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Bill or Kwame? Management lessons learned from The Apprentice

Posted by John Reed on

I have never cared for The Donald and I think reality TV shows like Survivor are idiotic, so I scoffed at his recent TV series, The Apprentice, when I first heard about it.

I never intended to watch it, but I caught glimpses of it when channel surfing and saw discussions of it in various places. I ended up watching a good bit of the next-to-last show and all of the final show.

I must admit that I now like The Donald much more than I expected, and I found the show to be instructive regarding management. Real estate investors need to manage their deals and properties. The Apprentice was a worthwhile brief course in people management for real estate investors.

The Apprentice

In case you are a non-TV watcher, The Apprentice was a so-called “reality” show. That is, it was non-actors being filmed while dealing with situations that they had not rehearsed or been warned about.

The goal of the contestants was to win a one-year job paying $250,000 as Donald Trump’s apprentice. 215,000 people applied. The show started with 16 and Trump fired one a week over the life of the series. Each episode featured two teams competing with each other to run some sort of business or event. In the final episode, Trump chose one of the two finalists.


The contestants all seemed to be in their twenties or early thirties, ambitious, and somewhat accomplished. Those common characteristics notwithstanding, there were many differences between them.

Two strong characters emerged—an insufferable woman named Omorosa and a hustling high school graduate named Troy. Neither made the final two, but they may have determined the winner.

Harvard MBA

One of the finalists was a guy named Kwame. He was a Harvard MBA who quit a plum job with Goldman Sachs to compete in The Apprentice.

My wife and I are also Harvard MBAs so you might think we were pulling for Kwame. Nope. We know over a thousand Harvard MBAs. They are not all prize packages.

Had the competition been limited to presentations, Kwame probably would have won. Harvard’s MBA program is two years of arguing cases.


Harvard Business School is often called the West Point of capitalism. I also graduated from the original West Point. One big difference between the two is there is a great deal of hands-on application of the lessons taught at West Point; almost none at Harvard Business. It showed.

Kwame’s business experience includes start-ups and marketing at Proctor and Gamble. The tests in The Apprentice show were more for general-purpose line managers.

Why Kwame lost

Kwame lost. His undoing appeared to be excessive adherence to a couple of management cliches he had picked up along the way—combined with being a poor judge of character and an inability to think outside the box.

‘Great people and leave them alone’

One of Kwame’s management cliches was that you should “pick great people and leave them alone to do their job.” That’s very popular with subordinates.

However, too often the person who mouths that cliche fails to appreciate the difficulty of the first part—“picking great people.” There are a whole lot of non-great people out there—many impersonating great people. Great people are very rare.

In the next-to-last show, the two finalists each got to pick a team of three from the six who had been most recently fired. Kwame picked Heidi, Troy, and Omorosa. I surmise that they had been teammates of his earlier in the competition and he selected them out of loyalty and friendship. Bad moves. Very bad moves.

High school grad

We love the high-school dropout or high school grad who competes in the executive world and beats out the college boys and MBAs. Even Donald Trump (B.S. Wharton School of Finance) was pulling for high-school-graduate Troy.

Troy was a cocky hustler who apparently has a successful mortgage brokerage business. But his lack of education hurt him, though not as a resume entry. He got picked for the show. Rather, it hurt him because one simply needs more knowledge and polish to operate in the complex business world that Donald Trump inhabits. Trump commented that Troy just did not have the background he needed when he fired him.


And as a member of Kwame’s final team, Troy screwed up. He was overconfident and overbearing when he needed to play a more subordinate, humble role. Most likely, he has almost always been the top boss in his pre-Apprentice business life. He was unable to adjust to the role of subordinate and colleague. He simply was not competent in new roles.

He may be a one-trick pony in the mortgage brokerage business. He did not understand new situations quickly.

Bottom line, Kwame treated him as one of those “great people” who need little supervision. Troy has some strengths. Most businesses could make good use of a Troy. But he needed more supervision and direction when put in new situations. Kwame failed to provide it and the operation suffered as a result.


Heidi is outspoken and also incompetent. Outspoken does not work very well in the show’s team setting. When told to run a “meet and greet” at Trump’s Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, she whined that she had never done that. Kwame correctly pointed out that none of the other team members had either. Tough. Figure it out.


Omorosa was a disaster—astonishingly self-centered, grotesquely overconfident, inconsiderate, theatrical, and untrustworthy. I heard that she was getting her own talk show. That might fit. She acted as if she were the queen of the world and others were merely her supporting cast. Trump strongly chastised Kwame for picking her even after he knew what she was like and for not firing her after she deceived him twice. I agree.

Kwame said he didn’t know he was allowed to fire her. That showed his inability to think outside the box.

‘Never let them see you sweat’

Kwame’s other business cliche was “never let them see you sweat when you are the leader.” He said it repeatedly in comments made away from the others. And he clearly was trying to carry it out. But the fact that he was sweating at times was painfully obvious to everyone. I have often accused Obama of this same fault.

His straining to stay low key no matter what happened was confusing to his subordinates and caused all concerned to behave with inadequate urgency when a sense of urgency was required.

Losing Jessica Simpson

One painful sequence involved Donald Trump trying to welcome rock star Jessica Simpson to his Taj Mahal where she was performing. Omorosa and Jessica disappeared just as Trump arrived to meet her.

Kwame and Troy kept calling Omorosa on her walkie talkie. She was too busy being the center of attention and did not respond. Kwame and Troy simply kept calling futilely and rolling their eyes.

Kwame needed to think where they might be and send his other two subordinates to check those locations. He probably also could have called the hotel central command center to ask for an all-points bulletin to be sent to all hotel employees who had walkie talkies.

Too nervous

Meanwhile, Bill’s competent subordinates criticized him mildly for the opposite of Kwame’s cool. Bill was visibly stressed out (although he denied it) and micromanaging his subordinates—constantly rechecking everything. But as far as getting the job done, that worked far better than Kwame’s style.

Process versus results

Stated simply, Kwame was process oriented and Bill was results oriented. Predictably, Bill got better results. [See my web article on the difference:]

Kwame seemed more interested in adhering to his cliches—look cool even when you’re not and leave your “great” subordinates alone—than in getting the job done. For all his Harvard MBA training and elite corporate experience, he apparently had little or no experience as a line manager and made typical rookie mistakes.

Checked everything

Bill assumed nothing, checked everything. He got his hands dirty when the situation required. (They lost a sponsor’s sign that was supposed to be displayed at a charity golf tournament. Bill found it himself in a dumpster literally at the last second.)

Did Bill overdo the double checking? From his subordinates’ perspective, yes. But not when you consider that he really did not know his subordinates that well. With more time, he would have trusted those who earned the trust appropriately.

Lessons learned

Focus on getting the job done, not adhering to any slogans about management. Double- and triple-check until you are confident it is not needed. It also makes sense to double- and triple-check if you have time on your hands and no other things to do instead—which was the case with Bill.

‘50th floor’

Kwame made the somewhat common Harvard MBA mistake of “managing from the 50th floor when you only have a two-story building” to quote my Harvard professor Earl Sasser (brother of Tennessee Senator James Sasser).

Recognize that great people are rare, hard to hire for your company, and hard to keep after you hire them. Great people have lots of other opportunities. Who would need managers if employees were all “great people”?

Fake cool

Phony cool comes across as just plain phony, not cool. Be yourself. Match your demeanor and sense of urgency to the situation, not to some deodorant commercial slogan.

Project manager

Although The Apprentice did not much reflect it, Trump is a real estate guy. That fact reemerged when he told Bill what job he had won. Trump offered him a choice of renovating a waterfront golf course in Los Angeles or supervising the development of a super high rise hotel and condo building in Chicago. Bill, who is from Chicago, chose the latter.

Trump seemed more interested in touting the two developments to a national TV audience than in employing Bill at either. The Donald was a game show host on The Apprentice and sounded exactly like Bob Barker’s announcer describing prizes to a winner on The Price is Right.

Bill’s business experience consists primarily of selling cigars on the Internet. If he applied for a high-rise development project manager job in the normal fashion, he would not get an interview. So it would appear that Bill’s $250,000 “job” is really just another Trump publicity stunt. More likely, he will be the very high paid aide of the real project manager.

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