Admit it. Like a rubbernecker who can't help but gawk at the aftermath of a bad car wreck, you were among the millions of Americans who tuned in to the first season of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice to see a roster of fringe celebs flaunt their oversized egos and their underdeveloped business savvy to win the favor of their reality TV boss, Donald Trump. Who could resist watching a Baldwin brother, a Playboy Playmate, a tongue-wagging rock legend and 11 other semi-luminaries sweat, squirm and lose their cool under the withering lights of primetime television, all in the name of selling enough hot dogs to earn praise and a $250,000 charitable contribution from The Donald?
Businesspeople know better than to turn to reality TV for guidance on how to do their jobs more effectively. With Celebrity Apprentice, however, true strategic substance may indeed lurk behind the hype and the hairdo. Besides rewarding viewers with amusing, ungainly glimpses behind the celebrity façade, the show, which opens its second season in March, also offers genuine insight into the traits and tactics that make an effective project manager and leader. And it's not just about the obvious. (Note to Gene Simmons: Avoid suggestive advances toward the boss's daughter while the boss is present.)
"Getting the team to deliver the right job, right away, is the essence of project management," says Sid Kemp, a Florida-based consultant and author of Amazon bestseller Entrepreneur Magazine's Ultimate Guide to Project Management. "That's why shows like Celebrity Apprentice have valuable lessons to offer, unrealistic as they are."
"This type of show sheds light on the fact that business is about people and relationships," adds Tim Jenkins, CEO of Point B, a project leadership consulting firm with 400 employees in virtual offices throughout the U.S. "It's an interesting study in human nature."
So suspend your disbelief and consider the following project-management best practices, many culled from situations that unfolded on Celebrity Apprentice. No celebrity pedigree is required to put these suggestions to work; they're rooted in sound principles and applicable to real-world situations project managers are likely to confront. Using them may never land you a job with The Donald, or even a place on his TV show, but they could well make you a star on the project-management stage.
Determine whether the project is about efficiency or effectiveness. It's almost always one or the other, says Tom Danowski, a Seattle-based business consultant. Projects aimed at improving efficiency are usually about finding ways to do something better to realize cost reductions. Those centered around effectiveness (like selling large quantities of tube steak) are about growing through innovation--"doing something different than we did before." Making the distinction helps bring a project into focus.
Determine how the project meshes with the company goals. "It's important," explains Danowski, "to put what you're being asked to do in a broader meta-narrative. You want to link and visibly associate the project with broader goals."
Be a point guard. Successful leaders are content to work behind the scenes, orchestrating the offense while others do most of the scoring. "On Celebrity Apprentice," Jenkins observes, "people oftentimes assumed that if they just took charge and dictated, that would show their leadership ability. Very seldom is that style called for, though."
Get the left brain involved early. To get buy-in from team members, says Philadelphia-based idea implementation specialist Rory Cohen, start a project by encouraging everyone around the table to provide their "perfect world" vision of how the project should unfold and what it should achieve.
Confront constraints upfront and head-on. The team might not agree with or fully understand a project's ultimate aim. (Why hot dogs?) Regardless, it's the project manager's job to get everyone behind that goal, Kemp says, by framing it as an opportunity to demonstrate their skills.
Think like a psychologist. Dr. Joyce Brothers wasn't there for the stars of Celebrity Apprentice and, most likely, she won't be there for you. Thus it's incumbent on the project manager "to invest in relationships with team members so you know what's going to motivate them," Jenkins says. Harnessing and channeling egos to positive effect is one of the project manager's biggest challenges, Cohen adds. Rather than trying to squash them, "you want egos to think they are getting their way."
Check your ego. The best project managers readily put their own egos aside and aren't above getting dirty to help team members accomplish their tasks, Jenkins says. "People will be more willing to do something for you if they see you working on their behalf."
Identify key external players. It's crucial to know who has the ultimate power to green-light funding and other important high-level aspects of a project, Danowski says. It also helps to befriend their assistants and the middle managers who will actually be using the solution or process your team is developing.
Broadcast news. Maintain stakeholder interest and buy-in by keeping them posted about project progress, using communications tools such as intranet-based blogs, e-mail blasts, etc.
Be a savvy negotiator. Don't strive to win every battle. "Understand what the end game is," suggests Jenkins, "realizing that giving up a negotiating point might help with reaching bigger goals down the road."
Take the high road. Don't compromise ethical or business values. A "win at all costs" mind-set invites trouble.
Reward and celebrate. Openly acknowledge team member successes. "That small child called the ego needs rewards," Cohen says. Small but meaningful gestures--recognition before peers, an e-mail pat on the back from the president of the company--usually suffice.
Remember, you operate in reality, which has little in common with reality television. Using a competition-based reality show to build business acumen is akin to using Sponge Bob Square Pants to master marine biology. So take Celebrity Apprentice for what it's worth: a look at the mistakes people make when they manage projects and people.
David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.