Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Apprentice: a real test

This week's episode of The Apprentice came in the form of a series of interviews with three of the Big Koala's hardmen, Claude Littner, Bordan Tkachuk and Paul Kemsley.

I had a big debate with the Bison about the validity of this task as a true test of their skills; my argument was that it put them in a uniquely pressured situation where they were alone and stripped of the opportunity to blag it. This was certainly Paul's undoing, and to some extent Ruth was lucky to get through, perhaps saved only by her consistent performances in the tasks, and Ansell's perceived weakness of being a decent guy and lacking in depth. In addition, Sir Alan is not in a position to interview the candidates himself as Bison suggested - he is neither an experienced recruiter and interviewer as at least two of the hardmen are, nor is he objective due to his exposure to the candidates over the 10 weeks thus far.

The highlights included Ansell's naff effort at selling of Kemsley's own watch back to him, Littner dismantling Paul quite comprehensively on how he didn't get on with him, Kemsley's awesome dressing-down of Paul and his suits with his line of "the local second-hand car showroom has 4 Pauls in it, and 3 will be wearing nicer suits", and Tkachuk's trouncing of him with "I applaud you for your integrity saying you lie and cheat every day."

In all, I think the decision to fire Paul was harsh due to his excellent performances in the tasks, but ultimately fair, as he totally misjudged the situation, was exposed as rather shallow, and failed to do his homework on Amstrad. Similarly, Ansell's firing was not totally deserved but compared to Ruth he has not been able to demonstrate his tenacity and the full range of his skills, and had also not researched the company.

Bison wanted to know why it was such a crucial weakness not to have done research on the company, its products and structure. Key to applying for any job is a basic understanding of the industry you are entering, a grasp of the company itself, and at least some attempt at reading the "feel" of the business. What is the corporate culture? What is the office environment? How does the company interact with other businesses? What is the management structure and what does this tell us about employee ownership and inclusion in decision-making?

One of the big criticisms I have of the large companies running graduate recruitment schemes is their collective failure to match their external brand of what the company is and does with the internal realities. Equally, I blame educational bodies for their unwillingness to prepare graduates for working life, and the applicants themselves for not thinking about these questions.

Whilst The Apprentice is an elaborate TV programme rather than a traditional graduate scheme, the same rules must apply. Candidates should have spent time getting to grips with the nature and ethos of the company. Sir Alan, and certainly Kemsley, Littner and Tkachuk, have imbued whoever is the winning contestant with a true understanding of how Amstrad and its related companies operate and treat staff.

For that reason, this was an excellent episode that brought out the worst in the candidates and the very best in Sir Alan and his team, and made for illuminating and surprising TV. No wonder it represented a ratings peak and beat the same episode from last year. Hopefully the viewing public and the business community took note of the importance of matching the internal and external realities of the company, and understood that the blend of demonstrating practical skills in "real-life" environments and the kind of stripped-back grillings received by the candidates are the only way to show the mettle of the applicants, and equally reveal to them the harsh realities of working for Sugar.

On which basis, I suspect that Michelle, the dark horse of the series, may canter to victory as Ruth stumbles by the wayside under the pressure. Sugar likes triumph over adversity; Michelle has it in spades whilst Ruth seems to create adversity for herself...

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