The Apprentice vs Headteachers: What Can School Leaders Learn From The Hit TV Series?

Popular TV show The Apprentice first aired in 2005 and follows a group of people who are set a series of business-related tasks by Lord Alan Sugar. They have to prove themselves worthy of the ultimate prize – the job of Lord Sugar’s apprentice, which comes with a six-figure investment in their business plan. Lord Sugar is assisted by two close business associates who act as his observers, feeding back to him throughout. The show is famed for its larger-than-life contestants, their boastful claims, and their constant one-upmanship, backstabbing and Machiavellian manoeuvrings. All of this is set against a common goal which requires teamwork and collaboration. So, as the 2022 series continues to pull in the viewers, blogger Max Kelly asks whether the candidates on The Apprentice can teach school leaders anything about leadership, communication and teamwork?

The original winner of The Apprentice, Tim Campbell, remarked way back in 2005’s Season 1 “my fellow apprentices will get to know me as a very nice, likeable, personable kind of guy. But they should be aware, underneath that quiet calm veneer is someone who is doggéd and determined and usually gets what they want.” That dogged determination is an essential quality for Tim, and indeed for every Apprentice winner ever since. For successful headteachers, a strong vision and a relentless pursuit of it is absolutely vital. It will require a dogged determination – I recall one of my fellow headteacher colleagues being described as ruthless in the context of chasing down all that they stood for and believed in. But, like Tim’s admission that this can coexist alongside a veneer of pleasant respect, the best school leaders also recognise there are ways and means. I’m reminded of the oft-used carrot or stick metaphor, the meaning of which is captured neatly in this graphic:

And so it is clear that there are parallels between successful Apprentice winners and successful headteachers. But it doesn’t start and stop with simply having the right mindset. Let’s explore what else the TV show can help shine a light on in the world of school leadership.

1. Hit the ground running

In the cut-throat world of reality TV with a huge and prestigious prize on offer, the candidates clearly have to maximise their moments when they come. This includes the all-important first impression and then playing that out against a time-restrained finite and episodic backdrop. The contestants need to burst onto the scene and need to sustain that burst – or better still, add lots of fuel to the fire in quick succession to form an explosion. They need Lord Sugar to spot them, and they need Lord Sugar to remember them. Writing in The Guardian in2012, Heidi Stephens observed:

“To succeed in the cut-throat world of business, you need to maximise your personal impact. Men who ooze success need pointy shoes, a fat-tie knot and hair that has a business plan all of its own. Women who want to take it to the next level need more than a suit a killer heels; unless your eye make-up looks like it’s been drawn on by a crayon-wielding toddler, you’re only a cab drive away from obscurity. And if you really want to push the envelope, try a purple beret or some elbow-length black gloves.”

Stephens, H. (2012) “The Apprentice: Five Ways To Win The Big Prize” The Guardian

Now I’m sure someone’s tongue was very firmly in their cheek when they penned this critique of how to hit the ground running in The Apprentice, but as with most comedy, it is based in part in the truth. In every season since The Apprentice first broadcast, men and women have used their clothes as statements and their boastful, exaggerated words as cast-iron bonds.

In Headship, the opposite is usually best. I certainly don’t mean that one should avoid a strong start and shouldn’t hit the ground running. Of course that is right to do. But the execution is different in a school. Successful headteachers must depart from successful Apprentice candidates in their early approach.

As an experienced Headteacher I’ve overseen many whole-school changes. It’s a process that is far from easy, and by no means do I suggest that I have all the answers. However, for those new to headship, I would offer the following principles as useful starting points in helping you bring about change in as quick and efficient a way as possible.

A new headship often calls for brave leadership. One way of doing this is to appear to sit back initially. However, far from doing nothing, this time is spent watching, observing and noticing. It is so important not to go in like the proverbial bull in a china shop, aka Apprentice style. Take a considered approach based on what you see, and fit this to your own philosophy of education. Make every change matter – if you operate with a genuine purpose, rather than changing for the sake of change, you will bring people with you and that becomes a more powerful catalyst for school improvement.

You can read more about this approach in my blog Making Your Mark which can be found here.

2. Form a strong team

In his interview with the BBC, original Apprentice Winner Tim Campbell describes the importance of forming a strong team for each of the tasks. However, this is always a tricky affair on the Apprentice with a whole host of challenges presenting which make it difficult for a fully effective team to emerge. First off, let’s remember that The Apprentice is a competition, therefore each team member is also a competitor and rival as well as colleague and collaborator. Each individual has their own gameplan, their own strategy and their own interests at heart. And this is where the games start to play out: candidates holding back from putting themselves forward as Project Manager because they deem it too early on the process; candidates using the task to self-promote a particular skill set; contestants using the opportunity to undermine those they consider weak. Its actually a great credit to all those on The Apprentice that any kind of team emerges at all!

In headship, team formation can be equally evolutionary, but usually in a much more collegiate way with a shared sense of purpose. I am reminded of some work I did as part of my Masters in Education degree which analysed the stages school teams would usually progress through:

In the early stage of the team coming together, the role of the team leader is crucial in determining who is in the group, helping members get to know one another, putting members at ease, clarifying roles, responsibilities and procedures. The team leader should allow any uncertainties, fears or confusions to be expressed and dealt with at this stage.
In this phase members begin to explore their relationships and test the boundaries. Tensions frequently emerge in the early stages of teams settling in. There may be some challenge to the leadership, including resistance to all or part of the task, attempts to redefine the task, and sub-groups may emerge. The leader needs to listen, provide feedback that acknowledges different views, and encourage members to work towards shared goals. If managed carefully, clearing the air should help the team gel and become more cohesive. If the leader is autocratic and tries to suppress conflict, that suppressed conflict may eventually re-emerge as a disruptive influence. 
This phase is characterised by a period of developing constructive relationships and ways of working together. The team leader’s role is to ensure that the team establishes an agreed set of operating procedures, rules and working practices. Team-building skills are concerned with facilitating cohesion and ensuring that each member continues to identify with the team’s purpose and values. The team may offer mutual support and increased focus on the task.
This is the stage at which the team is cooperating and working efficiently to achieve its goals. Members work as a unit, and difference of opinion can safely be expressed, acknowledged and resolved through compromise. The role of the team leader is to evaluate team effectiveness, look at efforts, satisfactions, and successes of individual members and the team as a whole, and to reward the team through positive feedback and de-briefings. 
An analysis of the different stages school leadership teams will often experience.

3. Communication is key

Melissa Cohen, a candidate way back on series 4, really stood out for all the wrong reasons. Why? Because she lacked the ability to communicate with her teammates (or as Melissa would say, she faced being karmically retributed for her manoeuvrement of words, and her apparent uncomfortability with the English language.)

Melissa Cohen reflects on her time on The Apprentice.

Teamwork in The Apprentice is all about communication. Being able to give and take criticism and contribute ideas is vitally important in helping your team succeed. Good communication means everyone knows what’s expected of them – bad communication means conflict, confusion and getting shouted at by Lord Sugar in the boardroom. Original winner Tim Campbell calls it “the ability to give clear instructions.

Champions of The Apprentice often cite the requirement to be able to give and receive clear instructions as a criteria for winning.

Headteachers will need no persuasive argument to convince them of the importance of strong communication. It is key to effective school leadership. You can read more on my thoughts about school communication from the perspective of the recent C19 pandemic which emphasised again how paramount clear and timely messaging is for schools: click here.

4. Sell your authentic self

At the beginning of an episode the candidates are usually captured striding purposefully through London’s Central Business District whilst making bold claims about their ability:

I’ve got everything Lord Sugar needs in a business partner.”

“Intimidation is what motivates me.”

“I’m usually the smartest person in the room and I’ll make sure people know that.”

All well and good. But viewers will have seen many times a contestant failing to live up to their self-proclaimed abilities; and that always spells disaster in the boardroom. 2014’s eventual winner, Mark Wright, notes “when you watch the show, you can see people trying to pretend to be one of two things: either they try to be like candidates from the past who were successful, or they try and take on a persona of what they think the public wants. And they come crashing down because you’re there for so long you can’t be anyone but yourself. I think because I hadn’t seen the show before, that was really in my favour.”

Essentially, the suggestion is that candidates all too often fall into the trap of trying to be someone else and something they’re not. It doesn’t work for the Apprentices on TV, and it doesn’t work in headship either.

Very early on in my leadership career I remember turning down a request from a dinner lady for some time off to celebrate her 50th birthday. In my inexperience, I didn’t really give the decision any real consideration: instead I just thought I’d emulate a headteacher I had once worked for who had previously remarked to me “I never give more than what people are entitled to; it’s important not to be seen as a pushover in this job.” For whatever reason, those words had stuck and became the maxim by which I thought I would lead. It wasn’t really me. And, to be fair to my colleague who said it, our school contexts were completely different: unlike them, I wasn’t trying to turn around a failing school in which a culture of entitlement and minimal working had been allowed to develop.

So my refusal backfired, it gave rise to unnecessary resentment from the staff member to me, it sent the wrong message and almost killed any good will amongst the staff team before I’d really got going. Strolling around claiming I was no pushover was both the wrong message, the wrong meaning behind the message and the wrong approach. It was a bit like an Apprentice candidate claiming to be the best salesperson ever to have graced the show, only to lose the task by finishing as the only contestant not to have made a sale. There’s a lesson in humility, and in authenticity which is important to appreciate here.

Instead, it is better to be influenced by others rather than becoming a cheap imitation. You can read my blog about those who have had a big influence on my career in teaching here.

But this doesn’t mean that headteachers should be afraid to set their stall out and stand by their beliefs and principles. As contestants on The Apprentice often find, those who are worried about putting themselves in the firing line and making a mistake get flushed out – they just become white noise in the end and then they get fired and no-one ever knows who they were. You’re better off to make a decision. If it’s the wrong one, go in there and justify what the decision was. And at least then Alan Sugar knows who you are, the other candidates know who you are and you’re a bit of a contestant. Some people do absolutely nothing because they don’t want to make a mistake.

The best headteachers recognise that a core part of their job is school improvement, and that involves doing something. So do something. It involves making decisions. So be decisive. And it involves learning from mistakes. So monitor, evaluate and own mistakes. (You can read some of my thoughts on the importance of being decisive, and of recognising your own mistakes with a humble acceptance in my blog about Captain Picard and the leadership lessons he provides for headteachers.) There is nothing worse for an Apprentice candidate to be fired for not seizing the moment and making the most of the opportunity in front of them. Headteachers too must always appreciate the scale of opportunity in front of them, and the genuine privilege hold to make a difference to young peoples lives and the communities in which they serve. Don’t be known for doing nothing with that honour.

5. Credibility

Lord Sugar talks a lot during the series about how to be a good leader and why this means that you don’t necessarily have the be the most popular person in the office, but you do need to have the respect from your colleagues and business associates. In order to gain respect you must show others respect, stick to your guns and inspire. Having walked the walk and remembering that age-old maxim “never ask someone to do something you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself” is another vital ingredient for success in The Apprentice Boardroom.

The role of a primary headteacher is complex: as well as managing the day-to-day operations of a school, they manage the teachers and other education staff below them, deal with safeguarding and pastoral issues, set school policy, and are ultimately responsible for all pupils’ academic achievement. It’s important that those entrusted to do this have the credibility to do so.

At the risk of upsetting colleagues, I know of many recent leadership appointees who have experienced just one school, year group or key stage. Some have only been teaching for a few years. Perhaps this is just a sign of our times, but for our children’s sake, we must do better. In my view, experience across all key stages is essential for primary headship.

I’ve worked in a pre-school nursery, a school nursery, reception, key stage 1 and key stage 2. I’ve been pdeputy headteacher in an infant school, a junior school and in two primary schools. I’ve had my own classes across all key stages. All of this experience gives me credibility: a hugely important (and sometimes overlooked) qualification for leadership.

There is a distinct difference between leadership and management. Operational management is one thing, but leading a team involves setting a vision, charting a course and empowering people to reach for the stars. Without the credibility of having walked the walk yourself, leadership can become very challenging.

Today I’m an executive headteacher across two schools, and in both, teachers and middle leaders know they can come to me with specific questions and problems about their key stage, and I’ll be able to support them. I understand the demands of each role in a way those with lesser experience do not.

Recently, a teacher came to me with concerns about his class size: it is larger than he has dealt with before, and he was finding it challenging. I supported him with proven strategies and suggestions around behaviour dynamics, classroom layout and ideas to manage his workload. The teacher knew that I’d been in that situation before, and so my solutions were credible.

Even with all of my classroom experience, I wasn’t fully prepared for the realities of a role requiring vastly different levels of accountability, decision-making and leadership skills. However, without it, I dread to think about what kind of failures I would now be responsible for.

There is a move towards a different model of leadership in education: CEOs of trusts and academies wield large power and influence in leadership positions but do not necessarily come from a background of education-sector experience.

The assumption that this can be done is made too easily. The leadership of schools should be rooted in deep pedagogical ideology, experience and understanding. Good school leaders are good educators, and that credibility comes from a proven track record – something that both successful Apprentice candidates and effective headteachers share in common.

6. Team work which lets individuals sparkle

Success in your career nearly always depends on your ability to be an effective team player. It is important to recognise that sometimes you have a specific role to play within a team. Sometimes you might be required to lead and sometimes you will be asked to work in the background organising things or delivering specific sub-tasks. On The Apprentice we see time and time again individual candidates who ignore their designated role and instead aim for a leadership position. This often causes tension and friction within the team and can have a negative impact on task delivery . A good team player can lead when required but ultimately puts the team’s objectives above their own.

We also hear The Apprentice candidates tell each other frequently that there’s no “I” in “Team.” But there’s definitely an “I” in “Win“. Writing in The Guardian, Heidi Stephens tells us that “The Apprentice has taught us that building a successful business empire is mostly about shamelessly backstabbing your way to the top, and doing whatever it takes to secure the win. If at any point it looks like you might be fired, take no prisoners – use every Machiavellian tactic at your disposal to slay the competition. And then, and only then, unleash your field of ponies.”

Candidate Stuart Baggs describes himself as a “whole field of ponies.”

It’s very different for successful headteachers. Those who run schools ignore the collective power found across their entire school community at their peril. The best recognise the urgency and agency in bringing people together.

Perhaps the word which would best describe this core philosophy is teamship. Developing a sense of teamship in schools is a vital aspect for the role of headteacher – getting teamship right will brings with it ownership by all partners; personal investments of time, effort, professional practice and CPD; and common goals centered around a common vision that is understood by everyone. I am reminded of the famous story of an encounter President John F Kennedy is said to have had when visiting NASA HQ. He had been talking to scientists, astronauts, the experts charged with putting together the plan to deliver on his bold objective that America should be the first nation to land a man on the moon. As he left, he saw a cleaner, with a mop, and asked him – though it must have seemed pretty obvious – what he did. The reply came: “Sir, I am here to help put a man on the moon.” I find this story inspiring: the cleaner knew the overall vision, and he had a sense of partnership and of belonging to that vision, because it was being taken forward all around him. Most importantly, he knew that to be successful the people heading moonwards needed to work in an efficient, spotless environment, and his job was to be part of the cleaning team that created it. My message to any school community is this: “whatever your job title, whatever your role, you are here to enable this school to be the best it can be so that all learners are pushed, extended, encouraged and expected to be better learners than they presently are.

And remember to celebrate the strengths and successes of those in your team: let them grow, let them develop and let them sparkle. It should surely go without saying that headteachers are there to create the circumstances and opportunities within their schools for everyone to grow, develop and become more than they are. Whilst true for their staff team (and you can read more on my thoughts about staff CPD here) it is absolutely vital for school leaders and teachers to seek to remove barriers to learning for their pupils; to present opportunities for their pupils to experience culture, music, performance, literature, science, art… life; to inspire and motivate; to unleash their pupils’ potential.

7. Be honest in all your dealings

2014 Apprentice winner Mark Wright says “Let’s face it, you’ve got seven cameras watching everything you do, but some people still think they can lie and get away with it. I don’t know what goes through some muppets’ heads where they go, ‘I can tell a porkie here and no-one will ever catch me out.” He’s right. Those candidates who stretch the truth or try to spin their way out of a situation look ridiculous. Everyone else in the boardroom can smell a rat – and the viewers at home aren’t daft either.

Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve seen so many people, supposèd leaders in our community, fail to recognise this: politicians have a particular knack for being incapable of an admitting to a mistake. And yet, the power of an admission of human error and an apology if one is due is considerable. It can diffuse tension; it can reframe disaster as circumstance; it can build respect, integrity, honesty and trust; and it is the human thing to do. People are more forgiving, more understanding. And leaders can always benefit from a more sympathetic and understanding followership.

Effective headteachers and senior school leaders will gain the respect of their colleagues and communities if they too remember these principles. Leadership usually doesn’t fail on the back of one or two moments and decisions. It is often because it is sustained and systematic. An occasional dose of humility, acknowledgement of a mistake and a sincere apology if required can go a long way. Playing a straight bat, remaining honest and avoiding the temptation to play with the dark arts of spin will always serve headteachers, and indeed Apprentice candidates, well.

8. Always expect a grilling

The best part of an episode of The Apprentice is usually the Boardroom – the bit where the candidates all troop in for Lord Sugar’s analysis and feedback of their performance.

And as for the best episode? It’s the “interview” show where the final few remaining candidates are put through their paces in what is described as the toughest interview on the planet:

The “interview” episodes are usually the most entertaining of each series of The Apprentice.

Like their TV star counterparts, headteachers are always a stones throw away from a grilling. Whether it’s the school partnership visit, the termly governing body meeting or a full blown OFSTED there’s always someone or something just around the corner ready to hold a headteacher to account.

9. Learn from your losses / Seek and act on feedback

In the world of business and commerce, the customer / client is king. Understanding customers is invaluable to a business owner or manager, but it’s something the candidates on The Apprentice never seem to grasp. Back in a 2015 series, over confident candidate Pamela Uddin was left high and dry when she ignored the audience research that told her a sexist board game based on offensive stereotypes was a bad idea. Pamela should have listened, learned and adapted her practice. Maybe she’d have gone on to win rather than face elimination in the boardroom.

Similarly in schools, good headteachers and leaders will frequently tap into parent voice, pupil voice and staff voice. Honest evaluations of projects, and calling in external eyes to help leaders identify trends from data, or areas for improvement are essential abilities for headteachers to have in order to succeed. People focussed leadership is key to this, and you can read more about this here.

I’m also aware of the boardroom battles which appear towards the end of Apprentice episodes. Bedraggled candidates are summoned before Lord Sugar where he can dispense some feedback – often very harsh feedback – before “firing” the person he likes the least.

It’s obviously the theatre-part of the show, essential for gripping TV. But there is a grain similarity between what Lord Sugar does and what strong headteachers must do too. Leaders occasionally do have to come down on their teams and correct their actions from time to time. If I find myself in this situation, I always try to do it by framing the conversation so that I can encourage them while correcting. It’s an old trick I picked up from TV character Captain Picard and when he would motivate and engage his crew by reminding his officers of their responsibilities to their uniform and Starfleet: you can read more about my analysis of Captain Picard and the lessons headteachers can take from his leadership in my blog Captain Picard VS Headteachers: Resistance to Leadership Is Futile.

10. A winning business plan

Whereas the original seasons of The Apprentice offered the winner a job in one of Alan Sugar’s companies, complete with a six-figure salary, more recent series have focused on a prize of big money investment and backing in the successful candidate’s own entrepreneurial idea.

That means that a business plan is required – one that needs to set vision, KPIs, and forecasts which lead to profitability. The more easily understood the plan, the more deliverable it appears to be – the better.

In the world of the headteacher, the business plan equivalent is their school improvement plan (SIP). Like the TV Apprentices, the best are easily understood, clear and concise, and deliverable. Crucially though, unlike the individual’s business plan which is all about them and their idea, the SIP works best when it captures the voice of all stakeholders and ensures buy-in and ownership from a wide base of people.

There are different ways that successful headteachers will go about achieving this, and although this represents my thinking from four years ago (thinking which remains based in this space but which naturally has evolved since) the following blog captures my thoughts around effective school improvement planning and can be read here.

I’ve also shared an example of a more recent SIP to show their evolution which can be downloaded below:

Finally on this subject, good school leaders will recognise that there is more to SI than a well documented plan. So much of what I can see happening across my schools are “little improvements” that occur without needing to have been mapped out on a strategic plan. Although school improvement plans are still required to outline how the schools will tackle the key priorities for development or improvement, I don’t want these to be the “be all and end all.” You can explore this theme further in my blog School Improvement Doesn’t Have To Be On The School Improvement Plan…

Are there any other Apprentice fans out there working in education? Are there any leadership lessons I’ve missed from The Apprentice or are they any other lessons we can take from Lord Sugar and his two advisors who say / do things which correlate to our work in schools? I’d love you to let me know by adding a comment to this blog.

And don’t forget you can check out a whole range of original blogs and articles on manxmaxim.com – for school leadership stuff and things like that 😀

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