What bees can teach you about business success

WHAT can bees teach us about business? On the face of it, the life of the hive might have few similarities with the rat race. But on closer inspection, they can teach us a lot, especially about the sorts of organisations that are succesful and what you should look for in an employer. If the hive is any guide, that organisation would offer three things.

The first is the belief that every worker is expected to have a long and productive life within the company. A honeybee colony cannot survive without its workers living the full extent of their short lives (six weeks). If too many bees died (turned over) prematurely then the operations of the hive, like in business, would shift to the replenishment of workers. Second, bees have a deliberate and orderly career development programme in place. Bees begin life in the deepest recesses of the hive doing the simplest chores (such as nursing the young) and as they mature they gradually move to the periphery of the hive and to riskier, more complex tasks until they reach the penultimate job as forager.

Additionally, the career progression has branches that take bees in various job directions based on their genetic predispositions; for example, some bees become guards, some undertakers; some become pollen collectors and some nectar gatherers. The point is that the hive has a system in which its workers progressively expand their abilities and are able to move in alternative career directions based on their natural preferences. The third institutional element concerns the value of working within a meritocracy.

There is little to no nepotism in the hive: when it comes to survival, the colony cannot afford to promote favourites. The bees that continue through the system are the ones that are capable of doing the work without having any ill effects on the rest of the colony. Larva and bees, for example, that become incurably diseased have to be removed from the hive since they will have no chance of success within the colony, will endanger others, and threaten productivity. Interestingly, however, a bee that is in trouble will ask for help by shaking and inviting other bees to clean her off – so you can’t be afraid to ask for help when needed.

Similarly, the male drones who serve no purpose in winter but who partake of the honey are tossed from the hive by the female workers (we might say that the bees live by the credo, “If you want to eat the honey you have to contribute to the hive”). The point of merit is that it is something that you as an employee can control and that lies outside the capriciousness of others.

My recommendations on careers, then, based on my observations of bees, would be to find a company that is serious and disciplined about merit-based advancement, that provides internal assistance for growth, and that will allow you to have ample control over your own destiny.

Michael O’Malley is the author of The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business about Leadership, Efficiency and Growth