• Shohreh R Aftahi, PhD

Watchmaker or Beekeeper: It Really Does Make a Difference



What do the following all have in common? Low morale, low profits, lack of staff engagement, high turnover, rampant gossip. All of these can be attributed to a company being led by either a Watchmaker or a Beekeeper – Care to guess which one is the culprit?

If you guessed Watchmaker, you’re right. Let’s chat through why.

A Watchmaker, as referred to in James Fischer’s book, Navigating the Growth Curve, is a person who wants things that are predictable; something they can control. They want to run their business like a precision machine. They believe that to be effective, and its operators must control the enterprise as if they are controlling a device. They further think that the machine exists for a purpose conceived of by its builders; often to make as much money as possible for the head honchos.

Nothing wrong with making money, but to create an intentional enterprise that provides sustainable profits over a long period, our research suggests that the better approach lies in becoming more of a Beekeeper.

Beekeepers have one foot in the future. They have a natural facility to work with the dangerous sisters of growth: complexity and chaos. Beekeepers are more likely to let the intelligence of the team, or ‘hive’ - if you will, to be the operator instead of them. They understand that their business is a living, dynamic entity and if allowed, it will come up with far more ideas and solutions than they ever could. The Beekeeper’s business will continually self-organize around and through its problems and challenges.

In the book, Horace’s recommendation is for Peter to become more like a Beekeeper to capitalize upon the intelligence of his staff instead of trying to control them as he did in the beginning, which caused anger, hostility, and disengagement, and ultimately led to a downward spiral.

This is a lesson that each of us as leaders can’t seem to learn often enough. It seems we run into more Watchmakers than Beekeepers. Why? We observe that leaders tend to assume that they should know all the answers and that to ask for input may put them in a negative light in the eyes of their employees.

So, consequentially, ego wins over intellect.

We would suggest that there is a Beekeeper in all of us but that in our day-to-day struggles to ‘do the right thing’, be ‘responsible' and ‘act like a leader', the Watchmaker takes over more often then any of us would care to admit.


The 7 Stages of Growth concepts and programs, offered by ThriveVance are designed to help leaders predict how that complexity will affect them, focus their efforts and resources on the right things at the right time and adapt to the needs of the company in its unique and respective stage of growth. By utilizing our unique diagnostic tool (Stages of Growth X-Ray), our clients ca ton reach five critical outcomes:

  1. Alignment of the team

  2. Uncover the hidden agents creating obstacles to growth

  3. Expand the awareness of how a business operates

  4. Identify perspectives and encourage dialogue

  5. Focus on five critical initiatives

So, how do you become a Beekeeper if you think you are wired as a Watchmaker? First and foremost, there is a process and a mindset that both have to change.

The Four Step Process to becoming a Beekeeper:

1. Recognize the intelligence of the organization by asking its opinion:

As scary as this can be, once you have it behind you, you will be amazed at the results and at the amount of anxiety it can take off your plate. Most leaders we work with hesitate at asking the opinion of their staff. It’s normal. Even just thinking about getting the opinion of every single employee can be daunting:

• How can they possibly know enough about the company to give me advice?

• They’ll just use it as a ‘bitch’ session, and I’ve heard enough of that.

• I don’t have time to take their suggestions – I have my own issues to deal with.

• If I ask them for their opinion, they’ll expect me to do something with it, and I have enough to do right now.

Leadership is about learning, and the best way to learn about how your company really thinks and feels is to ask them. Your job will get easier if you figure out what they believe instead of trying to second-guess them. In every situation where we have had the leader initiate a Stages of Growth X-Ray™, the results have been positive. The awareness and comprehension of how your managers think is enough to shake a leader out of their reverie and come down to earth.

2. Filter out the noise from the X-Ray and come up with five key initiatives:

What’s “the noise”? The noise is the concept of too many agenda items that have people pulling in different directions, unable to focus on initiatives that impact the company's ability to grow. This confusion is simply due to a lack of communication and dialogue.

The “X-Ray” process encourages all voices to be heard and works to identify critical issues, creating a common language around said problems for the entire organization, agnostic of level or function, to fully understand them.

The underpinned premise here is: If you can identify a problem, you can solve a problem. You and your management team want to spend a meaningful amount of time going through the output of this exercise and get serious about any identified issues that have the potential to cause significant performance concerns. If the findings indicated a lack of confidence in the financial stability of the company, management would know to proactively structure the necessary initiatives to help mitigate the underlying distress.

The goal from the X-Ray process is to figure out the five key initiatives that a CEO and his/her team will focus on based on the input from the key employees or management team. Instant buy-in: How can anyone argue with what those key initiatives were when they had a hand in developing them?

3. Unify the team around a plan that shows short-term wins:

Once the key initiatives from the X-Ray are identified, the work begins. This information must be distributed to the company either through division meetings or the entire company at one time.

Each initiative should have a ‘champion' – someone willing to be the ‘team lead' on getting to completion. For instance, let's say one of the initiatives is ‘identify core values'. This initiative is aimed at addressing concerns such as employees being unsure what behaviors are or are not acceptable, and why all decisions have to come from the CEO. Helping employees understand what they can and can't do allows appropriate decision making throughout the organization. A lot of work? You bet. However, the rewards are well worth it. Take the example of a company with 100 employees, a Stage 6 company that was stricken by the downturn that hit in March 2000. Hemorrhaging money in January 2001 and already having laid off 30% of their staff, their assessment results came back with huge concerns about the financial stability of the company. A series of classes engineered by the CFO and the CEO to educate the company on how to read a cash flow statement, a P&L statement, a balance sheet, and a budget, netted immediate results.

Each department was challenged to come up with ‘expenditure’ savings. When they found ways to save money, the teams were rewarded with lunch gift certificates, and a massage therapist was brought in for a half day to give out free massages, as well as a celebratory picnic for people to have fun. Short-term wins are critical in getting plans implemented and completed. The outcome was the company broke even in three months and turned a profit in six months. That said, the most significant result was not measurable in tangible terms.

The more critical win was that the entire staff was now wholly engaged in helping the company make money and helping the company keep the money. They were a much more educated group who began to understand the nuances of cash flow vs. profit and how their work translated to revenue generation for the broader company. Their attention shifted from ‘Why am I paying so much in medical insurance?’ to ‘How many new leads did our last sales campaign net us?’

There is nothing easy about running a company. Moreover, getting more input will always generate more work. That said, the rewards are undoubtedly worth it. A company with 100 people understanding how to drive profit to the bottom line is a much more dynamic vision than 2 – 3 people at the top struggling to maintain control.

4. Put natural systems in place that reinforce self-organizing behavior; continue to work that change over 9 – 12 months:

Natural systems capture how people interact together, how work gets done in the absence of sound processes, how teams ebb and flow, how trust gets established and broken. These natural systems are occurrences in your company that you have no control over. People are human beings before they are employees, husbands, wives, or managers. Left alone, these natural systems find the ‘route of least resistance.’ Recognizing that all companies have these natural systems is essential. Helping harness these natural systems into more intentional systems and mechanisms is how you can manage growth in successful companies.

Mechanisms can focus and change behavior. The concept of ‘open book management’, as outlined in the above Stage 6 company scenario, is an example of a mechanism. By implementing this mechanism, the company fundamentally changed how people did their jobs and how they perceived their impact on the company’s bottom line. Another powerful mechanism includes ‘performance management’ systems that force – yes, force – managers and employees to have weekly or monthly dialogues based on a fine-tuned set of issues and expectations. These discussions should be aimed at getting to the heart of how well the employee is performing and how well the manager is managing.

Having a ‘decision-making template’ for your company is another mechanism that will encourage your staff to take a more definitive role in the running of your company. A mechanism that teaches your team how to make good decisions is the most powerful tool of empowerment that you can introduce.

Watchmakers pull in control when employees make decisions that adversely affect the company. Beekeepers teach their staff how to make good choices so they can release the second-guessing that demotivates employees and shepherds them into becoming ‘robots' who merely carry out orders. The funny thing is, you will end up working a lot harder as a Watchmaker than you will as a Beekeeper.

Practice being a Beekeeper and minimize the amount of time you spend as a Watchmaker. The results will be empowering, not just for your staff, but also for you.

Shohreh R Aftahi, PhD

#BUSINESSOWNER #CEO #productivity #LEADERSHIP #BUSINESSGROWTH #entrepreneur

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