Book Smarts -vs- Street Smarts
Round One: Unbelievable Ego

There’s a lot of buzz about the new season of The Apprentice where “Book Smarts” takes on “Street Smarts.” As a specialist in project-based learning, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use this network program to highlight the pros and cons of traditional education and project-based/hands-on learning. To make it more interesting, I’ve asked some “Book Smart/Street Smart” colleagues to comment on each week’s contest. This week I’m joined by Tim Knapp, CEO of Nextant Systems who earned his MBA from the U of I.

Fats Domino said, “A lot of fellows nowadays have a B.A., M.D., or Ph.D. Unfortunately, they don’t have a J.O.B.” That’s the position a business school graduate found himself in when Donald Trump looked him in the eye and said “You’re fired.”

If you’re the type who likes to root for the underdog, you may have trouble determining which team meets that criteria. The Donald surprised this season’s candidates by noting that Net Worth (the “Street Smart” team), who only have high school diplomas, make three times the income of Magna with advanced degrees. Excuse me? Tim Knapp suggests this may be because “entrepreneurs will do whatever it takes. They’ll roll up their sleeves and sacrifice their ego because it’s their livelihood.” How often have our students or our leaders simply said “I already know what I want to do, just tell me the minimum I need to do to please you?” As we watched the teams take on their first task, Tim’s comment about the role of ego became even more meaningful.

It’s All About the Customer

The teams were asked to complete a relatively straightforward task: choose one of Burger King’s six new sandwiches and sell it. Right away we saw differences in approach. The first step for both teams was to visit the Burger King chef and choose their sandwich. Net Worth based their decision on team leader John’s advice to choose a burger that would be simple to market and his experience in the restaurant business. “People don’t like spice. Too much cheese doesn’t sell. Not the chicken; people come to Burger King for burgers.” In contrast, Magna picked a sandwich team member Verna liked best.

If You Don’t Know, Ask

Marketing choices followed the same customer-centered / ego-centered pattern. When Net Worth met with the Burger King representative, they treated him like a client. They were prepared for the meeting, confident with their plan and willing to listen. After presenting their concept they asked, “Is our concept in step with Burger King and the values you want to present?” Their goal wasn’t to be right, it was to be effective.

When Magna team members met with the Burger King executives, they couldn’t answer the question “Who’s your customer?” Worse, they went on to say they didn’t have time to do market research. One of the things I learned from local marketing gurus Mike Royse and Sharla Sola is to focus on the customer. Effective communication always means listening more and talking less. Magna could have turned their lack of preparation to their advantage had they asked the BK executive for his opinions. Instead of caring about learning and being effective, they followed a pattern we see too often in education – offering an excuse.

Delegation is No Substitute for Teamwork

Back at the restaurants, the teams sealed their fate. Members of Magna should have paid more attention when their professors discussed the work of Dr. Deming. “They didn’t understand the importance of the folks who actually do the work.” said Tim. Instead of becoming a team and cross training so they could help each other, they specialized. Two team members were trained to use the cash registers, three trained on the grill, two went incommunicado to plan their marketing strategy and, after delegating all the menial tasks, team leader Todd sat in a booth “thinking” and studying his plan.

Down the street, Net Worth team leader John displayed “outstanding leadership proving to be charismatic, unifying and inspiring” according to Maureen Moriarty, executive coach and founder of Pathways to Change in Seattle. John not only pulled his team together, he called in the regular Burger King staff and asked “How many of you have graduated from college? Guess what? Neither did we. They think they are better than we are. Let’s have some fun and prove them wrong.”

And prove them wrong they did. As one of Magna’s team members said, their marketing effort looked like it was created by a bunch of “drunk hippies.” They couldn’t handle the lunch rush with only two team members on the cash registers so customers left the store. “It didn’t surprise me that a group of lawyers didn’t know how to run a fast food restaurant. From the get-go I said ‘This group can’t manage a store.’ They’re trained to deal with middle managers. I think it was a set up.” said Tim Knapp.

What Happened?

What caused a team of nine highly educated, successful executives to fail? In the boardroom, Trump questioned his staff and the three Magna leaders in an attempt to identify the core problem. They discussed the bottle neck at point of sale and the poor marketing strategy. These were ultimately identified as symptoms of the main problem “zero leadership.”

Was this a set up? Yes, in a way I think it was. Leadership is not one of education’s core subjects. Successful students are those who can absorb individual bits of information. Successful entrepreneurs are those who combine disparate resources to create something new. Is it any surprise, therefore, that the members of Net Worth are more successful in today’s world?

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