CEO Succession – the Honeybee Way

What the hive knows helps smooth the transition and ensures a longer, healthier reign for the monarch.

April 30 2010 by Michael O’malley


In the bee world, it matters a great deal who is at the top. A colony headed by a high-quality queen benefits from a more robust worker population and greater honey yield. Consequently, it is not surprising that the workers in the hive pay close attention to the queen’s ability to reproduce, and are sensitive to declines in her performance. When the workers detect a drop-off in the queen’s productivity, they quickly begin to plan for a successor.  Importantly, the colony takes steps to develop a replacement while the hive is still in good health, knowing that prolonged periods without a quality queen means catastrophy for the hive. The lost productivity due to an underperforming or absent queen can have lasting effects on the growth and survival of a colony. Clearly, companies that lose talent in key positions without suitable replacements suffer similar trauma.

When a hive needs only one new queen to replace the reigning queen, the new queen will be the one who has advanced the furthest, the fastest; It is the most mature, prepared queen that lands the job. All queens develop in the same way, through the phases that every grade-schooler learns: egg, five larval stages, pupa, and adult. In the final larval stage, the bee spins itself a cocoon and the worker bees cap the cell with a porous wax lid. Although worker bees will prepare about a dozen queens, the first queen to emerge from a cell has almost a two-to-one chance of becoming the next ruler. This nascent queen dispatches her rivals who have not yet emerged by stinging them through the walls of their queen cells, achieving supremacy over her helpless sisters and half-sisters in less than two days. In the hive, there is only one leader, and this bit of business assures that it stays that way with minimal time and conflict.

Although honeybees essentially nominate the first in line for high office, bear in mind what they are trying to do: find a productive replacement queen with as little contention and internal disruption as possible. This strategy works well within the hive since the first bee out of its cell is usually most fit to be queen. However, this is not necessarily the case within companies. The person who has been around the longest may not be the best performer or the best equipped to meet future circumstances and institutional needs. Despite the prevailing norm of first in, first up, this is not an effective promotional criterion. Such a criterion favors time over performance and can ultimately limit the success of an organization by chasing the best employees away.

Since the new queen will be vulnerable to dangers as she begins her mating flights, the colony keeps the old queen as leader until the new queen has mated and successfully returned to the hive to begin her work. Thus, after a successor emerges, the incumbent stays on during a brief transition period before completely ceding power. A comparable general strategy in corporations entails giving a successor progressively more space, with the incumbent CEO remaining available as needed — perhaps as chairman for a brief period, then as emeritus — but continuously stepping back until he or she is completely out of the way. When the transition is complete, one, and only one, leader remains.

There have been corporate instances of successful twin leaders in organizations Рwithin A̩ropostale, RIM, and J.M. Smucker to name a few Рbut these arrangements are either short-lived or tend to work only insofar as responsibilities and resources are neatly segregated (e.g., one person handles merchandising, the other handles operations) and the temperaments of the incumbents permit power sharing (these often are individuals who started companies together). More often, organizations with dual leaders at any organizational level produce mixed messages, divided loyalties, and interpersonal conflicts. Take it from the hive: one leader is enough.

As it happens, there are occasions when jobs open up for more than one queen. Sometimes after a colony swarms, there are secondary swarms, or “afterswarms.” In these instances, the original queen leaves with the main swarm, and additional queens are needed for the parental hive and afterswarms. Multiple queens emerge from their cells and fight to determine who lives and who dies, and who stays and who goes. We need not get into the particulars of these cases, but they illustrate what happens in the colony when there is a contest for a successor, such as in the General Electric-style succession plan that Jack Welch presided over: (1) The process is lengthy: it takes twice as long to fill the vacancy in the parent colony than it does in instances in which a single queen is needed; (2) The process is ugly: the workers get involved by grabbing, clamping, and chasing the queens and influencing the outcome; (3) The process produces winners and losers: the surviving losers always leave the hive.

Occasionally the survival of the colony requires that a new leader be brought in from the outside rather than raised from within. The beekeeper introduces a new queen when it becomes clear that something about the current colony lineage is putting the colony at risk. Most often, the problem is susceptibility to disease but the colony may also have developed strong, unfavorable traits such as aggressiveness and infirmity. This means the hive is in trouble and the colony needs new leadership to change the strain and culture. Although sometimes the only way to rejuvenate an organization is to hire from the outside, this is easier said than done. Deciding when to change management can be a tricky business. We all have had the experience of running into an old friend after a period of years and witnessing the effects of aging. However, if we saw our friend daily we might not notice his or her gradual transformation in appearance. The same thing happens in companies. We often do not notice the accumulated effects of subtle and deleterious changes over time, and fail to realize when new management from outside the organization is necessary: as when GM initially appointed insider Fritz Henderson as CEO despite GM’s widely criticized corrosively stodgy culture.

The welcoming committee for outsiders, however, can be quite hostile. Introducing a young bee as queen of the colony frequently results in instantaneous death through the rather crude leader-elimination method known as “heat balling.” Heat balling lends literal meaning to the saying “You’re toast.” Bees surround and heat the new queen to an intolerable temperature. You may wonder why; the reason is that she is an unproven outsider.

In the same way, a guaranteed way for a newcomer to get “heat-balled” in an organization is to enter the organization lacking any semblance of humility and respect for the people she will lead, or by giving orders prematurely based on first impressions. Beekeepers understand the tenuous nature of queen-leader acceptance and try to prevent this type of problem. In one commonly used method, the queen is introduced in a protective cage so that the colony has time to acclimate to her presence and scent before she is even released. Similarly, an incoming executive might announce that he or she will spend the first 90 days listening as a period of adjustment and protective device.

To speed up the process of acceptance, the beekeeper can also introduce an already-mated (versus virgin) queen into the hive, an experienced grande dame who will be able to contribute early in her tenure. The colony more readily embraces a mated queen who is able to quickly contribute to their society. This is comparable to the consultant, sales associate, or executive who brings customers and business with them into their new roles. They are impregnated with dollars, so to speak, and much more welcome than those who show up in the corporate entryway empty-handed. The best leader is a useful leader.

The timing of the mated queen’s introduction may also be important. Research available on the subject suggests that spring - when the population of the hive needs to be built up for the months of harvest ahead - may be the optimal time. This raises the intriguing question about when to hire a leader from the outside. If the wisdom of the hive has credence, the answer is, “When the circumstances are most favorable.” Hiring may be tied to the seasonality of the business, new developments (e.g., patents, product releases) that portend fruitful financial conditions ahead, capital infusions, and so on. It will be plenty difficult for a leader from the outside world to enter a new company. Why give her another obstacle to overcome through poorly conceived timing if it can be avoided?

Going outside the hive or tribe upsets the natural order of social systems that seek to confer benefits within the “family” or society. This heightens fear among employees that the outsider will implement unwanted changes to the existing order, threatening their predictable way of life and careers. Think how Peter Löscher must have felt, then, when he took the reins of Siemens as the first outsider-CEO in the company’s 162 history in the wake of a paralyzing scandal. Nevertheless, despite the evident trials he faced, by all appearances he has done everything right. First, he produced early successes by, for example, settling nagging, outstanding legal cases – demonstrating his utility to the company.  Second, he made larger changes possible over time by preaching “evolution” versus “revolution,” thereby permitting the workforce to adjust to their new leader and to have a voice in the direction of the company.


Adapted from “The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business About Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth by Michael O’Malley by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA).