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May


Sugar and spite vs Jamie's sauce: Oliver can teach us more about business than The Apprentice

Sun, 27th Mar 2005

WHO SAYS television doesn't do business? Anyone watching Jamie's School Dinners or Sir Alan Sugar's The Apprentice these past few weeks has been taking part in a masterclass in contrasting business attitudes and management styles. Rarely have two rival versions of business been so clearly juxtaposed, their incompatibility neatly symbolised by their clash on the schedules: since they aired at the same time, it was one or the other. Take your pick.

The Apprentice undoubtedly corresponds the more closely to the business stereotypes of the day. The website instantly reveals the tone. 'I seek success as a result of my own achievements,' is the credo announced by the lead-in.

'Fourteen bloodthirsty entrepreneurs compete in the ultimate boardroom drama to become Sir Alan Sugar's Apprentice ,' it continues. 'Throughout the series, the candidates will live together in a luxury eight-bedroom mansion on the banks of the Thames and experience a taste of the high life they aspire to. The tasks continue until the last man or woman standing becomes Sir Alan's Apprentice '.

Perhaps surprisingly, the description is cruder than that used by the US programme it was modelled on. The American version of the show, now in its third series, has the ineffable Donald Trump, exhibitionist extraordinaire, in the role of manager and executioner-in-chief, and its website assumes viewers have a higher level of business nous.

Common to both versions, however, is the cast of power-dressed young women and aggressive, sharp-suited men with spiky haircuts and of course the cutthroat nature of the exercise. This is summed up by the catchphrase shared by both programmes: 'You're fired!' In America this has become a national cultural reference, on a par with 'You're the weakest link!' But for the UK version, rumour has it that Sugar only reluctantly agreed to adopt it.

In truth, however, the catchphrase would be difficult to take it out. The show assumes that business is a simple, zero-sum game. Winner takes all, and every winner requires there to be many more losers. Consequently, whatever words are found to say it, 'You're fired!' is central to the show's functioning and audience appeal.

But the casualties of those two small words are important: co-operation and trust. As each episode ends, the losing project leader (especially if it's a woman) makes a half-hearted attempt to defend the team, but eventually has to offer up two members as candidates for the chop. When the axe falls, recriminations and reciprocal accusations fly the team is destroyed. In this apprenticeship, the subjects in the curriculum are how to avoid risk, hoard the credit and not leave yourself vulnerable. Management is about covering your arse and sacrificing the team to get to the top.

But it's only a game, surely? If only. A better defence, ironically, would be that this is a good preparation for how business really is. Under former chief executive Jack Welch, for instance, GE was famous for its yearly forced ranking of managerial grades, under which the 'worst-performing' 10 per cent received Apprentice -style marching orders. Many other companies have copied its lead.

Whether on TV or in real life, this is management by fear, not reason. Fear 'works', in the sense that the wielder gets his way, or an apprenticeship with Sugar or Trump but in the wider context, the unseen losses are always more than the gains - in teamwork, initiative and intelligence itself. Stress, as Daniel Goleman noted in his book Emotional Intelligence , 'makes people stupid'.

Pace The Apprentice , the truth is that all business isn't 'kill or be killed', or driven by personal greed. For the evidence, turn now to Jamie's Dinners . You may or may not be susceptible to the lad's mockney charm, but leaving personalities out of it, what does the school meals saga say about business? First, that it's about real issues. 'Feed me better' is the website tagline. In this version, the drive is supplied not by a craving for 'the high life' but something more fundamental: the desire to make a difference.

Yet, the fact that this entrepreneurship is socially rather than monetarily motivated doesn't make the challenge 'softer' or less rigorous. In fact, the reverse. It is fair to say that making fresh food for schools across a borough using a de-skilled workforce on a budget of 40p a portion represents business ambition on a Himalayan scale compared with any of the apprentices' tasks.

In this circumstance, far from being the result of individual achievement, success can only be the result of co-operation and teamwork. The conversion over the course of the series of the formidable Nora Sands from chief barracker to Jamie's indispensable henchperson is a wonder to behold. So is the enrolment of the rest of the Greenwich dinner ladies.

This can't be done by order or fear. 'You're fired!' is not on the menu. Instead, the under-equipped, de-skilled teams are cajoled and supported until they have the confidence to deploy the new skills involved in serving fresh food. Leadership is critical: Oliver puts himself on the line, faces up to the people issues, adapts quickly and - crucially - shields the team. When during one episode, his restaurant Fifteen, where he taught disadvantaged teenagers to be chefs, is singled out for criticism by the press, he responds angrily: 'They're attacking my kids!'

The other lesson is the light the programme throws on the limitations of conventional business measures. W Edwards Deming, the American quality guru, once said that the most important costs and benefits of business were unknown and unknowable. That sounds baffling, especially coming from a statistician. But consider the revelatory moment in the series when an assistant almost casually remarks that pupils no longer need asthma pumps after meals now that they are eating properly, or that behaviour and attention have improved in the classroom. The cumulative benefits of children eating healthier meals are, strictly speaking, incalculable - just as the costs of the blind, blithering, idiotic decisions of the 1970s and 1980s to cost school meals on narrow accounting measures alone are only now emerging.

It's tempting to compare the two approaches to business to junk and real food. One is a managerial takeaway, pre-processed, high on fat, salt, sugar and instant gratification, but lacking nourishment and ultimately creating greater problems than those it solves. The alternative, requiring fresh ingredients cooked from scratch, initially takes longer, but in the long term builds both the demand and skills to become self-sustaining. Tempting, and true. If Sugar didn't have qualms about the diet The Apprentice was offering, he should have.

The Observer, 27 March 2005


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