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Management Bestiary #7: The Queen Bee

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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.

Comments (4)

  • Queen Bees are found everywhere.
    Some want exclusive attention, some want absolute power, and some want both
    The title fits our current head of state

  • Interesting. It seems to me that the queen bees you speak of are just the other face of the bully. Both are good at making you feel strong emotions to become the leader, but neither is very good at creating an organization and a culture that accomplishes lasting good.

    But for both, it’s all about making you feel a certain way through their behavior rather than through your appreciation of their material accomplishments and benefits.

    Toxicity that gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling from a vision of honey.

  • It is my observation that the larger the organization, the larger the probability of a Queen Bee. In larger organizations, the executive roles become less and and less about leadership and more about internal political struggles to rise above their peers.

    IMHO, when a new CIO (or CISO or COO) comes in, they want to leave their mark so tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater with regards to their predecessors projects, all while talking up their vision and projects. And they tend to throw out the current vendors as well.

    I’ve sat through enough transitions to recognize the signs. Most of them talk all the time, which means they don’t listen to the problems, solutions or causes. And because they talk all the time, they sound credible–whether they are or not–since they drown out any dissent.

    It would be to the CEO’s benefit to have read “Quiet” before placing an executive to make sure they aren’t being snowed by blather.

  • I followed the nature vs nurture link and this caught my eye “Thirty years ago, the average CEO made about 40 times the pay of an average employee. That’s now [2008] ballooned to 800 times as much. I’ve read that in typical corporations the top four officers draw ten percent of the total payroll.” Maybe you should update the piece for this Labor Day!

    When I see ‘which is more important’ type questions, depending on the number of variables, I say ‘which is more important – your right leg or your left leg?’, or ‘most important leg of a stool [3] or chair [4]’

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