The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 20th, 2005

Where the boys show the girls how to do business

There is more than enough reality on television, without reality TV as well. Besides, there is something very odd about the idea of reality TV, as if the humiliation games played by gaggles of ditzy self-publicists were somehow as real, or perhaps even more real, than documentary footage of starving babies and bombed-out villages.

That is an extremely odd idea of reality and I think it contributes to the increasing public mood of unreality. Besides, humiliation is not my idea of a spectator sport.

At least, that is what I always used to feel — until last week.

Last Wednesday I suddenly became a reality TV addict; I am completely hooked on a TV series on BBC2 called The Apprentice; it is Anneka Rice meets John Harvey-Jones meets Anne Robinson, only far more sophisticated, and it is one of the best things that I have seen on television for a long time.

It centres on the astonishingly telegenic figure of Alan Sugar of Amstrad (the electronics group) fame and also of a huge self-made fortune. If he hadn’t made the big time in business, he could certainly have been extremely big in television.

The McGuffin — to use Hitchcock’s word for the central excuse for a drama — is that Sir Alan, as he is always deferentially called by all around him, is prepared to take on a young apprentice, ideally someone much like himself, at a six-figure salary.

We don’t really know what the apprentice will be supposed to do, or whether Sir Alan really needs one, but that doesn’t matter. The point of the show is to find one.

From thousands of hopeful young entrepreneurs across the country, the competitors have been reduced by the programme’s producers to 14 of the most outstanding, seven men and seven women. Rather oddly, they are always known as the boys and the girls, although most of them appear to be in their thirties; the world of the entrepreneur clearly has little time for the locutions of political correctness.

Sir Alan is putting them all up in a luxurious big house overlooking the Thames, plying them with champagne and rich treats to give them a taste of the fruits of entrepreneurial success, as well as impressing us viewers with the glamour of Sir Alan’s way of life.

In each programme he gives the competitors a real entrepreneurial task to do; in the first two they were divided into a girls’ team and a boys’ team. Last week each team had to buy £500 worth of flowers and sell them, somehow, at a profit by the day’s end. In the second week (of which I have seen a preview) they were given two days to research, design, make and present a new child’s toy (with professional help).

After each task they file into a plush boardroom where Sir Alan gives judgment of a breathtaking, gravelly bluntness that I was beginning to think had disappeared in this country; in the end the losing team leader has to choose two other team members to share responsibility for failure; after a painful interview, Sir Alan theatrically pronounces “You’re fired” at one of the three, who then has to wheel a sad suitcase home.

What a joy it is, I am ashamed to say, to watch all these desperately competitive young things fighting like ferrets in a sack. You would have to have a heart of stone not to find it funny, if often rather moving, too.

But beyond that, the whole thing is so unusually interesting. It’s about how business and competition actually work, so much so that it’s positively educational and worth showing in schools. And it throws up all kinds of ideas and possibilities and touches on many profound anxieties.

The first very problematic thing it throws up, or at least the first that struck me, is how hopeless most of the women were (at least when working with other women) compared with the men. They tried to be co-operative and conciliatory (in the way that women are usually supposed to do) but in fact they were constantly quarrelling, sulking, undermining each other and behaving like prima donnas.

They spent quite a lot of time on management speak, about how they see their roles and what they mean by leadership, but they were in fact divided, indecisive and resentful.

The only time when a woman was really decisive, it was in complete defiance of the best judgment of her entire team, although she didn’t really seem able to appreciate that; she even took a vote and then ignored it.

The boys, by contrast, talked a great deal less, co-operated far more, were far more decisive and seemed better able to make the most of each other’s abilities — contrary to all the clichés about gender difference. And they had much more fun.

The mystery of all this was that although the boys’ egos were clearly just as inflated as the girls’ (and probably more so), they were far better at controlling them in the interests of joint success. They seemed instinctively to know how to negotiate between co-operation and competition.

The girls’ dutiful efforts to persuade themselves that loyalty and co-operation were best were at times risible — most evident in the most hopeless cause, with misplaced loyalty. And the girls’ attempts to be manipulative — supposedly a female skill — were obvious and unsuccessful; the boys were much better at it.

Before anyone starts calling me a misogynist, I should say that I have been lucky enough to know or to meet many highly intelligent and successful women. I have also worked very happily indeed with lots of women, both colleagues and bosses, who were as good as, or better than, any man although sometimes in a different style.

I have lived in the Far East, where women have successfully run large and small enterprises, time out of mind. So this is not a rant against women in general. But it is a question. Why do these thirtyish would-be entrepreneurial women put up such a poor performance — so far at least — compared with the men? Is it just more difficult to find entrepreneurial women for some reason, just as it’s difficult to find women physicists and women chess players? (This is the sort of question, incidentally, which is likely to get the president of Harvard University in the United States hounded out of office.) I suspect that it might be a generational thing. Older women are more realistic and more pragmatic. Younger women are confused by conflicting ideas — on the one hand the demands of freebooting entrepreneurialism, and on the other the demands of politically correct, management handbook, personal development corporation-speak.

The boys seem largely indifferent to contemporary management culture and indeed say the most politically incorrect things.

As Sir Alan said about the sales technique of one of them, it may not be pretty but it works.

Entrepreneurialism is not pretty, but it works. And the reality of entrepreneurialism is something that most people in this country know very little about and feel very ambivalent about, important though we all know it is.

That is what, among many other things, makes this programme so addictive.