Back in the 1990s, B-school grads roamed the globe like Masters of the Universe. Armed with power-point presentations and gold-plated diplomas, there was no problem they seemingly couldn't solve. Now, fast forward to the latest iteration of reality-TV. In The Apprentice, a shlocky new reality series on NBC, young business women are pitted against young business men in a cut-throat competition for success. Think Survivor, only in Armani suits. And this time, the last person left standing wins -- gasp -- a six-figure salary and a year working for real estate developer Donald Trump.
In this version of reality, the women more or less look like sex goddesses and the men are, for the most part, buff as can be. Now, that's realistic. Still, in a crude sort of way, The Apprentice offers a look at life in the often cold hallways of Corporate America. Just listen to some of what viewers are saying on message boards devoted to the show. Says one: "It hits close to home." Adds another: "This is a reality we all can understand."
So, B-schoolers, close the books, sit back, and tune in. The show features some hard lessons you aren't likely to learn in those case studies on leadership:
REALITY #1: For all the enlightened talk of teamwork, when push comes to shove, people often look out for themselves and try to blame others for their failures. Sure, reality might not always be so blatant. The outright bickering and back-stabbing seen on the show might be enough to get someone fired in the real world. But those clever machinations and the endless scheming by participants to dis their colleagues' ideas in an effort to save their own hides -- that's as real as it gets. Lesson: Always watch your back.
REALITY #2: Call it the Donald Trump version of Marketing 101. Quality isn't what drives customers to buy. Exposure is what matters in a celebrity-obsessed society. What else explains why some contestants, already successful, would be humiliated before 20 million viewers? And why is Deutsch Inc., one of the ad industry's most cutting-edge shops, lending its good name to a sensationalist show like The Apprentice? Lesson: There's no such thing as bad publicity.
REALITY #3: Think sex has been banished from the workplace after three decades of efforts to improve equality? Think again. So far, the women are relying on something far more basic than their smarts to win. In the first episode, they boost lemonade sales by kissing their customers, while in the second they beat the men's team with a sexually suggestive ad proposal. The clincher: The women make their presentation to the ad chief in snug retro flight-attendant outfits. No surprise the guys never had a chance. Lesson: Sex really does sell. (In case anyone forgot.)
What makes this show so compelling -- and entertaining -- is that it's like a funhouse mirror of the business world. Everything is a bit off-kilter but very recognizable. Don't quit B-school. But do watch The Apprentice. You might learn something just as important.
By Jennifer Merritt