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The Apprentice: interview time

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If I’d hired four multi-millionaires to conduct interviews to whittle five candidates down to two and all they could do is tell me that Lucinda’s a bit mad, they’d be hearing only one thing from me: you’re fired.

Last night was interview time for our five brave adventurers. They were up against property tycoon Paul “the Neanderthal” Kemsley; Birmingham City FC boss Karren “look, her legs come out of her sports car way before she does” Brady; Jean-Claude Van Damme (not sure I’ve got that one right); and one of Sir Alan’s top honchos who was actually a seriously good interviewer.

And their high-powered conclusions?

Lucinda could play a main role in In the Night Garden. Alex is 24. Helene’s come from a rough background and has spent years in an office. Claire Young is gobby.

Like, erm, wow.

Of course, one revelation did emerge from the “grilling”, elicited by Viglen boss Gordon Patchell. A couple of fact-checking phone calls and a bit of probing forced Lee McQueen to confess that he’d been somewhat economical with the verite on his CV; that two-year stint at Thames Poly or somesuch institution had in fact been four months before he flunked it. As the uber-smug but very funny Michael McIntyre observed in The Apprentice – You’re Hired later on BBC2, if you’re going to lie on your CV about your university, you least you could do is say you’ve been to Cambridge.

Interestingly, in these relativist days, all Lee got was a smack on the wrist and quite a lot of “everyone lies on their CVs” sympathy. Not good enough, IMHO, but maybe that’s just me.

Frankly, after a rip-roaring series so far, last night’s episode was a disappointment. Long, slow sweeping shots of the house suggested that the series-makers really didn’t have enough material to fill an exciting penultimate programme.

So it was left to Sir Alan to drop the bombshell: that only Lucinda would be going and that the final would be contested by four candidates this year. Cue hugging (and animal noises from Lee).

Sir Alan insisted that all four were strong contenders and that’s why they would all be competing in next week’s final.

But may I suggest a different conclusion.

For it’s my belief, based on 20-odd years of interviewing and meeting entrepreneurs that, paradoxically, they are really very easy to sell to. They may be incomparable salespeople, able to flog smoked herrings to Scandinavians all winter, but my experience tells me that, stick an entrepreneur in front of a standard-fare impressive interview candidate and they’ll fall for them.

I have no research to back this up, and I’m sure lots of entrepreneurs will jump down my throat and tell me that they can spot talent like an eagle at 200 metres. But I’ll stick to my guns on this: their openness, optimism and generosity of spirit makes entrepreneurs a pretty credulous lot.

Like Sir Alan himself, beneath the bluster you’ll find a really decent human being with an innate fondness for people. Sure, they can be ruthless when running their business, but ask them to make cold-blooded recruitment decisions and I reckon that your MBA/consultancy/Harvard lot do a much chillier, more decisive job.

Numerous anecdotes back this up. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been introduced to “Steve Wotsisname, who I’ve hired to take the business on to the next level and allow me to focus on being the figurehead.” (Six months later, they’re gone.)

Take the founders of Pret A Manger, who almost ruined their superb sandwich business by bringing in a new “professional” management team. It took the return of Steve Jobs to re-energise Apple after years in the wilderness. Even the mighty Bill Gates has stepped in and out of the leadership chair over the years in his bid to find a worthy successor.

Behind this apparent paradox is the essentially dysfunctional personality of the entrepreneur. On the one hand, they are the driving force of their ventures, addicted to making even the tiniest decisions within their own business; on the other, they are often desperate to hand over the reins, lose the increasingly bureaucratic responsibilities of running an ever-bigger company and get on with the nobler stuff of selling and expanding their empire.

Shove a top CV and a winning personality in front of them (especially one that vaguely reminds them of their younger selves – cf Michael Sophocles), and they can be persuaded that they’ve found the answer to their prayers. Of course, in reality, they either don’t actually want to give up the day job, or have been duped into believing that they do by a good pitch (or both).

So it doesn’t surprise me that we’re left with four candidates this year. With age comes sentimentalism. We’ve already seen Sir Alan hang on to Mr Sophocles for longer than he should have done; now, despite his protestations that he’s only interested in their now achievements, Sir Alan has allowed himself keep Helene, Lee and probably Alex longer than they deserve.

Claire should walk it next week.

Your views, please.

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