Several people warned me "As a career consultant, you need to watch this show!" So when the DVD came out, I did. And I was overwhelmed. You could show portions of the series in a non-Harvard MBA classroom.
The show's premise has been described so often I won't summarize here. As Bill Rancic observes in his book, there's not much reality here. Tasks bear only faint resemblance to real-world business challenges faced by senior executives. Extra pressures arise from the group's living arrangement: a loft on Tiffany Corner, 5th Avenue and 57th Street, where participants sleep in cubicles, "on top of each other." Well, says Trump, a tiny apartment at that location might rent for $12,000 a month. He should know!
Besides the survivor-type drama, we get a rare glimpse into Trump's world, as he shows off his apartment, fleet of aircraft, estates and companies. He comes across as likeable, even "funny," as one fired contestant says, showing annoyance only once in the entire series, during a mix-up in the very last episode.
So can we learn business lessons from the show? In many ways, yes. Above all, what's important is conducting yourself professionally and never losing your cool. Participants must cooperate to win as a team, yet ultimately their teammates are also their competitors. In corporate America, you get ahead by supporting your boss. Here, a savvy team can undermine a leader who's a potential strong competitor or a despised colleague, getting that leader fired.
Trump also encourages players to think outside the box. He is quick to fire those who won't stand up for themselves or who are squeamish about critiquing their colleagues. One woman got fired because she held back instead of "fighting for her life." Feisty is good. But these values are hardly universal. Trump has created not only a company, but also a culture. Other companies may expect executives to stay in the box and be quiet.
Are these really the best and the brightest? Watching contestants fumbling around, it's easy to question the selection process. But we have to remember these folks are fish out of water. They're jammed into tight spaces, sharing quarters boot camp style. They've presumably signed releases, allowing photographers to film them sleeping, brushing their teeth or answering a phone in their underwear.
Some contestants no doubt have trouble relaxing and sleeping in those conditions. And the pace is relentless. As Rancic says in the bonus material, some people just got tired. Stamina, motivation and perseverance lagged. Romance was hard to manage, although one couple came close. (I think Omerosa and Kwame had some chemistry, especially evident in a deleted scene shown on DVD and suggested by his decision to select her for a critical task. But nobody comments so maybe I shouldn't either!)
Candidates were young and many were at a crossroads: newly divorced, restless, and/or facing career challenges. They were a special group in many ways - some special to the point of quirkiness, but that's another story.
Having read Bill Rancic's book first, I watched for signs of greatness. Bill did not stand out in the first few rounds - when some obvious misfits were culled quickly - but found some effective out-of-the-box strategies that dazzled Trump. Additionally, Bill was poised, professional, articulate and good-looking. A no-brainer.
The real winners were those who followed the strategy Kwame describes in the bonus material. He saw the show as a platform for a new company and a new career. Based on media reports, all have received great job offers or seen their businesses expand. One candidate managed to use the platform to display her worst qualities - but you can decide for yourself.
As an expatriate New Yorker myself, I was drawn to the last scene of each episode, when the fired participants find a cab idling right at the curb, presumably equipped with a video cam to record their last thoughts. Just having a cab at your beck and call can be a luxury, but I wondered more. Where do they go? Does Trump buy them last-minute airplane tickets? Fly them home in his private jet? Stash them in the Trump Plaza hotel? Well, maybe we'll find out someday.