Alan Sugar points his finger in The Apprentice, BBC TV
Finger of fate: James Max was 'fired' by Lord Sugar in the first series of The Apprentice © BBC

The first person to fire me was Lord Sugar in the semi-finals of the first series of The Apprentice in 2004. Losing your job while millions are watching is slightly unusual. Such events usually occur behind closed doors, but even when they are captured on camera, there is always more than one side to the story.

Screened in the spring of 2005, I knew something was up when the series producer phoned me a week before the semi-final aired. Sounding like Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson, he said: “Listen old chap, we changed things around in the edit. Told the story in a more exciting way . . . thought I should warn you. I hope you don’t mind.”

I did mind, actually. I came third, but the edit showed me coming fourth. Look carefully, and I am still at the boardroom table when the supposedly third-placed candidate is dispatched. And Lord Sugar never uttered his famous “you’re fired” catchphrase to my face. “They’ll edit that in if they want to,” he said gruffly, as he let me go. And they did.

Of course, things have moved on from those innocent days. In last week’s programme, he presided over a triple firing and the last man — or woman — standing will be revealed at next Tuesday’s final.

But I loved taking part in the show. It was a risk. Rarely do people enter such a process and escape unscathed. For me, however, it opened a lot of doors. Although I entered to win, every job you miss (or lose), every contract that is terminated, or role that comes to an end offers some form of opportunity.

After being fired, it took me a while to decide what to do next. There was much soul searching as I unpacked the baggage of rejection. I was offered a job back in real estate investment banking. “I heard you on Radio 4 last week,” said the director offering me the position. “Why not try that for a year? If it doesn’t work out, come back and see me and I’ll have a job for you”. I never had to. My new career had begun.

I ended up being a presenter on LBC Radio for seven and a half years. It was some of the best fun I’ve had whilst being paid. Yet while you might think you’re doing a good job, sometimes your face (or in this case, voice) doesn’t fit. There was no boardroom drama this time. My contract simply wasn’t renewed.

Losing a job you enjoy is like dealing with bereavement. But you have to pick yourself up, dust off your CV and remember that every job or experience leads to the next. In my case, the BBC and now TalkRADIO.

When I began my career in finance, you expected to work for the same company for a long period of time. Workshops and training focused on where you would be in five years. If you said what you really thought, you would have been fired. If you swapped jobs, you would remain in the same industry. That’s all changed.

Unless you own the company, or have a significant equity stake, I genuinely do not understand why people stay so long. Hanging around like a bad smell. Waiting for the inevitable disappointment of a crap bonus or merely being promoted because you always say ”yes”, rather than actually being able to do the job.

For some people, the fear of losing their job keeps them in unhappy employment for years. You can see the misery etched on their faces and in the clothes they wear. The frayed old shirt. The tie that’s so overused it has a discoloured knot. The piles of shoes mouldering under their desk, which hasn’t been tidied for so long that layers of strata have formed. A sure sign that it’s time to go.

Yet leaving a job too soon carries a price. In 2001, the tech bubble popped, causing a spectacular stock market crash. I left Morgan Stanley soon after, deciding to jump before I was pushed. When an investment bank has a clear out, there’s no mercy. They’re as ruthless as a ruthless person who’s got an MBA in being ruthless from Harvard.

On leaving, I received no pay-off. I had accepted an offer to join as a principal at a private equity firm. My boss — with whom I am still friends today — was both decent and exceptionally bright. Some of the others, less so. A few years later, when the boss left, I left too.

Although Lord Sugar wrote in one of his books that I applied to be on his show to become famous, the real reason was to avoid becoming a “bad leaver” by going to a rival outfit. This meant I could keep the carried interest in the fund as I left. A shrewd move, as it bought me my house.

In other roles, going quietly is the best way of securing a decent pay off. I didn’t choose to leave one of my recent roles in real estate, but the international board wished me to go. In PR speak, these kinds of departures will be spun as “leaving to pursue other interests” but this almost certainly means a nice big wedge is involved.

Understanding the psychology of the departure lounge and making the best deal to safeguard your earnings is as important as the work you do while still employed.

It is the company’s job to get as much as they can for as little as they can, but it is your job to steer your career. Only you can determine how well you do, how hard you work or what you’ll be paid. And after parting company with an employer, only you can summon the strength required to pick yourself up and get back out there.

Being fired can also be liberating. You don’t have to slump in front of the telly, Bridget Jones-style, and scoff bucketloads of ice cream while watching re-runs of Top Gear and Man vs Food — but you can. I have taken periods of gardening leave quite literally, and grown some particularly fine fruit and vegetables as I’ve summoned the energy needed to secure my next role.

So be thankful for this breathing space. And thank me for telling you that if or when you get fired, it could be the best day of your life.

James Max is a property expert and radio presenter. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax. If you have a problem for James, contact him at

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