4 Small Business Lessons from The Apprentice

small business apprentice
photo credit: Dell’s Official Flickr Page via photopin cc

As small business owners, paying attention to everything that goes on in the environment around us is a must. Not only to keep up with trends and our competitors, but because there’s always a lot for us still to learn. We never know everything and we must always be open or receptive to evaluating new ideas and ways of doing things. If we don’t, that’s when our businesses stagnate.

We don’t watch a huge amount of TV in our house. One of the shows we all look forward to is The Apprentice — even if it makes us all cringe a bit. Reality TV shows, of this kind, are great for studying the human condition. We’re in the UK, but we’ve watched both the US and UK versions of the show. I think there are some great lessons to learn from this show for as a small business owner.

#1 – Reading people is a vital skill

People often put themselves up for a task thinking that they have the knowledge and skills to carry it out even if they don’t. People with large egos or exceptionally high self-esteem tend to have a skewed view of themselves as do those with the opposite issues.

As a small business owner, you need to be aware of your team members strengths and weakness, picking the right person for the task, not the one that immediately puts their hand up for it. Your like a military leader in this respect deploying your troops and resources in the most efficient way possible. Having someone who is naturally good and enjoys doing a particular task will always be better at it than someone who wants to do the task to be in the spotlight or for personal gain.

To get a grip on this you have to work on your awareness. Learn to read people, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses. Taking a short course of psychology or reading around this topic will improve your skills in this area.

#2 – It is ALL in the team work

The tasks that devolve into a complete disaster all have characteristics in common. The leaders talk-the-talk when it comes to working as a team, but very few of them gets buy-in from the team. They look to their closest ally for reassurance then, when they get the nod from that person they steamroller their ideas through above objections raised by anyone else. That’s a recipe for disaster especially if the closest ally to you is a “yes” man, unwilling or incapable of expressing the reality of the situation.

This has serious negative impacts for any team including demotivating everyone else on the team causing fractures and poor performance.

Always remember you’re not head cheerleader or the ring leader of a clique. You’re a business leader. If you’re going to run you’re small business as a team effort, and I suggest you do then brush up on your team building skills.

#3 – Taking control when things start to fall apart

So, let’s imagine the task has started on the right foot. It’s a happy and cohesive team. Everyone knows what role they need to play. Then something goes wrong. A mistake is made. An error throwing the entire process off course.

Instead of stepping back and giving the person breathing space to work out where they went wrong everyone crowds around voicing their opinions loudly. Not helpful. Then the person realises that the pressure is on them, they might cause the team to fail — they start to panic, rush, and the first error is compounded by another and then another.  A good team leader steps in and takes control of the situation, but in the show they hardly ever do. As a small business owner your team are your responsibility – you need to know how best to take charge and coach them through the issues that they might be having. And that doesn’t mean stepping in and fixing the problem for them.

Learn to be a coach and mentor to your team members; instilling them with confidence, boosting their self-esteem, imparting your knowledge and experience so that they are continuously on a path of improvement.

#4 – Conflict will kill your business, if you ignore it

Conflict is a normal part of life. You’ll encounter it in your business at some point. It doesn’t matter if it happens, but it matters a great deal how you respond to it and guide it through to resolution. As a small business owner, you have to be aware of everything that’s going on. Be aware of the body language between people and step in if things get out of hand.

If you’ve got a new team, then it’s perfectly normal for the team to go through a period of unrest and struggle as people push each others boundaries to find their place in the group. It’s important that this phase is managed well because lasting grudges can form from it. It’s also easy for you as the business leader to cause jealousies and conflict between your staff. Tread carefully and make sure that each member of your team feels valued. Everything you do in your business should be done with intent and that includes managing your team.

Personal conflict between two people in your team can lead to the entire team taking sides. A fractured team does not perform optimally and is doing your business a disservice.

Fighting bleeds through to customer experience. I’ve seen so many sales and marketing teams pitched against each other instead of working together. Your customers receive mixed messages and bad service. I’ve even heard sales reps bad mouthing the marketing function to customers. This then flows through to the customer service function, they have to deal with the fallout from this inter-departmental infighting and sometimes joining in themselves to empathise with the customer. Don’t let this happen.

Innovation can come out of conflict. Some conflict is acceptable, but learn to manage it effectively. Too much entrenched conflict will destroy your business. If you are conflict adverse then this is something that you will want to take some workshops on.

There’s a line that you need to walk between being a dictator and a pushover. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but it’s something you can learn and improve over time.

One of the best ways to lead your staff on the road to self-improvement is to show them that you have shortcomings. You don’t have to be some super hero figure, that’s not reality. Working on your weaknesses in front of them and showing them that you can overcome them will garner you more respect and loyalty — it will also motivate them to do the same themselves.

So, you see there’s plenty to learn, even from reality TV. Most of the issues above can be avoided by honing our communication skills. Running a small business isn’t easy, you have to keep improving your skills in areas that you never imagined you’d be responsible for. We need to watch, listen and be aware of everything that’s going on. Teams and small businesses do not manage themselves. You have to take charge and lead from the front.

What have you learned from The Apprentice that you can apply to your own business? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.


Kittie Walker
Managing Director at Avidmode — We,re a digital business consultancy providing design & development, inbound marketing and strategic solutions for small business. We're based in London, UK, but work with clients all over the world. With over 20 years business experience in multiple industries, I bring a wealth of skills to the projects I participate in. I have in-depth knowledge of the retail, leisure, banking, hospitality, healthcare and IT sectors. I've got an MBA, a teaching certificate and a passion for lifelong learning. Just about to embark on a BA in Journalism and Media!
Kittie Walker

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