Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Leadership Lessons from The Apprentice

Make-or-break leadership lessons from The Apprentice: sure, it's "reality" TV. But smart viewers of NBC's hit show learned important rules of business success. Here are four, for starters
Alfred A. Edmond, Jr.

KWAME AND OMAROSA--NO LAST NAMES REQUIRED. Every African American professional knows the Harvard H.B.A. Wall Street investment adviser and the up-from-the-projects former White House appointee who were among the competitors on The Apprentice, NBC-TV's hit reality show. Beginning in January, the show followed the exploits of 16 young entrepreneurs and professionals as they engaged in a "13-week job interview" to get a one-year, $250,000 job with The Trump Organization, and an apprenticeship with the show's executive producer and company chairman Donald Trump. Each week, the group, divided into two teams, competed on a business task assigned by Tromp--selling fine art to renovating and leasing apartments--designed to test the talents and business savvy of each candidate. The winners moved on to the next task. The losers faced Trump and his lieutenants in the infamous boardroom. And as every fan of the show knows: "Somebody's gonna get fired."

At press time, the winner of the competition had not been selected. BLACK ENTERPRISE subscribers will receive this issue as the program's April 15 live finale airs. If Kwame Jackson is still in contention, as he was at this writing (Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth participated in nine tasks before falling to Trump's ax), you can bet that the show's final episode will become must-see TV for African Americans. Jackson and Stallworth represented a study in the duality faced by black professionals in a still white-male-dominated corporate America. African Americans who took pride in Jackson's Harvard M.B.A. pedigree and gracious, earnest professionalism, became increasingly frustrated by his apparent inability to do more than be an affable teammate, and to actually put up a "W" on the scoreboard. (Through Episode 10 of the show, Jackson was the only survivor who hadn't tasted victory as a project leader.) And black professionals--particularly African American women--"who were initially encouraged by Stallworth's assertive brand of professionalism, later became appalled by her transformation into the most negative stereotype of the combative, passive-aggressive, black female co-worker.

Unlike mindless reality shows in which contestants munch on worms or compete to marry a fake millionaire, The Apprentice is a show you can actually learn from. For the last three months, I was among the millions of viewers who tuned in every week to The Apprentice. My job: to identify key business and career success strategies illustrated by Trump and the 16 young professionals vying to be his apprentice on the first hit TV show focusing on competition and collaboration in the world of business. (See our weekly analysis of The Apprentice at Here are just four of the valuable lessons you can apply to your own business and career.


In business, as in chess, the person who thinks the furthest ahead has the most control over the outcome. As Law 29 of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers (Viking Press: $24.95) states: "The ending is everything. Plan all the way to it, taking into account all the possible consequences, obstacles, and twists of fortune that might reverse your hard work and give the glory to others. By planning to the end, you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead."

Who got it wrong: Jackson consistently failed to follow plausible strategies with a well-thought-out and executable plan. In fact, in at least one case, he failed to plan at all.

In Jackson's first stint as a project leader for the then all-male Versacorp, both teams were charged with managing the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Manhattan's Times Square on consecutive nights. The victor would be the team that generated the largest revenue increase over the same night the previous year. The opposing, all-female Protege Corporation, led by real estate agent Katrina Campins, was assigned the first night of restaurant operations, giving Jackson's team an obvious advantage--an extra 24 hours to come up with a plan to profitably manage the restaurant the following evening. Did Jackson and his team spend the day visiting restaurants and talking to restaurant managers, reading books or visiting Websites devoted to the restaurant business? No. They focused on team bonding by playing basketball and the Donald Trump board game.

As a result, Jackson's Versacorp team failed to deduce in more than a day what Protege took minutes to discover: Planet Hollywood's bar accounts for 25% of its business. Protege, exploiting this information with a plan focused on generating as much bar business as possible, increased restaurant revenues by more than 31%. Jackson's team managed less than 7% in defeat, proving that the old adage is still true--failing to plan, is planning to fail.

Who got it right: When Protege and Versacorp were charged with running a fleet of rickshaw cabs for a one-day shift in Manhattan, contestant Amy Henry not only came up with the big idea, she followed through with a scheme to ensure its success. Her big idea for Versacorp: selling advertising space on the rickshaws. But she didn't stop there. Once she sold Bill Rancic, her project leader for this task, on the strategy, Henry boosted the odds of success by contacting companies she had already established positive relationships with during the competition (such as Marquis Jet, an advertising client from Week 2) to sell ads.

The result? Versacorp destroyed Protege, delivering $3,680 in profits against a measly $382.68. The difference: Henry's team generated $3,450 in advertising revenue.
Conclusion: A good strategy, is just the beginning. To get the results you want you have to think things through and come up with ways to test and exploit that stratagem. Good leaders plan the work, and then work the plan--not halfway, but all the way to the desired result.


A major key to negotiating, whether with colleagues, customers, subordinates, or superiors, is the sincere willingness to gain a clear understanding of what the other party wants. It sounds simple enough. Never assume that what's important to you is what's most important to those with whom you must deal. In business, you have to give to get.

Who got it wrong: When contestant Nick Warnock approached a potential buyer, determined to show off his prowess as a salesman, he focused on his own goal: to lead the Versacorp team to victory by single-handedly selling a truckload of Trump Ice. The target of the sales pitch was obviously insulted by Warnock's hard sell. He had to be thinking: "Where am I supposed to store all of this water? Who does this guy think he is?" Clearly, the needs of the customer were secondary, at best, to Warnock's desire to make the big sale. Warnock couldn't convince the client to buy even a case of bottled water, much less a truckload.

Who got it right: Contrast Warnock's approach with the pitch of another job candidate, Troy McClain. He focused on addressing the customers' problem of limited inventory space. Instead of trying to get customers to buy, say, 80 cases of Trump Ice at once, he and his Protege teammates convinced them to order 80 cases, but to take delivery on 20 cases a week, over a four-week period. As a result, Protege was able to place large orders with two distributors for a total of $3,400, earning them a victory over Versacorp.

Conclusion: The cornerstone of all successful careers and profitable businesses is a sincere interest in solving problems and meeting the needs of others--whether they are customers, employers, or colleagues. Those who can achieve this feat will reap huge rewards.


Too many people believe that all it takes to be a leader is a superior position: a bigger title, more experience, better credentials, a higher I.Q.--or simply being louder, tougher, and more aggressive than the rest of the group. But without the ability to get people to follow you, all the official authority and superior qualifications in the world won't make you an effective leader. As the often repeated adage goes: If you think you are leading, but no one is following, then you are simply taking a walk.

Who got it wrong: All during the competition, would-be apprentices Stallworth, Sam Solovey, Jason Curis, Erika Vetrini, and Heidi Bressler proclaimed they were born leaders--some most loudly and persistently right before Trump dropped the ax on them.

Having to say that you're the leader is usually the first sign that you are not one. It usually means that you can't get people to follow you without some form of coercion. On The Apprentice, the reasons were varied. Solovey was a basket case who freaked out under pressure. Vetrini was an emotional wreck prone to crying and throwing tantrums. Curis ignored the input and expertise of his troops. And Stallworth assumed an air of unearned superiority, constantly pointing to her resume while denigrating those she would lead. All tended to blame others for their failures and evaluate others based on their personalities as opposed to their performance. These are not attributes that inspire loyalty and respect.

Who got it right: Versacorp's Troy McClain and Protege's Amy Henry provided great examples of leading by action, not by proclamation. In fact, they often demonstrated leadership even when they were not the designated project managers of their teams, proving that leadership is about more than having the title.

The most telling demonstration of this was Henry and McClain's respective roles in raising money for the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation by negotiating with celebrities for donations. For example, when Jackson and project manager Stallworth's negotiations with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons were going up in flames, McClain saved the day by "keeping it real" (as in real country), delighting Simmons with his hick-from-the-sticks persona. Henry was just as impressive: Despite the constant disruption of teammate Tammy Lee, Henry stayed focused on coming up with ideas that were enthusiastically received by celebrities, such as television personalities Regis Philbin and Carson Daly.

Conclusion: Henry's Versacorp team defeated McClain's Protege team, raising $40,000 against Protege's $35.000, in the most tightly contested of The Apprentice assignments. Even though Rancic and Stallworth were the project managers of the respective teams on this project, the leadership skills of Henry and McClain were the keys to these successful campaigns.


Like her or not, Stallworth was always clear on where she stood in relation to her fellow would-be apprentices: "I didn't come here to make friends. "True, but you don't want to make enemies either, unless it's absolutely unavoidable. Good leaders don't think in terms of friends and enemies; they operate in a world of allies and opponents, knowing that anyone they encounter can be one or the other on any given day, and sometimes both at the same time.

Who got it wrong: Think about the way Stallworth treated her colleagues, in victory and in defeat, during her tenure on The Apprentice. Did she say one positive thing, publicly or privately, about anyone on either team? Had she deemed any person she met worthy of her respect, and treated them thusly? Is she the type of person you'd want as a boss or colleague?

One of the most memorable examples of Stallworth's persistent negativity toward her teammates occurred as she (as project leader), Bressler, and another contestant, Jessie Connors, faced Trump's firing squad after their defeat in the competition to raise money for the Elizabeth Glazer Pediatric AIDS Foundation. "Heidi was fantastic," she responded when Trump asked her to assess Bressler's performance. But Stallworth didn't stop there: "And I will tell you I haven't always been a fan of Heidi. I haven't always felt that she was professional, nor does she have much class or finesse." And that was intended as a compliment.

Who got it right: Stallworth's approach was in contrast to Jackson's, whose behavior was consistent in victory and defeat. He was positive, upbeat, and supportive of his teammates. When Jackson made criticisms, he was direct and to the point, limiting his comments to assessments of performance, not personal attacks.

Most importantly, Jackson never played the victim. When he failed, he held himself accountable, resisting invitations to blame others when facing Trump in the boardroom. While confident in his evaluation of a given situation, he remained open to the idea that he could be wrong, and that others, even a subordinate, could be right. As a result, even after crashing defeats as project leader, Jackson was still embraced as a team member by his fellow would-be apprentices, and he never lost the respect of Trump and his lieutenants. Is it any surprise that Jackson was able to consistently avoid the ax?

Conclusion: The best leaders make people want to be a round them. How? By being as quick with compliments as they are with criticisms. They focus on performance and not personalities, and realize they can't succeed without the support of colleagues, customers, and clients--even those they don't like, or those who don't like them.
The best leaders don't talk about it--they are about it. Those who followed these precepts experienced consistent success on The Apprentice. Those who violated them were doomed to failure--and an elevator ride to the street.