Don’t Risk your Merger by Pushing People out of the Door

If you’re acquiring a service company your merger is all about people. Of course, there will be plenty of rational, financial and practical reasons, but without the support of people it’s doomed to fail.

Like all good change programmes, a brilliant communications approach will navigate the risks and be a springboard for the benefits. Tell your story well and you’ll be on the way to building a strong, connected and motivated new company. Create a new culture and you’ll reap the benefits.

Fail to connect with people and you’ll leave them anxious, unmotivated and looking for the door.

Create a strong story

People connect to stories and the trick is to make an emotional connection with all your audiences. Define a narrative your employees and customers will want to support. Make it a compelling* story that’s not just based on facts and figures.

When you’ve created your story and everyone’s bought into it, check it’s not been watered down along the way. The definition of compelling is *evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.

Along with your core narrative you should have a big pack of questions and answers. People will want the ‘me’ questions answered first. So plan your announcement and ongoing messages with this in mind – you can’t just talk on and on about the bright new future at the moment when people are wondering if they’ll be part of it.

Tailor messages for all stakeholders

Targeting comms for your giant stakeholder map is essential.

Who can’t you afford to lose? Whether this is customers, leaders, suppliers, partners or key influencers and publications – identify the people or groups who are critical to your business and tailor activity to them.

The more important they are to you, the more personal the activity should be. Plan a series of one to one discussions with key people to retain them for the future and so you know exactly where the risks are. Include specific plans for investors, analysts and regulators too.

Each brand will have a certain status, position and credibility in the market – treat the general public like they’re your next customer, partner or employee. Avoid speculation and negativity from detractors by setting out your story clearly and deciding when you should be proactive and reactive. Don’t forget social media and plan how you’ll manage your channels at each milestone.

Create a careful reputation matrix to tackle the announcement and ongoing conversations to maintain momentum and enthusiasm.

Playbooks for each phase

Along with the project plan for each milestone you’ll need a communications approach and plan. Your playbook should include goals, governance, roles and responsibilities and content.

  • Prepare for leaks – First off, in the build up to announcing a merger it’s fair to expect rumours or even a full-blown leak. Have a strategy and plan for what you’ll do based on scenarios that could come up. You should have a playbook, messages, ready to go templates and spokespeople prepared, along with what you’ll tell your customers and people and how you’ll do it. Remember if the news is, well news, to your people you’ve already lost a bit of trust because they’d expect you to have told them first. Your plan should include what you’ll do to regain their trust.
  • Announcement – the first time you’ll set out the vision for the future. This shouldn’t be a one-off event; people will need a bit of time to absorb what’s going on and think of what they need to know. Have a message plan that lasts at least a week.
  • The void – this is the bit between announcement and A day. Where the dreaded ‘in the coming weeks and months’ phrase can slide in. Don’t just stick to high level things and make it sound all glossy and superficial– face the big topics too; it’s much better to be clear that you don’t know yet and explain the activities and things that are happening. Your competitors might try and steal your customers and best people so keep listening to feedback and take action if you need to.
  • Day 1 – this should feel like a celebration and you’ll have a fuller vision for the future and the steps to bring the organisations together. Don’t forget the ‘me’ questions. All stakeholders will also need to know what changes and what doesn’t – from bosses to processes, be clear about what’s staying the same at this point. And make sure the celebration is mindful of the uncertainty individuals might still face.
  • Integration milestones – two big tasks continue throughout integration. Continuing to reinforce the culture, purpose and strategy to create the connected company. And communicating the milestone events like leadership announcements, operating model decisions and locations. It’s important these work in harmony – people will read into everything that’s happening to try and get to their own personal answer (or their own decision to look for somewhere new). Creating a complete plan, focussing on the emotion each event will create, will help to mitigate against the risk of clashing messages. This is especially important for your culture plan – where what you say and what you do needs to match closely.

Your Post Merger Integration plan

Communication and culture is just one part of a robust post merger integration plan. Merlin Consultancy has an experienced team of experts who’ll create a comprehensive plan. We’ll help you to mitigate risks, create synergies of revenue and cost as well as managing the practical compliance and business critical needs to keep your new business running smoothly.

Create a new culture

Part of the due diligence will be to check there is broadly a culture fit between the two businesses.

Your Post Merger Integration plan should include a culture programme focussing on your first 100 days, that knits together the teams and breaks down the us and them. Make sure it’s clear what the hallmarks of the new culture are in everyday life. Show how everything from recruitment to performance and from processes to leadership will live in the new world. This is likely to be a big programme of change, so set out the vision early and the steps to getting there.

Plan carefully to build culture ambassadors and include practical initiatives and projects to align ways of working.

It’s critical that the new culture is known and understood by the Exec team and senior leaders in detail. They’ll need to act consistently and model the new culture during the deal and integration. People will pay close attention to what’s said, behaviours, gestures and even who is invited to meetings. Everything will be under scrutiny. Make sure what you do and say lines up with what you’re telling people the new culture will be.

Share the new purpose and invite people to join – create an emotional connection so they’ll know it’s the place for them.

Equip your leaders

Your leaders and line managers need reasons to believe. They’re the trusted voice for your people so you should equip them to have honest and authentic conversations. Even if the answer they need to give is ‘I don’t know’, make sure they’re briefed first, they have time to absorb what’s happening, build in the story of their own team and prepare for the questions their people will have.

Making time for regular sessions with leaders – formal and informal – will build their confidence they’re involved and informed, which will translate to trust with their teams.

Share the voice

Waltzing into a new company on day one to tell them you’re the boss might not be the best approach. Leaving it weeks would be worse.

Your action plan should set out the timing, who’ll be the lead voice and who’ll speak to press and employees of each business.

Think about how the people working at the company being acquired will be feeling – anxiety and fear along with hope and possibility. The best way to connect with new teams will be to involve the leaders they already know. Create a ‘bow tie’ for who has the lead voice – starting with the leaders they know and trust introducing the new leaders over time.

This is a tricky time and you need to reassure people, but you’re not there to be a ‘friend’. You need to be consistent and not make empty promises – especially by inferring things. We’ve seen clients create a problem by suggesting its business as usual when of course integration would be everything but usual.

Involve your people

To create a shared belief, you need to involve people. Leaders are naturally fearful of getting into the nitty gritty with people whose main question is ‘Will I have a job’. Timing is really key here; you can’t wait until everyone has the answer to this question but starting too soon will be a mistake too.

Create discussions about ‘what’s great about us’ – to bring people together and share knowledge. They’ll feel good about this and it will start to build the connected company.

Involve plenty of people in shaping the new culture. Like all good change programmes, you can’t just give people the full and final script and expect them to learn it. Use different channels and content to inspire them to create their own story so they feel part of it.​

Your approach should be tailored and take into account your old culture, history and future plans. We’ve found what works for one organisation would be a huge mistake for another.

Listen, listen and listen again

Open feedback mechanisms are critical – you need to know the tone and mood as well as what people want to know. Internally you should use a blend of digital surveys and face to face town halls to make sure you spot any pressure points and take action. Use or create influencer groups. Externally stay close to reaction and feedback, particularly on social media.

Use data to monitor reaction, create thresholds for action and you’ll retain more customers and employees.

The last thing you need is to know everyone is unhappy because they’ve already headed for the door.

On the other hand, some people will want to leave – their own ambitions might not match yours. The key is creating a safe place to have these conversations so you can manage any risks and you’re not locking people in.

Merlin Consultancy works with clients to offer a full range of M&A support – including cultural transformation, communications, and Post Merger Integration planning.  Contact Director Victoria Russell or Associate to talk about how we can help you.

We’ll work as your trusted partner throughout the process, providing an independent sense-check and support based on our experience. We’ll help you to shape a culture programme to accelerate the benefits and give powerful and effective results. We’ll tailor the right approach for you – as light touch as you need it to be – including regular support through workshops, coaching and other interventions.

We’ll create a communication approach with a balance of rigorous planning and creative inspiration to help you to avoid the risks and land the benefits of your merger deal.

Retain the right people and motivate them for the next stage of the journey. It’s exciting times!

Beyond Carrots

An acute lesson in subconscious body language, a mirror was held up to me like I’d never experienced before during the summer of 2014. As part of an equine assisted leadership development training course, I was introduced to my horse Merlin. Knowing little about what the day would present, or about horses, Merlin was to become one of the most commanding teachers I’ve ever come across.

Having never been in the presence of horses before, I was totally struck by the presence and aura of this half ton creature. I could sense that Merlin could sense me, my every move, my instincts, and even my mood, from the outset. I felt an immediate strong ‘human’ connection with Merlin. The connection was totally on an emotional level, one that I was completely surprised at. They say good people bring the best out of us. I felt that Merlin’s presence was going to draw the best out in me, somehow.

The task of the day was fairly straightforward, to encourage our horses, Merlin in my case, through a series of gates and into a pound in the centre of the stables. Simple enough, we all thought, a class of 30 budding next generation leaders. What could be so difficult?

A basic leadership team challenge that I’d encountered before in typical corporate bonding days away, and while exactly relatable to the day job of leading high performing individuals and teams, this was a little different. The team in this case was represented by, as I mentioned, a half-ton creature, impressive, high performing, intelligent and formidable, and me. How was I to going to gain and build trust in Merlin, for me to be able to influence and encourage him for mutual benefit? There were no carrots! (and please forgive me for making the parallels in advance!). This was not going to be a transactional leadership engagement based on any reward system. This was going to require us both to be at one with each other, building trust in one another, before stepping forward in an agreed direction, together, coming from a position of absolute trust in one another (saying nothing!). I approached this ‘relationship’ with an open mind, knowing that I had a duty of care towards this being, probably if I’m honest feeling initially superior to him in that I was given the task to lead him.

The balance was quickly redressed! I soon realised that to influence such a formidable being, any being, it was going to take all of my strength and authenticity. When I first engaged with Merlin, we traded scents and got the measure of one another. I was advised by his trainer not to make sudden movements that might startle Merlin (another parallel!; setting the scene with your team. Taking time ‘get the measure’ of one another, and taking a no surprises leadership style, never spooking one another). We got to a point where I could sense quite a powerful feeling of connectivity between us. He wasn’t so much responsive to my words, but to my behaviour, my body language and even, I believe I learned, to the authenticity and honesty of my actions (how’s that for a parallel).

I became aware of a colleague across the stable who was struggling badly to connect with their horse, where both of them were becoming agitated with one another in an animated way. Their horse was standing completely still, as static as a Greek statue, impervious to instruction. The horse was clearly not for being led today, despite my colleague pulling on the reins. I got the parallel that was at play here, a tremendous lesson for me, a testimony to the organiser. The experience gave me a very real sense of well-being and accomplishment; in responsibly gaining trust in such an impressive creature, who was more physically present in stature to me and certainly far stronger than I. To be able to responsibly lead this creature in a common direction was one of the most powerful feelings of leadership I’ve sensed. He trusted me and amazingly followed my lead into the pound without having to say too much or to pull on his reigns…. or even to provide any reward.

This was more about a joint sense of purpose based on mutual trust, a deeper level of leadership than I’d experienced before. I’ve since experienced this in ‘real life’ team and individual leadership situations, as leader and team member alike, with a new awareness. Taking the time up front to understand one another’s aspirations, strengths and weaknesses (measuring the scent of one another if you will before embarking on the task). Building absolute trust in one another’s abilities, to know the complementary sum of the parts of the team, before diving in to a task.

By authentically caring about employees’ aspirations, strengths and weaknesses and by defining how their career development seamlessly sits alongside company revenue and growth goals, people quickly come to feel valued with a real sense of purpose in their work, in my experience. Without any mention of rewards, developing a common sense of purpose foundationally, as I was lucky enough to experience with Merlin, becomes the overriding motivational driving force.

And that takes me to my link with Merlin Consultancy, a meeting of minds around a common purpose, to work closely with the best to help companies to become the best in sector. Being a part of the Merlin Associate group is about working within a high performance team of expert practitioners who have worked with like-minded teams to overcome challenges and realise opportunities from a platform of trust and common purpose.

Gary McAuslan is Managing Director. Supporting Advancement of Clinical & Commercial Activity in Pharma, Biologics and Cell and Gene Therapy Biotechs. The Merlin team look forward to working with like-minded people looking to complement their own team’s strengths with theirs’, to helping accelerate internal organisational people growth.

Preparing for Lift Off!

Organic growth can slowly prepare companies to take advantage of market opportunities in a measured and sustained manner. But what do you do when you need to prepare for rapid scale up that will attract new investors and opportunities.

Aligning people to strategy is key to significantly changing the mindset of companies preparing for short-term accelerated growth. You can get the right product mix, revenue generation and suppliers but the perfect storm can be waiting for you if you haven’t fully considered the impact on organisational culture and people resources.

Imagine the scene. Company profits continue to grow. The board has accepted exciting expansion plans based on careful business planning. An injection of investment is ready to help with Capex. So it’s all about project management and branding right? Wrong! Did you forget the teething problems when you went from an intimate 20-person company to a busy 80+ person company across two sites? The pain is over, right?

Don’t expect to replicate recruitment, training and communication and get the same results. The essence of the company will be set to change. Multi-site, cross-functional teams bring new challenges.

The culture has to align closely to the accelerated growth plans.

This is exactly the challenge some of my clients have faced. Every business is different, but some positive examples have arisen from first providing a sense check on the organisational culture through a review of attitudes, behaviours, reporting mechanisms and communication styles. AND how this is integrated into KPIs and objective setting. Some quick win actions can enable a smooth transition of change and embedding new structures that will allow expansion plans to positively launch.

One client, recently in a C-suite role, quickly identified through a Top Team Culture session that his role would only be successful if others were completely honest with him and he could trust them 100%. Another client through a full diagnostic and structural review recognised that pockets of unhealthy behaviours were beginning to cluster and this would potentially create strain when operations became busier.

Often cultural change is only considered when strategy shifts significantly. A city-based client, faced with changing consumer trends made the brave decision to close off one area of the business so they could invest and focus on the growing digital side. But that meant restructuring and reviewing the skillset to ensure they could maximise how they approached the new strategy. Overall headcount remained the same but new roles were required.

Some of the typical areas that help prepare for scale up include:

  • How do we communicate plans without excessive meetings and emails?
  • How can we engage staff and encourage cross-sharing to ensure silos aren’t part of the routine?
  • What do our managers need to do differently to work faster, be more lean and agile?
  • What metrics do we need to ensure overheads don’t dominate operations?
  • How do our team feel about the changes? Is this the company they aspired to belong to?

In simple terms, analysing people is much harder than equipment, supply chain and routes to market. It’s not uncommon for growing companies to leave the people to last, but successsful growth strategies see the company DNA being fully understood first with small actions having big impacts. Weaving the findings and actions into business objectives that will be challenging is vital for lift off.

It’s not about a people plan its about an alignment to business needs and more importantly business ambitions.

If you have scale up plans and want to consider how best to gel your skillset together, find out how the team at Merlin Consultancy can help.

Time to say goodbye: when cultures change

Organisational change can occur through a series of events – a significant downturn in sales, a merger, a restructure to reflect new leadership and competitive strategy. But perhaps the most uncomfortable organisational change is when it happens very slowly, responding to wider marketplace shifts.

Working in a company that has this ‘treacle’ effect can often be more difficult.

It requires a detachment to be fully aware of these subtle trends and have a clear understanding of its impact on your role.

The following are typical signs that your company may be saying goodbye to its culture:

  • You cease to have any real impact with those around you. Everyone simply ‘exists‘. There are no serious conflicts but neither are there any strong working rhythms that allow individuals to spark ideas or move forward at a good pace. One of my clients describe this as being ‘in retirement’ mode.
  • Talking to peers in competitor companies makes you think you could be both working for the same company, the outlook and behaviours are so aligned it is difficult to fully understand what identity your company belongs to. Looking more closely you can see staff moving back and forward between similar companies as though they are moving between departments rather than a real career progression.
  • Talk is focused not around the change that companies are moving towards but moving away from. One global company, used to frequent restructuring, is seeing a shift around discussion of roles that will focus less on what it should be doing but with no clear indication of any new real responsibilities the role should take on. Key roles therefore begin to be ‘watered down’.

Saying goodbye to such a culture without a clear alternative culture emerging may also mean encouraging ambitious staff to move to another company rather than be frustrated in this slow moving environment. The most difficult scenario is when individuals try to ‘replay the past’ in their behaviours without understanding the wider impact this will have.

Leaders play an important part of course. Communicating subtle changes is more of a challenge. There is no urgency to create and no significant mistakes being made. Taking a helicopter view of the whole marketplace to determine trends and opportunities can be a useful way of helping staff recognise the cultural shifts.