNews interview this week. He answered awkward questions with the simple phrase “bollocks” – to the point where the poor interviewer had to cut him off.

More concerning has been the public grumpiness of top executives at innovative/disruptive car-hire app Uber. One executive, Emil Michael, was reported to have told a private dinner that, such is Uber’s anger with its media coverage, it was considering spending a million dollars hiring private investigators to “probe the personal lives of critical journalists” (as reported in the FT).

This forced a denial from the “combative” CEO Travis Kalanick, calling the remarks “terrible” and a “departure from our values”. But the damage was done, just ahead of a new round of funding. In other words, one-more grumpy entrepreneur had said what he thinks rather than thought about what he said. My guess is he won’t be the last.


Out in March – The Outside Edge: How Outsiders Can Succeed in a World Made By Insiders


The seven [career] stages of man

I’ve been employing young people for well over a decade now, and have started noticing some patterns. In fact, I think I’ve spotted something of a career – or at least a job – lifecycle. It’s a path most (though not all) seem to take, although rarely consciously. And it seems to breed discontentment. So in the interests of worker enlightenment, here they are: the seven [career] stages of man/woman.


1) Enthusiasm. Wide-eyed but essentially useless, we’re overly eager to establish our credentials: staying late, undertaking grunt work with gusto, absorbing all the information we can from whomever. At this point we’re at our keenest and least cynical. Yet we’re also at our most vulnerable – making us potential recruits for what I call the “moaning canteen gang”. Yet we can usually navigate these ne’r do wells: not least because, with one foot on the ladder, we’re bursting with pride and energy,
2) Competence. Get enthusiasm right and, soon enough, we’re on top of the job. We’ve gained competence, yet remain hungry – perhaps for more interesting work. We’re useful but still impressionable: making those above us in the hierarchy at their most appreciative (partly because we’re not yet rivals), although colleagues that never managed the first base (enthusiasm) may already be regarding us disdainfully. It’s here where we also offer our strongest value for employers, because we can do the work while remaining inexpensive – though not for long….
3) Excellence. In terms of productivity, we’re now at our peak. We’ve mastered the work and can take complex demands in our stride. We’ve found what Daniel Goleman calls “flow”: a sweet-spot task efficiency that generates almost unthinking brilliance in execution. Knowing we’re worth it, we can also command high wages, as well become picky about the work we undertake. Indeed, if only we could stop here (and be properly rewarded for it), we’d probably stay happy. But, too quickly, we’re moved on – towards….
4) Authority. Our skills are recognized and valued. But there are youngsters to train and empires to build. So we become a manager: an entirely new skill in which we have zero experience and for which we (usually) have no training. Nonetheless, we have the satisfaction of commanding others, which is – perhaps perversely – also better paid. That said, already gaining traction is the nagging thought we were happier – and more valued – when executing at the Excellence stage,
5) Frustration. Sure as eggs is eggs, the joys of authority wanes. Office politics creeps in, which is time-consuming and mentally draining. Ideas are blocked for the wrong reasons (we think) and people promoted we dislike/disrespect/fear. We’re also constantly running around after our charges (who are too often ill or on holiday or in the throes of a crisis). Indeed, they seem to care less for their work than we did at their stage: either that, or they run us ragged with their demands. Whatever, we start thinking authority’s not what it’s cracked up to be – though we certainly like the company credit card and the (enforced) deference of the young (whatever refutations we employ). Yet disillusion is not a static state, meaning we’re heading for…
6) Contempt. Of course, the CEO’s going nowhere – despite being an idle idiot. So we’re up against a glass ceiling: stuck in “middle” management though convinced the upper echelons are (potentially corrupt) numpties. Also, we keep losing our best employees to bigger rivals, resulting in periodic panics and intolerable stress. Horror, we may even have to undertake some of the work ourselves, although we’re rusty and now inwardly doubt our execution skills. Soon, we’re sneaking off early rather than staying late, although fear (of rejection, of failure, of the mortgage – even of success) prevents us actively sourcing new employment. Whatever – we’re looking in the mirror and silently confessing admitting it: we hate our boss, our colleagues, the office, the commute, and – especially – the work. It’s just a matter of time before….
7) The Exit. The New Year, a big birthday, someone else leaving or promoted (or even fired): something shakes us from our stupor. It’s over. To hell with this crappy company. We’ve moved from passive aggressive to just aggressive – sometimes openly advertising the company’s faults to whomever will listen (which becomes fewer people as the months go by). If we’re sensible we’ll wait for the right opportunity, although – just as often – any opportunity will do, and sometimes we’ll jump just to get the hell out. Of course, this is usually an “out of the frying pan…” moment that puts us straight onto the next cycle (one rotating in ever decreasing circles).

Is there a way off this damaging carousel? Most certainly there is: proactivity. Despite appearances, each of the above stages is reactive. Our career is happening to us – almost as if it’s something beyond our control and even without our positive acquiescence. Let go of the handrail, and this is where we end up: somewhere we didn’t want to be in the first place. Worse, we’re now seduction fodder for the charms of the headhunters (keen as they are to keep those career cycles turning over).

So what does proactivity mean?
1. Decide where you want to be in 10 years,
2. Think deeply about the detail of this destination,
3. Work backwards towards your current spot,
4. Calculate achievable milestones (perhaps for year five, year two, year one etc.) that link then to now,
5. Generate some steps that take you to the next milestone (perhaps the one in six months),
6. Execute the steps: treating setbacks as lessons and accepting that some milestones may take longer to achieve than others (while some can be accelerated, though rarely jumped),
7. Realize that everything else is just noise.

That’s it! And, yes, it is that obvious: making it all the more astonishing there are so few proactive people when it comes to pursuing their own careers.

The Clacton wave: four reasons it’s tidal

Yesterday’s Evening Standard carried an extraordinary article from Douglas Carswell MP, the UKIP victor of the Clacton byelection – stating that “digital democracy” was the reason for the unprecedented hemorrhaging of support from Britain’s two main political parties. Immediately, I suspected he was exaggerating the tech-savvy skills of those on the Grey Coast of Essex but it turned out he meant the ability of new political parties or movements to compete with the old in terms of message dissemination to potential supporters.

“Almost anything the big corporate parties do on massive central databases can now be done on a £600 laptop,” he concluded.

Certainly, something seems to be going on. There’s a wave of discontent crashing over more shores than those of the retirement belts of eastern England. Whether it’s UKIP in England, the SNP in Scotland, the Greens in urbanista enclaves such as London, Brighton and Oxford, or even the “don’t vote” lunatic Russell Brand/Anonymous fringe: Labour and the Conservatives appear to be losing supporters by the bucketful.

Of course, it could be a freak wave – and one not unheard of betwixt general elections (I can remember the SDP promise of “breaking the mold” back in the early 1980s, only for it to disappear on polling days as the first-passed-the-post system forced either/or choices on the electorate).

But there’s also reason to assume it’s tidal: that “this time is different”. Sure, the economic constraints of the Great Recession have brought to the surface disaffection with the economic liberalism of the Thatcher-Major-Blair years (with different aspects angering different groups): a crime in which both parties are complicit. And politicians do appear to be held in low public-esteem – condemned as a self-serving political elite of Oxbridge North or West London professionals that find it impossible to relate to people beyond the Westminster bubble.

Yet these are both curable concerns: aided by a sustainable dose of economic growth and the promotion of more “personalities” (such as the thoroughly Oxbridge/West London Boris Johnson, perhaps). Many sociologists, economists, political theorists and zeitgeist observers, however, think this goes deeper still. Society is changing, they note, and mainstream democratic structures are looking increasingly like the round holes through which square pegs have to be rammed.

Typically, what this “something deeper” actually is generates debate, although the core themes are reasonably clear and come in three key flavours:

  • The end of class. Labour and the Conservatives are in terminal decline because the central divide in British society is fracturing. Class identity is on the wane (at least among the 93% that didn’t go to private school). Since the 1980s, and perhaps the 1960s, the decline of class has been accelerating – helped by factors such as the destruction of the grammar schools; increased home ownership; the rise in white collar (and decrease in blue collar) employment; the creation of a knowledge-based economy; the rise of pop-culture; the increase in immigration and the decrease in union membership etc. etc. Certainly, since universal suffrage was introduced, our political parties have reflected the key divide in society at that point, which was class. It’s no longer the key divide: ergo, the existing political split looks misaligned,


  • Globalization. The rise of populist alternatives such as UKIP, the SNP, the Greens and even extremists such as Occupy is the fallout from globalization, claim many economists. Become a globalized economy and they’ll be winners and losers, for sure. Those rendered uncompetitive due to low skills (or skills made redundant by cheaper imports) will lose – encouraging them to detest globalization’s winners (who they’ll assume are the intended beneficiaries of government policy). Yet there’s also retirees, fearfully seeing their local way of life change rapidly – resulting in alienation from mainstream politicians that, ironically, have a stronger handle on the UK’s need to compete globally. Of course, some may want to exclude the SNP from this fallout. Yet they should note the referendum’s results: two successfully-globalized cities (Aberdeen and Edinburgh) recorded big wins for the “no” camp, while two cities considered to have lost-out to globalization (Glasgow and Dundee) generated clear “yes” majorities. Most, though not all, anti-EU sentiment also falls into this camp,


  • Convergence. Then there’s the notion of political convergence – sometimes articulated through the claim “they [politicians] are all the same”. Of course, this is usually reported as a complaint about a “self-serving elite”. In reality, the anger is as much about policy: not least the wafer-thin divide between the main parties that, in recent years – and despite the differing tones – has focused on little more than the speed of deficit reduction. The consensus is rooted in the 1990s Blair/Clinton softening of the 1980s Thatcher/Reagan reordering, and is sometimes described as “the left winning the social argument” (we are all liberals now) and “the right winning the economic argument” (ditto capitalists). The result: an electoral fight for the centre that leaves social conservatives or economic socialists feeling betrayed and looking for meatier (or in the case of the Greens, more vegan) exponents of their core beliefs.


So three (potentially complementary) views: all explaining the rise of the “politics of disaffection” in its various hues. Yet I’d like to add a fourth (again, partly complementary) opinion, though one rarely expressed. For me, it’s hard to escape the fact that, overall, Britain is something like 10-times richer than it was when universal suffrage was introduced in 1918. Sure inequality’s an issue – and pockets of poverty exist – but the average Brit’s life is incomparably better than previous generations: we are healthier, better fed, better housed, better clothed, better travelled, better informed, have more leisure time, more things to do with our leisure time and vastly more ways in which to express our individuality than any previous generation. And, sorry, I think this even true of those on the fringes complaining – whether grey-haired grumblers (mostly on defined final-salary pensions) or student ranters (with broader career choices than ever before). Compared to their forebears, even the unemployed luxuriate in an embarrassment of comparative riches (though some fall through the safety net, for sure).

Of course, this is complementary to the breakdown in class distinctions. Yet that fails to recognize one of the greatest fallouts from such a shift: the vastly higher levels of identity/role confusion and therefore exacerbated levels of alienation. This isn’t alienation due to economic exclusion (no matter what the rabble-rousers state), but alienation due to what could be called “inclusion confusion” – the sheer explosion of choice generating a psychological malaise for those unsure of how to grasp it.

Individuality’s a wonderful thing for those able to explore their potential. They can express themselves, be themselves – “self actualize” (in the psychological jargon). But what about those that can’t? Those left behind at school, those a little sensitive (so poor at modern lifeskills sich as communication) – even those retirees too fearful to take up skydiving or go on adventure holidays (as shown on Channel 4 news recently). All ages are now encouraged to “think big” and “pursue our dreams”. But what if we (perhaps secretly) fear those dreams are out of reach or we’re pessimistic about our role on the blank-canvas of abundant opportunity? At that point alienation sets in and we become fodder for those selling pessimism and discontentment: whether it’s UKIP, the Greens, the Anonymous/Occupy movement, absurdists such as Russell Brand, or even ISIS.

What’s more, Carswell has a point about technology: the disaffected can be found and seduced using new technologies that offer a level playing field in terms of message dissemination. Worried about losing your job to immigrants? Annoyed by posh students staying out of debt while bagging the cool internships? Uncertain where you belong in a world full of confident, talented, rivals?: don’t fret – you’ll be quickly bombarded with plausible-sounding slogans that chime with your discontentment. Soon enough you’ll be supporting UKIP or donning a Guy Fawkes mask. What you won’t be doing, is voting Labour or Conservative.

Out in March 2015:

The Outside Edge – How Outsiders can Succeed in a World made by Insiders.

The Apprentice knows nothing about entrepreneurs – five mistakes that prove it

Do we really have to go through this again? This time last year the Centre for Entrepreneurs (of which I am deputy chairman) produced a survey slating TV programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice for their poor portrayal of entrepreneurs. In summary, the survey (among entrepreneurs) concluded that the programmes were more interested in good television than in generating an accurate portrayal of the entrepreneur, meaning they discouraged rather than encouraged entrepreneurship.

With a new season of The Apprentice underway (BBC1 9pm Wednesdays) – my mix of fascination and irritation remains unabated: not least because The Apprentice seems not to have changed its format one iota. Again, the result is a reality-TV show that makes great TV but harms the cause of entrepreneurialism.

Certainly, the rigours of The Apprentice process are poorly-suited to finding a winning entrepreneur. Of course, they could (probably) find a lackey for Lord Sugar’s various business interests – as was the programme’s original intention. But to find an entrepreneur capable of turning seed capital into gold: I doubt it.

Rather than learn the lessons, this year’s candidates seem simply to confirm the point. Most show “entrepreneurs” (as they all claim to be) in a very poor light. Many seem to have been selected for their Machiavellian convictions and apparent arrogance rather than for any nascent start-up business acumen. That said, the show’s format hardly helps – bringing out the worst in people that cannot possibly behave so ridiculously in any normal walk of life (and certainly not in business).

Five mistakes, in my view, prove the point.

1)         They lack any spirit of co-operation. Entrepreneurs are often outsiders, but they can only succeed through co-operation. Synergy is a key need for entrepreneurs – working with others to spot and fill market opportunities. They’ll end up lonely (and angry) dreamers otherwise. So why are the tasks set up as if jostling for position in some Machiavellian royal court? Back-stabbing – a key skill in corporate life – will have you quickly ostracised in a world dependent on networking. Indeed, many people become entrepreneurs because they hate office politics. Meanwhile, such dark games rule the roost on The Apprentice,

2)         The lack of humility. Confidence is great – though is usually built from getting things right and building on small victories. Confidence isn’t arrogance. It’s not an unfathomable and evidence-free conviction in your own omnipotence. That way lies disaster (though they’ll always be someone else to blame). Entrepreneurs are mostly misfits, but they’re rarely overly-cocky misfits. In fact most are strategically humble – meaning they have worked out that giving others the credit is a great way of generating successful teams. Again, The Apprentice is all about not taking responsibility – about shifting blame and grabbing credit. Again, Machiavelli would approve. But he wasn’t trying to create sustainable businesses,

3)         The overly strong focus on leadership. Are entrepreneurs great leaders? In fact, many are very poor leaders – that’s why they became entrepreneurs. Great leaders run major organisations and bend them to their will – often through great vision and a compelling narrative (which inspires others). Entrepreneurs (mostly) fiddle about on the edges – often creatively – and then build small alliances as needed. In a war, the entrepreneur would not be the guy leading others over the top. Entrepreneurs would more likely be the ones working out a way of winning without having to fight the battle. So why does The Apprentice focus so much on leadership?

4)         The obsession with hard selling. There’s more to entrepreneurship than selling. I guess the focus on “margins” in last week’s task proved the point but nearly all the tasks involve inventing something before flogging it – either in the street or to established practitioners. This is a very narrow interpretation of entrepreneurialism and led, last week, to the self-deselection of Lindsay Booth. She said she’d best “stick to swimming” and, pretty-much, “fired” herself. Dig deeper, and its revealed that – prior to being mangled through Lord Sugar’s soul-mincing machine – Lindsay had set up swimming academies across Leicestershire: profitably teaching 100s of kids to swim. She’d been a highly-entrepreneurial person, in other words, without a market stall or sour-faced purchasing manager in sight,

5)         The focus on youth. Very few of the contestants are ever over 30. Sure, the focus on youth seems ubiquitous in the modern world. And, in The Apprentice, it may reflect a reluctance for older people to submit themselves to such a ridiculous and humiliating process. But most entrepreneurs start their businesses when in the 40s or 50s, having learnt their trade, as well as a few vital lifeskills (such as co-operation), along the way.


In many respect the attributes of the true entrepreneur are the opposite of those required to be an “apprentice” for a large organisation. So why does The Apprentice insist on dragging people through the same process? Good television’s fine – but you’re painting a damaging and distorted view of entrepreneurship that potentially harms Britain. I hate them for it, though I’ll carry on watching, of course.