A Tale of Two Beehives

Ron Thomas, Managing Director in conversation with Dr. Sharoq Almalki, a distinguished HR practitioner in the Middle East, specializing  in Change Management, Performance Management, Employee Engagement Management, and Talent Management.

1. How did you arrive at using the analogy of bees to connect to the organization?

Fables have long been used for stories that teach a lesson, and fables involving animals have a universal appeal. Some of the most famous Arabic folk tales are contained in One Thousand and One Nights, compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, and many of these classic tales feature animals. For this story, which is about employee engagement, the idea of using two beehives came easily because with two otherwise identical companies (or beehives) you can focus exclusively on what makes them different, which is the level of employee engagement.

2. Give the readers and overview of what the book is about.

The book opens with the human owner of a company. He’s unhappy because his business is not profitable. His management consultant hands him a book called “A Tale of Two Beehives,” and asks him to read it.

The story centers around two beehives. One, ruled by Queen Minerva, suffers from poor employee engagement, and not profitable. The bees are discouraged and demotivated. The hero of the story is Adam, a worker bee from the Minerva hive. When a storm blows him off course, he must take shelter in the hive ruled by Queen Venus. There he’s amazed to see a corporate environment that’s built on cooperation and respect. Everyone works together for a common goal, and Queen Venus is accessible and willing to listen to her advisors. The hive of Queen Venus is also very profitable. The next morning Adam flies home and shares his amazing experience. Despite some resistance from her courtiers, Queen Minerva, who at heart is benevolent, instructs Adam and another worker, Susan, to return to the hive of Queen Venus and learn from them the secrets of employee engagement. They do this, and spend the day at the Venus hive. When they return, Queen Minerva welcomes them and listens with an open heart to their report. Queen Minerva makes changes, and the hive becomes profitable.

3. Organizational dysfunction: why do you think the organization cant realize how they are in such a sad state?

The hive of Queen Minerva was dysfunctional because many of the upper managers were too comfortable and sought only to protect their power and paychecks. Queen Minerva, who had a good heart, relied too much on these lazy managers, who kept telling her that everything was OK and that the problems of profitability were out of their control. They had an explanation for everything, including declining sales, poor quality, and high employee turnover. To maintain their power, they kept her shut off from the workers, so she never heard anything different. It took an unusual event – a worker bee getting lost – to get the queen’s attention.

4. Your books make a great analogy with the Queen and her staff mirroring the Executive suite.  How can this be prevented to build a more employee centric organization?

The good example was shown by Queen Venus and how she led her organization. Of course she listened to her top executives, but because of the collaborative culture of the hive there were no “silos” and staff at all levels were both willing and able to work together for a common goal.  This spirit included being willing to recognize problems and solve them, as well as willing to embrace new ideas when appropriate. Queen Venus saw herself not as a boss but as a coach, with the job of bringing out the best in her employees. She also was unafraid to interact directly with ordinary workers, and she recognized that every worker in the hive, regardless of rank, deserved to be treated with respect.

5. You made a great analogy with siloed organization.  How can we prevent this in real life?

The culture of an organization comes from the very top. It cannot be created by front-line workers, who have no choice but to conform to the culture created by those above them. The CEO needs to make his or her expectations very clear, and must set the example. The CEO must solicit the very best advice, consider it fairly, and then act decisively.

Silos grow when employees feel insecure. Such employees believe that they need to hoard power and information, because by doing so they believe they will become indispensable. For example, in the Minerva hive, James was in charge of weather forecasts. No other bee had any access to the weather forecasts unless James gave it to them. But James was unwilling to upgrade his systems. He used old-fashioned paper and pencil, and resisted modern methods. Meanwhile, in the Venus hive, weather reports were available to anyone via a networked digital system. Updates were available instantly, which increased productivity and reduced wasted downtime.

The keys to breaking down silos are trust and communication. You don’t achieve one without the other. If people don’t trust each other, they won’t communicate.

6. In organization how can we create a ‘we’ vs ‘them’ attitude?

I assume you’re referring ti a culture of healthy competition between two companies in the same industry – like Coke vs Pepsi, or even locally, like a bakery on one street vs the bakery on the next street. Business thrives on competition and withers without it. Competing against a rival is what spurs creativity and the pursuit of excellence, as you want your company to be the very best. It’s not unlike the world of sports, where teams compete to the very best of their abilities, even though individual players often change the teams they’re on when they get traded.

But competition within an organization can be dangerous. With the possible exception of salespeople, you don’t want your staff to be competing with each other because it takes their attention away from working towards a common goal. You don’t want them making decisions based on their own welfare or success; you want them making decisions based only on what’s good for the organization.

7. I loved the piece on performance reviews and the “delayed reaction vs in the moment.  What are your views on an effective performance management system?

Employees need to know if they are reaching their goals. This is a good and necessary thing to do. But it does no good to tell the employee six months later! By that time the employee has forgotten what was going on. People need immediate feedback.  As often as possible, the manager must be able to say to the employee, “Good job! The project is on track to meet its goal. Thank you, and keep up the good work.”

Likewise, the manager must be able to say, “I see that we’re a week behind schedule. What do you think is the problem? Do we need more resources? Is the training adequate? Was our plan unrealistic?”

Annual performance reviews to evaluate raises are inevitable, but the performance review should be a mere formality, with all the important points having been discussed in “real time” during the year.

The best way to reward performance is with a transparent profit-sharing system. At the end of the fiscal year, employees can learn about their efforts and how they’ve paid off, and can share in the company’s success. Profit sharing should be done with cash, not company stock.

8. Another brilliant metaphor was the leader/manager as coach.  How can that be built into a systemic approach to managing people?

The difference between a boss and a coach is that the job of the coach is to help his or her players become the very best they can be, and then to figure out how to use those talents most effectively to move the organization forward. In contrast, bosses simply say, “You do this,” without regard to the capabilities of the employee. The problem with the “boss” approach is that bosses aren’t listeners and they assign tasks based only on the written plan.

A good coach looks at the whole player, not just the statistics. They understand what motivates a player to do better. They are more skilled in the use of rewards and punishments. It’s good to remember that coaches, like bosses, often have the power to hire and fire, or at least “bench” a player who isn’t pulling their weight. Coaches can be very tough, but a good coach will stay with his or her team every step of the way, and work with them to win the game.

9. There was no trust in the Minerva hive vs. Venus. There were two different sets of executives.  How can an organization build trust to repair the damage done?

Good question! As I mentioned earlier, organizational culture begins at the top. It is the responsibility of the board and the CEO to set the values of the company. We are seeing this right now with the resignation of Travis Kalanick from Uber. In order for the company culture to change, he had to change; he could not, or it was too little, and so he had to go. In contrast, look at Mary Barra, who became CEO of General Motors in January 2014, and she inherited a company with a terrible culture and bankruptcy. In only three years, GM has been transformed, and is now again a world leader. If the CEO demands the highest standards of performance and personal integrity, they will get it.

Another key is in hiring. Hire only people who embrace a positive company culture. If you have someone who can’t understand it and support it, either get them training or ask them to leave.

10. Two dramatically different CEO [Queens]: one employee centric and the other clouded by bad staff.  How can leaders ensure they stay in touch with their workforce?

By literally “managing by walking around.” By being aware of what’s being said, and talking on a casual basis to a wide range of people. By being willing to hear bad news without passing judgment. By encouraging open discussion and the presentation of new ideas, even if they aren’t out into practice.

Dr . Sharoq Almalki is a distinguished HR practitioner in the Middle East, specializes in Change Management, Performance Management, Employee Engagement Management, and Talent Management. Dr. Almalki is an Executive Management Member who has promoted policies conductive to the best interests of employees and the organization.

Early 2015, Dr. Almalki won the “100 Most Talented Global HR Leaders” Award, while in 2013, she won the “Young HR Professional Award” at the HR Summit and Expo 2013 in Dubai. She was also the winner of the Qatar Business Women Award for her outstanding efforts in the area of Future Goals and Financial Performance. Currently she is a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society – the world’s largest honor society recognizing and encouraging scholastic achievement and excellence from all academic disciplines as well as a Fellow of the Gulf Talent Advisory Board and Fellowship of the Chartered Management Institute.

Dr. Sharoq Almalki holds a PhD in Philosophy and a Master degree in Social Policy and Administration. She is an international speaker and a certified coach. She is the Author of two books; “A Tale of Two Beehives”, “A PIECE OF PEACE” and a columnist with several English Newspapers. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publication.