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The common-sense Apprentice – Why practical intelligence matters

By Tim Fuell - October 14, 2014

Tonight sees the launch of the newest series of The Apprentice on the BBC at 9pm on BBC1. This time there are 20 candidates taking on 12 tasks, with the aim of becoming that single victor who becomes Sir Alan’s Apprentice and business partner and also the person who secures a £250,000 investment in their own business proposal.

The 10th series of Sir Alan Sugar pointing the finger and pronouncing “you’re fired” is set to grip the nation once again, with entrepreneurship probably as pertinent to the audience as ever before with people looking for a way to battle the economic issues facing the country. One former candidate who experienced that dreaded phrase from Lord Sugar is Neil Clough. He bowed out at the final five interview stage in 2013, when his business plan for an online property site was found to be fundamentally flawed. It led to Lord Sugar saying “right man with the wrong plan”. Yet, the former semi-professional footballer and regional manager for a chain of football centres admits he learnt a lot from the whole experience that has helped since launch his own NWC Consultancy providing sales consultancy, training, coaching and mentoring to SMEs. He also puts his success – tipped to win before his business plan failure – down to two simple character traits:

Neil Clough - BBC The Apprentice 2013

Neil Clough – BBC The Apprentice 2013

“The biggest thing about the Apprentice for me was, that bit of self-belief and bit of common-sense logic – which is all I had compared to a lot of the other competitors who had far better educations, had a bit more business experience, had their own businesses – the things that I had and that helped me compete was my self-belief and common-sense logic.

What I mean by that is looking at things in terms of sales and if you wouldn’t buy it, why would anybody else? Little common-sense things like that and believing that actually you can go off and do anything and I think that self-belief is a real important thing for anybody in business or thinking of starting a business.”

Neil is not alone on his take on what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur either. As a proven case study, take Andrew Mason, Founder of Groupon. His business grounding was gained as a teenager selling bagels to his neighbours. However, his business sense / common-sense – call it what you will – saw him improve on that first business model when he began selling sweets to his neighbours instead having found they were a better seller. It’s that ability to constantly look at real world problems or real world solutions that often makes the difference between a successful entrepreneur and the many wannabes.

Indeed, it has even been the focus of academic research into successful entrepreneurs. in 2010 Robert Baum ‘Associate Professor of entrepreneurship at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business’ and Barabard J. Bird ‘Associate Professor of Management at American University’s Kogod School of Business’ – published a paper and called it “Practical intelligence” making reference to the same as something akin to street sense or learning by doing.

It makes sense – common-sense – when you think about it. So many of our decisions in life are based on our own knowledge and experience and using those to weigh up pros and cons. The broader and more experiences you can apply to those decisions the better informed they will be. Effectively, “learning by doing.”, but just experiencing them is not enough, you need a certain character to pull that learning experience in and use that as a reference point in the future, that’s the practical intelligence – putting it into practice. The ability to think on your feet – using that practical intelligence to assist in the decision making process – is a trait obvious in many entrepreneurs, so if you have it, you may well have a successful future ahead of you in business.

What the levels of common-sense are in this year’s crop of new Apprentices remains to be seen with the line-up revealed in this week’s double bill of episodes Tuesday and Wednesday nights with Sir Alan Sugar being helped in his decisions again by Nick Hewer and Karren Brady.  You can however, find out some information on the new candidates and view their audition videos here before the main event begins. Their level of common-sense though is only likely to become apparent once the tasks are underway.

Despite his common sense, Neil Clough was fired and not hired by Sir Alan Sugar, but in his final speech to him, Sugar clearly saw the value in Clough’s common-sense approach. “I would give you a job tomorrow but going into business, I’m afraid not… you’re fired,” Sugar said as the flawed business plan brought Clough’s dreams crashing down. Only on that occasion however and Neil Clough just over a year on is clearly not put off by that experience. That perhaps is another common trait of an entrepreneur – bouncing back from failure and learning from that experience, building it all into that practical intelligence bundle.

Have you thought of applying to appear on The Apprentice? If not, what puts you off?

Do you think common-sense is an essential tool for entrepreneurs?