Leading your team through M&A

Change is hard. Major organizational change is one of the most stressful experiences your employees can go through. And the biggest beasts of organizational change–mergers and acquisitions–are strenuous at best and, if mishandled, a total disaster at worst.

Thankfully, most organizations recognize the need for expert facilitation to ensure efficient and accurate execution of a merger or acquisition. As with any stressors, a business endures throughout its life, it’s important for leaders to absorb the pressure and torque on behalf of the organization and its people. The next step is to channel that energy into the desired outcome: transforming it into forward momentum.


Transition considerations.

Several key factors that affect an organization during an M&A transition rely almost exclusively on the culture and energy of the people involved. An acquisition could become a very expensive mistake for all involved if:

  • The target organization performs poorly
  • Key employees leave the target organization
  • Timing of synergies drags out beyond schedule
  • Cost efficiencies are not realized
  • The culture of the parent and target fail to mesh
  • Resources deployed for the integration do not gain traction


If the impact on people and culture is discounted or ignored, a train wreck can ensue. Yet even when leadership recognizes the importance of stewarding their culture through such a transition, it can be daunting to have this key variable in the success of the effort feel so subjective. To that end, there has been a great deal of work done in the field of organizational psychology to remove the subjectivity from this process, which has resulted in a proven process that sets an organization apart in their approach to the human side of M&A.


The four phases of a successful M&A.

How does that actually work? A straightforward four-phase process should be employed, beginning with aligning your leadership teams, assessing the target organization’s employee culture, integrating parent and target company leadership values, and ending with an activation phase where expectations of the merged (or new) leaders are integrated into the current norms of the target organization.

1. Leadership alignment.

Quickly develop a precise understanding across your leadership team, including where the organization is headed, how it intends to get there, and who is accountable for what. This understanding absolutely must get to a level where it is shared by everyone on that senior team. If different flags are flown outside of the boardroom–different ideas about what success looks like or how the company will reach that success–it will become nearly impossible to align the rest of the organization around a cohesive effort.


2. Assessment.

Developing an objective assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses at the frontline employee level will shed light on any barriers to the effective merger of two cultures. Special attention should be paid to identifying the day-to-day activities and characteristics within the target organization that have resulted in its success thus far and those that drive employee engagement. The importance of these specific elements to employees as a whole cannot be underestimated; it’s not uncommon for their impact to actually be quantifiable.

3. Integration.

Conduct a quantitative review of the assessment results with the parent company’s leadership. The goal of this review is to place the parent’s expectations alongside the key strengths within the target’s culture. The direction and needed changes from the parent should then be enmeshed with the key-value items from the assessment of the target. The leadership of both the parent and target company must be in full support of and aligned with the integration plan before activation..


4. Activation.

The integration plan will contain a series of action items to roll out the new, merged culture. Here, “culture” is still not a subjective term. Culture will mean “the way we do things here.” This “new” way will protect the most important aspects of the target culture while allowing it to begin pursuing the parent’s leadership expectations in a swifter and more sophisticated manner than the target organization could have done alone.


Better together.

We won't lie, M&As aren’t easy. But you can make it measurably better for all employees and managers at both companies if you develop and follow an integration plan that honors the culture and values of the target company while clearly laying out the goals of the parent company. When that happens, aligning goals feels like second nature to everyone, and you’re well on your way to the success envisioned when the idea of combining organizations first occurred.

If you are in the midst of this process, or better yet are approaching such a process, and want help guiding your workforce through to a prosperous outcome, schedule a consult with Wayforward.

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This article was originally published in Forbes on February 15, 2022.