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Tana, Morgan Stanley & 'The Apprentice'
The reality show, while not a MBA seminar, holds some important lessons for today's executives.
May 16, 2005: 3:10 PM EDT

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Phil Purcell, CEO of Morgan Stanley, needs to watch "The Apprentice" this week. If Tana can pull it out, he can too.

For those of you who don't follow the show, Tana is one of the final two contestants. After 16 weeks of contrived, advertiser-supported tasks and assignments -- making Dominos pizza and staging Home Depot demonstrations -- only she and Kendra are left standing. The other 16 contestants got the show's signature "You're Fired!" from Donald Trump.

Now she and Kendra have each completed a final task for the Trumpster, with varying levels of success. This Thursday he'll make a final judgment on their performance and pick one of them to join his empire.

Will the winner -- Tana or Kendra -- be the model of business acumen? No, not even close. Tana has time management issues and Kendra's self-confidence needs some Red Bull. Neither they, nor the two winners before them, strike me as immediate CEO material. Maybe with time, but not now. That's why Trump seems to have the previous winners, and probably the next one, on a watch and learn program.

In fact the show probably leaves a lot of MBAs disheartened. The projects are rather haphazard and, in some cases, downright silly. Make a mini-golf course? Wash dogs in the park? Hardly a Harvard Business School case study there. And in the latest season the ratings-conscious producers are concentrating more on personality clashes and less on plans of attack in the tasks.

"What I used most was the various approaches to the tasks," said Roy Lewicki, a business professor at Ohio State University, who used to tape segments from the show for his classes. "But now it is truncated so much in production that it doesn't translate as well to the classroom."

And in many respects the show just lacks reality. For example the project manager, that is the contestant chosen to organize and lead a particular team during a task, isn't really the boss. There's no hire and fire power there, just a popularity contest.

But despite its shortcomings, the show has two important virtues.

One, it reminds people that business, and in particular entrepreneurship, is hard. As the contestants go about remodeling a motel or brainstorming an ad campaign, you get a peek at the drive, energy, even desperation that goes into the world of business at large. Those are things a large segment of the population takes for granted.

Second, it points out the importance of human relationships and teamwork in accomplishing goals -- be they business goals or otherwise. Sure, the producers stack the deck with a few wacko contestants to make things interesting. But in reality the business world is full of wackos too. And you have to work with them.

Take Tana. In her last assignment, her team was comprised of ... well ... folks on the wacko side of the scale. She didn't work well with them. Or lead them. Manage them. In fact, all she seemed to do is blame them. (Of course, we don't know what was left on the edit room floor, so the picture may be distorted). The last task, in fact, was a big disappointment from her previous performances, where she pushed teamwork and excitement.

Tana's situation is a microcosm of what's going on with CEO Purcell at Morgan Stanley. Here was a guy who started out with a grand vision for making an institutional and retail finance giant. Now he's alienated a chunk of senior management and shareholders and is facing an outright mutiny.

Art reflecting reality or reality reflecting art? Either way, Purcell should watch "The Apprentice" this Thursday.

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Allen Wastler is managing editor of CNN/Money and appears weekends on CNN's "In the Money." He can be e-mailed at wastlerswanderings@cnn.com.  Top of page

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