Your first step should be to figure out where you stand. The authors recommend conducting a SWOT analysis: Assess your strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities and threats that the deal presents. Then get involved in the integration effort—in a way that lets you showcase or sharpen your skills. Executing transition plans, innovating, and collaborating with new colleagues are all postmerger opportunities for personal growth. If you prove adept, you will be well positioned for success in the hybrid organization—or at another company.
For individual managers and employees, a merger or acquisition is not just a corporate strategy; it’s a personally disruptive—often traumatic—event. What C-suite executives and consultants euphemistically call “postmerger integration” is typically a period of tension, uncertainty, and even chaos. Workloads ramp up, as do pressure and stress. You may have to quickly adapt to unfamiliar policies, practices, and politics; work with strangers from different corporate or even national cultures; or report to new bosses who know nothing about your track record or ambitions. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee of a job with the resulting organization, let alone a long-tERM career. On average, roughly 30% of employees are deemed redundant after a merger or acquisition in the same industry.
In such situations, most people tend to fixate on what they can’t control: decisions about who is let go, promoted, reassigned, or relocated. But in our studies and consulting practices, we’ve found that individuals faced with organizational upheaval have much more power over what happens to them than they realize.
Change is usually inevitable, so you’ll need to figure out where you stand.
To achieve the same, you must first assess your strengths and weaknesses and the opportunities and threats presented by the deal. The next step is to make yourself a more valuable employee by taking on deal-related assignments that will help you hone and highlight your abilities in three categories: project execution, innovation, and collaboration. In this article we outline both parts of the process and describe how four managers went through it.
Upon learning that your company is joining with another, you might feel some anxiety. The first step in overcoming that is to take stock of the situation. Some mergers have little or no practical impact on employees—for example, when one company buys another primarily as a financial investment and keeps the target’s operations fairly independent. More often, however, change is inevitable, and you’ll need to figure out where you stand before you can plan where to go. We recommend a tried-and-true framework: the SWOT analysis. That involves considering the following:
What in your personal makeup and career background could be an asset in your new situation: your technical expertise, your interpersonal skills, or maybe your unique knowledge about a particular business line? What is the value of your network within your company and industry, with suppliers or customers, and with those on the other side of the merger or acquisition? What makes you a “keeper”?
What aspects of your personal situation could be a deficit for moving forward in the integrated firm? Are you uncomfortable dealing with uncertainty? Do you worry about getting along with new colleagues or having to learn new ways of doing business? Is your boss too fixated on his or her own survival to support you and your fellow team members?
Where are the potential landing spots for you in the combined entity—in product areas, marketing and sales, business development, operations? How much do they interest you? Do you see a path to advancement? How will the consolidation affect your firm’s position in the industry, its reputation, and its financial standing? Will it create a stronger company with new pathways for growth?
Where are there apt to be staff reductions? Are you in a corporate function that may be duplicative (such as legal, communications, or human resources) or a business line in which the other company is dominant? Will the combined organization be a place you still want to work?
Tom Hall, a senior finance director at pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough, conducted this sort of analysis when he learned that his company would be acquired by a rival, Merck. One strength was Hall’s previous experience managing during a merger: He’d been in the tax department of Warner-Lambert when it was acquired by Pfizer. In addition, he was a solid performer whose star was rising at Schering, and after nine years at the company, he knew all its financial ins and outs. Yet his back-office function would surely be merged with Merck’s, so redundancies were a threat. And since his bosses and most top Schering executives were moving on, he would have few supporters left at the combined organization. New opportunities for him were unclear.
“Mary Holt,” a logistics manager at a labeling and packaging supplier, also did a SWOT assessment when her company was purchased by a larger competitor. (We’re using a pseudonym to protect her confidentiality.) At first Holt saw only weaknesses and threats in the situation. She assumed that managers from the buying firm, many of whom had international experience, would have an inside track on jobs after the merger. But she soon realized that she was far more knowledgeable than her new peers about the logistical nuts and bolts, so she was in a position to improve the combined firm’s practices. She now had a strength and an opportunity to focus on.
“Jason Richards,” an up-and-coming executive at a large professional services firm, provides another example. Richards (again we’re using a pseudonym) had his sights set on leading the company’s South America region—until top managers announced the acquisition of another big player in the industry. Suddenly there were other high potentials and senior executives competing for the position he coveted, and the only “promotion” being offered to him was as an integration manager, a role he didn’t fully understand. He had to quickly evaluate whether it was an opportunity that would play to his strengths or a threat that would further weaken his prospects for getting ahead.
Those involved in integration must be able to craft an effective plan and get it rolling, distinguish between critical and “nice to have” activities, overcome unforeseen obstacles, measure results, and display a host of other execution capabilities. If you have—or you’re eager to develop—expertise in those areas, you should volunteer for the transition team.
Tom Hall did just that, agreeing to serve as the right-hand man to the Schering integration leader. Thanks to his deep knowledge of the company’s costs, staffing models, forecast systems, and balance sheet, as well as his relationships with people throughout Schering, Hall soon became the go-to person when Merck’s senior executives needed help with plans for putting the two entities together. He assumed that once the integration process was over, he would lose his job. But one of his new colleagues supported him in applying for and securing a role leading the strategy realization office. Although Hall no longer had a clear career path, he was able to get to know Merck and its senior managers. A year later he was tapped to become one of the chiefs of staff to the newly appointed CEO, while retaining his strategy role. Eventually he was promoted to associate vice president of strategy and then associate vice president of financial planning and analysis.
Mary Holt recalls rallying people on both sides of her company’s merger to step up to the plate with in-depth proposals for creating a world-class logistics capability in the combined organization. She made an impression on top executives when she bluntly characterized procedures at both firms as “half-assed” and doggedly used the deal as a catalyst for improvement. Once the integration was complete, the logistics unit was divided geographically, and Holt’s reward was being named head of Atlantic operations—a role that meant working with suppliers and distributors in Europe and participating in top-level strategy meetings.
A merger forces you to quickly learn how to work productively with people who may have different perspectives and processes, come from different corporate and national cultures, and even speak different languages—and who may not want to work with you. it’s a great laboratory for showcASIng and sharpening your collaboration skills.
Take Jason Richards, the rising star set on a regional leadership role. After his company acquired a competitor and he was asked to be one of two full-time integration managers, he was initially distraught. Such a shift would take him out of contention for his desired promotion, disrupt his career momentum, wreak havoc with his annual bonus calculation, lower his status with his peers, and keep him away from his family during the several-month move to headquarters. He accepted the assignment reluctantly, but like Hall and Holt, soon realized he had a chance to expand his knowledge, broaden his network, and prove he could execute and innovate.
A merger provides a great laboratory for showcASIng your collaboration skills.
Perhaps even more important, he picked up new interpersonal skills as a result of being paired with a co-integration manager who was in many ways his opposite: a Latina HR director from the other company. The relationship was frosty at first: Richards’s firm had a macho, hierarchical culture, and he was dubious about working with a woman who came from a “soft,” non-revenue-producing function and was unquestionably his junior. But as the two got to know each other and scored some early wins helping struggling transition teams, they began to see their differences as complementary. They developed a good cop/bad cop routine, learned to adapt their styles when necessary, and formed a strong partnership. Richards became more comfortable guiding instead of controlling. He interacted with all parts of the business and with a wide range of people. His evolution as a leader gave the CEO enough confidence to later name him president of the combined firm’s North American region—a much larger role than the one Richards had initially wanted.
How can you communicate your desire to be part of the integration process if you haven’t been invited to participate on a transition team? Depending on your situation, discussing it with your supervisor might not be the best approach. When companies are in the midst of mergers, some bosses are consumed with their own survival and not inclined to help subordinates. FurthERMore, they may not embrace the notion of losing one of their solid contributors at a time when their work group’s output might be scrutinized.
If you have had a good relationship with your boss and feel that he or she is more likely to support than impede your participation, by all means start a conversation. Otherwise, seek out a trusted colleague in HR or another staff function close to headquarters, talk to current members of the transition teams, or consult the integration manager.
If the CEO or another senior executive is making an integration-related road show stop at your location, raise your hand after the speech and ask how to participate. Better yet, walk right up to the person as the meeting adjourns. No matter whom you approach, sell them on how you can contribute. Don’t be shy about promoting yourself or your capabilities—there is a lot going on for all involved, and you may need to turn up the volume to get noticed. Even if you don’t see a future for yourself in the post-transition organization, you can make a case that contributing to the integration process will be more valuable to the company than sitting around like a lame duck.
Mitchell Lee Marks is Professor of Management at San Francisco State University and President of the consultancy JoiningForces.org. He is the author of eight books, including Charging Back Up the Hill: Workplace Recovery after Mergers, Acquisitions and Downsizings and scores of scholarly and practitioner articles.
Philip Mirvis is an organizational psychologist whose studies and private practice concerns large-scale organizational change, the character of the workforce and workplace, and business leadership in society. An advisor to businesses and NGOs on five continents, he has authored twelve books on his studies including Beyond Good Company: Next Generation Corporate Citizenship.
Ron Ashkenas is a coauthor of the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook and a Partner Emeritus at Schaffer Consulting. His previous books include The Boundaryless Organization, The GE Work-Out, and Simply Effective.