Interview: "You're fired"

Rachel Groves may have been sacked on TV's The Apprentice, but the experience helped her further her career. Kirsten Downer reports.

Some might wonder what Rachel Groves is still doing in the voluntary sector. Now a mini-celebrity after competing in hit reality show The Apprentice, she has her own website and recently drafted her first 'chick-lit' novel.

If she had won, Groves would have earned £100,000 a year as a protegee of multimillionaire Sir Alan Sugar - a man whose business philosophy might be summarised as "screw your competitor before he screws you".

But she didn't win. Groves was 'fired' by Sir Alan in episode six of 12, after her team failed a 36-hour challenge to create the best ad campaign for the Amstrad 10-CD mini hi-fi. Nevertheless, as the public's interest in reality TV stars continues unabated, she is a winner of sorts. And yet, far from abandoning the sector's modest salaries and altruistic values, in April Groves became head of fundraising for Citizens Advice, the national charity that supports local Citizens Advice Bureaux. So what's the story?

"There is surface excitement, and then there's fulfilment," she says.

"And I know which motivates me more in the long run. Yes, I was disappointed when I left the show, mainly because I didn't think it was my fault the team lost. But now I couldn't give a monkey's."

Groves, 33, is much more likeable away from the TV hype. On the website of The Apprentice she describes herself as "having incredible presence. I am one of those people who fills a room even when alone." But in person she comes across as up-front and unassuming. She jokes often, sometimes at her own expense, but also does a hilarious impression of Sugar himself at his most blustering.

Until 2001, when she 'defected' to the NSPCC, Groves had spent her entire working life in the private sector, beginning in advertising sales before moving into senior marketing roles organising start-up business conferences.

But around this time the penny dropped. "I realised I was sick of working hard just to line someone else's pocket," she says.

The move required some adjustment. "It was like, my God, how many committee meetings does it take before you're allowed to actually do anything?" she says. But she took to the role, rising from account manager to account director, with her team helping to bring in £4.5m of corporate support.

After three years at the NSPCC, she wanted a new challenge, hence her application to The Apprentice. Groves was one of just 14 finalists, seven of them women, who made it on to our screens.

A UK version of the confrontational US TV show featuring Donald Trump, The Apprentice ostensibly sought to demonstrate business lessons in an entertaining way. But it was slammed by business leaders, who accused it of giving a bloodthirsty and over-individualistic impression of business.

The only contender from a charity background, Groves survived until halfway through the competition. The experience was fun but exhausting, she says, and she admits she couldn't take the process entirely seriously. "It was so over the top and staged. Half the time I was semi-sniggering to myself, thinking 'what are we all doing here?', particularly as the boardroom was not a real boardroom - just a studio."

Could she have brought voluntary sector skills to the role if she had won? "The best leaders are those who can draw out good ideas from the quiet person in the corner," she says. "Sugar was a shocker at interrupting people, but I believe you must allow people to speak."

Groves doesn't think the programme reflects the way business is conducted.

"In real life, you wouldn't want to work with someone whose first reaction when something went wrong was to blame others," she says.

She also argues that the artificially divisive environment was tougher on women, which explains why five of the first six contestants to be fired were women.

"The world we were asked to live in was one in which, unless you stood up and said 'I was fabulous and he was crap', you weren't going to survive," she says. "I would argue that men are far more inclined to do that - they tend to show off more. I think some women responded by being super-aggressive and others by sitting back and smiling -which doesn't work in Sugar's world."

Groves prefers to work in the voluntary sector for ethical reasons, but misses the private sector's risk-taking culture. "In my old job, if I had an idea that could expand the company I would chat to the MD and he'd say 'here's 20 grand; see if you can turn it into 80'," she says, wistfully.

Groves found this style of spontaneous entrepreneurialism impossible at the NSPCC, where all corporate funding deals had to fit into a pre-allocated budget, but believes Citizens Advice has a much more entrepeneurially minded senior management team.

She feels this is not the only difference between the charity world and business. "Where we work, you can't lose your temper and you have to pretend you're working in other people's interests all the time," she says. "It's not that people are nicer, just that they have to be more devious. But you can advance your agenda much better that way, and we have some masters of the art."

Groves doesn't want to be seen as a female role model, but hopes her example inspires other people in the sector to stretch themselves. "I'd like to encourage men and women to believe in and keep challenging themselves, and to have as much fun as possible while doing so," she says. "The joy of the voluntary sector is that it's easier to do those things without trampling on other people in the process."

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