Once upon a time there was a queen bee.

She enjoyed talking to her beekeeper, who, fortunately enough, enjoyed listening to her. She was fortunate, that is, because the beekeeper considered himself a poor conversationalist, and so was happy not to have to share the burden of finding interesting topics to talk about.

Queen Bee

And besides, there are lots of talking beekeepers around, but not so many talking bees, so he figured he’d take advantage of the opportunity while it lasted.

The beekeeper was in this way wise, but he wasn’t very bright. The evidence: The queen’s favorite topic was the land of milk and honey, and how she was going to lead the beekeeper there.

Finally the day came when the beekeeper couldn’t stand it anymore. “Let’s go!” he said to the queen, flushed with the enthusiasm that comes from a vision of a better tomorrow. “I don’t want to wait another day!”

So off they went to find the land of milk and honey.

Leaving behind a hive full of honey. And full of the worker bees who made the honey. Also all of the ingredients needed to make a new queen for the hive.

The moral of the story is, don’t be a queen bee CIO.

I ran across one of these characters not all that long ago. I had four one-hour conversations with him over the span of a couple of months. He was a visionary, talking in glowing terms about how the brilliant information technology he’d recently brought in and the new and even more brilliant information technology he was going to bring in soon that would transform the company.

Remarkably, in all of the time we spent together he never once mentioned anything about the department he “led,” what his plans for it were, where it needed to improve, or where it already excelled.

Unremarkably, nobody in the entire IT department could make a decision of any kind, with the possible exception of where to have lunch.

What causes an IT manager to become a queen bee? That’s for psychologists to diagnose, not workaday IT commentators. Or perhaps for budding ethologists. We could, I suppose, get them together to resurrect the pointless nature vs nurture debate, even though it was long ago resolved.

Bee it nature, nurture, or a combination of the two really doesn’t matter. A queen bee sits at the top of your IT hive, and you have to cope with her. Or him; unlike honey bee queens, both male and female CIOs can wear an apian crown.

So what you do if you report up to a queen bee CIO?

You could feed her/him royal jelly (pushing the metaphor to its limits, this of course means mastering the fine art of sucking up). This can work in the short term … queen bees do love hearing how brilliant they are … but it’s a bad habit to develop. Once this becomes your normal you’ll lose the habit of initiative and decisiveness that help you succeed in healthier environments.

And so you’ll find yourself seeking out queen bees to work for.

No thanks.

Then there’s the obvious solution: Leave. It’s the best general-purpose advice there is no matter which sort of bad manager you report to, because bad managers aren’t going to change — the attitudes and behavior that make them a bad manager are what, in their eyes, got them to where they are today.

So by all means, explore the world of opportunities that surrounds you.

But as you do, consider a different sort of departure.

As has been pointed out in this space from time to time, wise CIOs are starting to encourage what’s commonly called shadow IT — information technology that happens outside IT’s organizational boundaries.

Unwise CIOs still try to stomp it out, but fail.

Therein lies an opening you can exploit.

If there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s that your corporate beekeepers will soon tire of the queen bee CIO’s tales of milk and honey. They want their milk and honey right now.

And if IT can’t deliver it, well, maybe shadow IT can.

With your help.

You will, of course, need to tread cautiously. But there’s a good chance your company has a director or three who have the budget and don’t care about obeying the IT governance process that’s been stymying them as they try to turn their own visions into business reality.

You know IT. You know the business (you do, don’t you?).

With finesse, you can be the person who actually does make IT happen.

Not a bad place to be when the CEO kicks the queen bee CIO out of the hive.

It’s time to talk about prairie chickens and how to cope with them. From the archives, 1996 vintage:

In graduate school, while I monitored electric fish, my friend Henry McDermott watched prairie chickens mate.

For years.

Male prairie chickens congregate in an area the size of a suburban lawn called a “lek.” The highest-status male grabs a territory the size of a kitchen table in the middle. The others array themselves outward from there, in larger but more peripheral chunks of turf, and they all do the prairie chicken dance. Female prairie chickens then wander through the lek, with most mating with the central male. Success declines with distance from the middle. It’s disco among wildfowl.

Biologists erroneously figured the biggest, meanest male owned the middle. Henry discovered something different: over the years, those males who survive drift to the middle. It’s a seniority system.

In the case of real prairie chickens, the senior birds are the ones that managed to not die of disease or be eaten by hawks and owls. But we’re more interested in Prairie Chicken Managers — the ones who, over the course of their careers, have drifted up the organizational chart because they were safe, inoffensive choices.

They’re the ones, that is, who managed to avoid being nailed by the organization’s political predators — something most easily achieved by treating all but the safest and least-controversial decisions as rabid weasels — creatures to be avoided at all costs.

Left to their own devices, Prairie Chicken managers are likeable enough. But they can be frustrating and dangerous if you need them to stick their necks out on your behalf, as when, for example, you find yourself managing a project and Something happens. Because while not all Somethings have an impact on budget, deadlines, scope, or risk, there are plenty that do.

When they do, you need a business sponsor willing to commit to the best course of action and to put his/her name on it. That isn’t in a Prairie Chicken’s nature.

Root Causes: Prairie Chickenism is a two-level affair. At the individual level, Prairie Chickens are what they are because they have both a heightened sense of self-interest, and an approach to personal cost-benefit analysis that emphasizes downside avoidance over upside opportunity.

While they might understand that from the organization’s perspective, playing it safe often isn’t particularly safe, that doesn’t matter as much as their understanding that from their personal perspective, playing it safe is much, much safer.

But that’s just the first-level root cause analysis of Prairie Chickenism. It’s the next level you need to master if you want to deal with these fowl managers effectively: Prairie Chickens are not found in isolation. They flock: When management positions open up, Prairie Chicken managers will generally promote other Prairie Chickens to fill them.

So you aren’t just dealing with a Prairie Chicken. You’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken culture.

Dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager: Well this one’s easy. So long as you don’t do anything to attract the attention of potential organizational predators … so long as you don’t do something your manager might consider risky … you’re in a safe situation from which to build your internal network of potentially helpful interpersonal relationships.

Take advantage of it. Establish the reputation you want among the people you want it with.

Then, when you decide you’ve had enough safety and are ready to try something more adventurous, you’ll know who to call. And, just as important, they’ll be willing to answer when you do.

Living in a Prairie Chicken society: Odds are, though, that if you’re dealing with a Prairie Chicken manager, you won’t be able to build relationships with other managers who aren’t Prairie Chickens, because there aren’t any.

It’s play-it-safe-ism from top to bottom.

What to do?

First and foremost, get it out of your head that there’s anything you can do to fix the situation. Nobody is going to have any interest in any thoughts you might have on the subject, because they already understand the path to success, and it isn’t yours.

Which wouldn’t be all that bad, other than having to live with your daily dose of boredom, except for one sticky little challenge: In the long run, for any business, playing it safe really isn’t safe.

So in the short term take advantage of the situation to build skills that will be attractive in the employment marketplace.

Because the main thing you need to do is plan your escape, because living among Prairie Chickens is a risky business.

Not in the sense of your employment being on shaky ground, because it isn’t.

No, at the risk of violating the metaphor, the risk, when living among Prairie Chickens, is that the syndrome is contagious.

And once you’ve caught a case of Prairie Chickenism, there’s no known cure.