Movies and TV shows are quite a magical medium for conveying a lot of information in a relatively short amount of time. There are many business-themed shows of both the infotainment and entertainment genres where business owners can pick up a few tips and tricks.
You might be familiar with shows such as Shark Tank, Undercover Boss, Planet of the Apps, The Apprentice, Small Business TV or the slightly less conventional offerings like Silicon Valley, The Deuce, Superior Donuts or Girl Boss.
Let’s look at some TV series that you may never think of as ‘business’ shows, yet yield highly applicable lessons.
The West Wing
The American serial political drama created by Aaron Sorkin is set primarily in the West Wing of the White House, where the Oval Office and offices of presidential senior staff are located, during the fictitious Democratic administration of Josiah Bartlett.
Aside from the plotlines that seem to foretell real life events that actually happened many years later, there are also three key business lessons.
Listen to those who do not always get a chance to be heard
In 1837, President Jackson had a 1,400 lb. wheel of cheddar brought into the main foyer of the White House, and the public was invited inside to eat said cheese and discuss current events. In the show, Big Block of Cheese Day was a colloquial reference to a tradition of granting access to interest groups that would not ordinarily get the attention of White House staff. In business and in not-for-profit, clubs and associations, it’s often difficult to gauge a wide range of views but it’s vitally important. These views may be external to the business and over the last few years, we have seen a move away from seller-centric marketing to buyer-centric. The views may also be internal to better gain insights from staff.
Take the high road
Throughout the series there is much drama and often humour focused on mistakes made by the President and his key advisors, particularly with the press. However, each time they make a mistake they face the consequences. Taking the high road and being accountable affects your leadership by enhancing your credibility and showing that you are a role model for others.
Recognise the power of a team
The President is a Nobel laureate and has a PhD in economics, speaks four languages and has an honourary doctorate in Humane Letters. Being this qualified you’d think he’d be more than capable of writing his own speeches and preparing the budget. When it comes down to it, he actually relies on his staff to prepare the information he needs so he can make the decisions he needs to make. A leader doesn’t have to be all-knowing but does need to know when it’s time to turn to someone else to be part of the leadership, carry the load, or provide expertise for areas in which they are more knowledgeable.
Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares
While it’s not the most PC show on TV, if you look past the way celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay talks to the restaurant owners and their staff in the restaurants he is trying to fix, there are a few interesting business lessons to take away.
Fix the people before fixing the business
I often ask people who have a business what they do. Usually I get told they are plumber, hairdresser, web designer and so on – as in, what they functionally do, but I rarely get, “business owner”. There is a close connection between business and owner and a segue of identity. When something goes wrong with one, it often leads to problems with the other, so Ramsay zeroes in on the human problems and addresses them first.
When it’s not working, go back to basics
Ramsay always asks the business owners why they think they arrived at their current situation. Often, it’s because they have overcomplicated things and lost their way from the basics; too many items on the menu, flashy food done poorly. Ramsay gets them back to basics – but doing the basics well.
Never, ever quit
Being is business is really hard. Even Ramsay has faced his own business struggles and despite them, he pushes forward. You must continually push forward no matter what challenges appear. You can always quit, so why quit now?
Dr. Gregory House runs the diagnostic department of a hospital and he only gets —or rather, accepts— patients that are considered to be impossible cases.
There are as many diagnoses as there are specialists
In the show, patients were often seen by a specialist who commonly only saw the patient through their own lens. An oncologist would diagnose cancer, or a neurologist would determine a problem in the brain. House didn’t specialise and he thought outside the box. In business, if you ask people for advice, don't expect answers that are tailored to your needs. If you've just created a start-up, you should be very happy if you don't find anybody who can answer your billion-dollar question on how to succeed. That may be a good sign; you're doing something nobody else has ever done before. Moreover, don't allow a single adviser to challenge your ideas. Put different advisers together and let them challenge each other in an advisory board. It's the clash of ideas that will help you discover what is important and what isn't.
Tests take time, treatment is quicker
More often than not, House went rogue and started treating a patient before all the tests had been completed. House would say things like: "We treat it. If he gets better, I'm right. If he dies, you're right." This might be slippery in medicine but not bad advice in business. Doing business is not an exact science; there’s usually more than one way to do it, but it should be your goal to do it in the best possible way – for your customer, for the environment, and eventually for yourself. If you want to know if customers will buy your product, stop testing or making prototypes and just start selling. If no one is buying your product then change your product, choose another strategy, or try another business model.
There’s more to running a successful business than taking notes on a TV show, but I learned long ago to never pass up good advice, no matter the source.