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M&A issues

What No One Talks About in M&A: Culture Integration and How to Deal With It

We’ve talked about M&A before—the pros, the cons, where deals can go off the rails—but now let’s talk about what happens after the deal is closed. What comes next and what M&A issues come up?

Once your deal closes and the dust settles, it’s time for the real work to begin: integration. With any luck, you’ve already done some focused thinking about integrating the two firms. You’ve looked at M&A issues such as aligning billing systems, benefits plans, compensation strategies, etc. and you have strategies for each.

But what about culture? What’s your strategy for culture integration? If your reaction here is anything like, “A strategy for culture integration? Oh, the department heads will handle all of that,” you will probably want to keep reading.

Love and M&A Integration

M&A deals that work well are actually a lot like happy marriages. Yes, there will be some upfront work to do on both sides. But once you’ve skipped down the aisle after saying “I do,” you begin a new phase with its own set of challenges. This is the work of meshing together two lives into a cohesive, long term, happy union.

An M&A transaction can be a bit like courtship (ah, and you thought chivalry was dead): You date around for a bit, decide that you’ve found “the one,” get engaged, and then, you throw a heckuva wedding. And when you wake up after the honeymoon, reality sinks in…the thoughts start flying.

  • Thought Bubble #1: For better or for worse…wait, you didn’t tell me about that billing issue!
  • Thought Bubble #2: For richer or for poorer…what happened to the sales pipeline we reviewed?
  • Thought Bubble #3: ‘Til death do us part…why are all the employees leaving?

And as with any new marriage, there are logistical M&A issues that no one really considers before they sign on the dotted line:

  • How are we going to celebrate holidays? (Is everyone onboard and motivated by how we recognize and celebrate success?)
  • How should we handle joint finances? (Do both parts of this new mixed organization share the same fiscal priorities?)
  • How often do I have to see your family and friends? (What’s our customer relationship strategy?)

I’m not suggesting that the key to successful M&A integration is scheduling time for employees to do a bunch of trust falls and escape room activities. What I’m suggesting is that you consider how culture impacts any business transaction in the same way you consider how to maximize earning potential for shareholders.

Lessons from a Culture Integration Fail

Early on in my career, I worked for a multi-billion dollar firm. With much fanfare, we acquired a smaller firm that was highly respected and well-known in the industry for its creativity in “getting things done” for customers.

Within a year of acquiring the firm, the larger company had overlayed all of their big company processes and requirements onto the smaller firm—squashing the very flexibility and creativity for which they had been known (and for which we had acquired them!). Unsurprisingly, half of the employees were gone within 2 years…as were the customers.

While it’s easy to see the internal (e.g., from the employees’ perspective) impact of cultural M&A issues, we don’t often think about the external (e.g., from the customers’ perspective) impact. However, culture certainly does impact customer experience and this is especially true after a merger. For a case study in how NOT to complete a successful integration, check out the Starwood / Marriott merger. Yikes!

The hard lesson learned here: The reality is that human challenges are often harder to smooth over than system challenges. If you don’t anticipate the cultural challenges, it doesn’t matter how prepared you are on the business side. So, how do savvy M&A dealmakers address the human side?

1. Start early.

By early, I mean during due diligence. Yes, cultural fit is a deal maker or breaker! The very things that make an acquisition target attractive may also be the most fundamental to their culture…and the most different from your organization’s current culture.

Make sure that someone on your team is putting together a culture strategy prior to the close of the transaction. At a minimum, this strategy should include:

  • Key metrics for competitive landscape, demographic, and market trends to discuss with leadership.
  • Outlines for any necessary cultural change initiatives (Tip: stick with no more than 2 major change initiatives during the first year).
  • Ideas for creating employee buy-in and a sense of community.

2. Know thyself.

What is your vision for the joint culture? What changes after the deal? What stays the same?

Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There are no rules that say that everyone must conform to a single culture or that culture is immutable. In fact, allowing room for the culture to adapt is crucial for long-term viability.

Why are these firms merging? What is valued in each and how can we take the best pieces of our cultures and bring them together respectfully?

3. Focus on building credibility.

In most cases, there is a fairly steep learning curve that happens after a merger. Like moving from dating to marriage, we need to adapt to daily life and its new rhythms. How can we put in place mechanisms to better understand each other? How do we establish trust?

Remember that credibility is earned, not given. When a large firm acquires a smaller firm (especially if the smaller firm was once a competitor), there can be some apprehension. It’s important to warn employees of the large firm that taking a victory lap is not appropriate.

Past is not prologue. So the acquiring firm should look to create the right environment to nurture a bright future and bring the new acquisition into the fold. This will require transparency in sharing plans, following through, listening when challenges are raised, and addressing the concerns of everyone.

This is a key building block for #4.

4. Communicate.

Communicate early and often. Key leadership (ideally those with credibility) should share the aspirations for the combined entity in a clear, straightforward manner and acknowledge that integration won’t be easy. When talking about challenges, be specific. Show everyone that you are committed to making this work and addressing all M&A issues together.

Employees need to know what’s changing, why, when, and what will happen, both in the overall big picture, as well as on a day-to-day basis. They need to understand what the merger means for them and what the new expectations will be.

Communicating is about way more than printing off new motivational posters with the company’s core values and firing off a few “rah-rah” emails. (GAH!!) Cultural integration requires a change management focus, leadership commitment, transparency, a willingness to listen (and integrate) feedback, and continued communication via as many channels as possible…even when you think you’re done, you’re not. Keep going. Like a marriage, you’re in this for the long haul.

Preparing for a big M&A deal in 2019? Check out our guide for working with a Communications Specialist.

The team at Audacia Strategies is ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you as you make a smooth integration, both in terms of systems and culture. Contact us to learn more about how we can enable your transformation and help you avoid serious M&A issues!

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