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Why a real life “Apprentice”-style boardroom would mean corporate chaos

Posted by Graeme Yell

Graeme Yell

Ed note: This article originally appeared on the London Loves Business website on 22 May, 2013.  You can see the original version here. 

This month I have been immersing myself in the latest series of The Apprentice. It’s a programme with which I have something of a love-hate relationship – once I start watching it, I find the onscreen drama hugely compelling but any serious reflection tends to get me a bit annoyed at how formulaic and repetitive it is.

It also worries me that there are must be large swathes of the viewing public who consider this to be a realistic representation of the world of business. The booming voiceover announces, after all, that these are “Britain’s brightest business brains” (there must surely be some grounds for intervention by Trading Standards here?!). And yet, despite the presence of these apparent colossi of the commercial world, things never go smoothly. Seemingly simple tasks are derailed by petty arguments, bad organisation, lack of planning and clarity, clashes of titanic egos and poor leadership. Actually now I come to think about it, perhaps that is more representative of the world of business than I give it credit for.

Delving a little deeper into that comparison with corporate life, there’s very little in the way of ‘organisation’ in The Apprentice – with just two competing teams, each with a single manager, it is vastly less complex than the average company. Instead, it is a powerful demonstration of how little you need to derail straightforward tasks; just take a handful of strong personalities, a dash of competitiveness and some ill-advised leadership – and hey presto, chaos ensues. I suspect that the potential apprentices are actually impressive and driven individuals, but there is something about that cocktail of factors that never fails to turn them into back-stabbing anti-role models.

When you start to think about it, the larger organisations that many of us work in often have all of those disaster-inducing ingredients and more besides: complex and matrix structures, bureaucracy, labyrinthine processes and procedures, long-established and never-questioned ways of doing things, obscure jobs, unclear performance expectations, lack of feedback – the list goes on and on. Few people would really see these things as helping them to get their work done. The fact is that organisations are huge engines with enormous power to perform a kind of ‘reverse alchemy’ on their own employees’ abilities to achieve things. Do they manage to maximise people’s potential, or are they in fact acting as an anchor, weighing people and their potential down? Decide for yourself, but I recently asked a room full of managers how many of them believed that their organisation enables them to perform as well as they could; the resulting show of hands was sparse, to say the least.

Whilst we would all agree that effective and flexible organisational structures, systems and processes are key ingredients to success, I had a fascinating conversation with a senior executive who described a period when his organisation went through a major crisis. Established systems and processes went out of the window and employees found themselves in a situation where they just had to get on with things, without the normal infrastructure to guide them. Decisions had to be made based on judgement alone; people couldn’t be consulted to the extent which had become the norm; previously important-seeming meetings were cancelled. Clients had to be listened to and trusted. The result: high degrees of motivation and enjoyment from most of the affected staff, bonding in adversity. There was also a sense that it was a bit more real, a bit more ‘like the old days’ and allowed people to be themselves rather than the more faceless apparatus of the collection of processes and systems that their organisation seemed to have become.

So why, in the crisis situation, did the organisation not descend into Apprentice-style infighting and ineffectiveness? In my opinion, there were two factors: a sense of shared purpose and the absence of competition. Without processes to determine their every action, people had no choice but be guided by their sense of what their organisation is (or should be) all about. And suddenly the only competition (in a usually very internally competitive organisation) was with the situation – how can we get through it and provide service to clients despite what’s going on around us?

It shouldn’t need a crisis to generate motivation and get the most out of people. But although that situation may seem extreme, in my experience far too many organisations have lost sight of their purpose and have encouraged internal competition in a way which obscures a clear view of the world outside.

Graeme Yell is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, specialising in leadership and talent management. He is a passionate advocate for the role leaders can (and should) play in business and society, and likes to spend his spare time socialising, cycling, and thinking.

 

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