Despite $2 trillion spent annually on acquisitions, they fail far more than they succeed, according to Harvard Business Review — between 70 and 90 percent of the time, in fact. Company acquisitions are high-stakes and high-risk, and that, in turn, translates to high expectations from stakeholders.
Anyone who’s been part of an acquisition knows that this often arduous and extended process can result in high anxiety levels, too. Rumors start early with speculation around possible job elimination, and this disrupts regular performance. Thus, the odds for a successful acquisition can be increased through special attention to the workforces of both merging companies.
The Three P’s
Typically, there are two main motives behind acquisitions: The first, simplified, is profits (to improve financial position), and the second is productivity (to improve operations or expand product line).
But there’s a third P to consider: people. This P, above all else, is the one to watch. Think about it: You can’t get what you want — profits and productivity — without people.
With so much invested in an acquisition, a focus on people will help make the most of it. Consider the following:
1. Meet with employees personally.
Typically during an acquisition, the senior leaders of the two companies have the most contact with each other. Often, these communications are shrouded in secrecy until the deal has been closed. Once the decision is made public, leaders of the acquiring company tend to communicate to the group as a whole in writing. If leaders do meet with employees, it’s often in large, impersonal groups.
To maximize profits and productivity, meet with employees in groups of 10. Answer questions, discern who’s anxious, and discover whose productivity is needed to maximize performance.
One executive I know, who has successfully acquired dozens of businesses, once led an acquisition team that prepared to take over a large company with thousands of production employees. Though it was tempting to short-cut the step of meeting every employee personally (due to the amount of employees and job sites), the executive knew it would pay enormous dividends if he instead invested time to meet people personally. The acquisition team members shadowed this leader as he conducted the first few employee meetings. Afterward, they broke into smaller teams and visited each location to do the same. It affected the company’s staff tremendously: Employees were able to get a sense, firsthand, of who the “new” company was.
2. Evaluate leadership capability.
Companies preparing for an acquisition turn over every leaf by analyzing mountains of financial data; assessing compliance and test records; evaluating long-term contracts; and examining capacity and processes.
But who interviews employees to gauge their leadership ability? Frontline managers directly supervise around 80 percent of a total workforce, and a company’s success (or failure) is typically contingent upon them. You’ll be unable to maximize profits and productivity without assurance that leadership can inspire and motivate its people.
Conducting a talent review of each leadership level is an important part of the due diligence process.
3. Remove acquisition anxiety through open, adult-to-adult communication.
Employees in a newly acquired company are no different than your current workforce: They want to contribute and have families to support. Too often during an acquisition, it’s easy to act like they’re different and develop a two-class dynamic. Avoid this — instead, court them. Be intentional about the time and energy you spend with both groups. This strategy alone will see major payoffs.
You may see the same anxiety about jobs within your current company. Don’t leave employees wondering whether they still have jobs or who they’ll report to. These unknowns create stress if unaddressed. If you think you’re overstaffed, be honest. Let people know that acquisitions usually result in redundancies. Identify these redundancies as soon as possible, and be transparent about the reassignment process.
If you must cut back, be quick to provided details about exit packages. And in this case, make it more generous than you typically would so everyone views the acquiring company as fair and compassionate. Your reputation, regardless, will spread rapidly. Go out of your way to ensure stories passed through the grapevine are ones you can be proud of.
4. Be genuinely curious.
Too often, companies that acquire take the position of, “We can do it better. Let us show you the right way.” One of the many benefits of mergers and acquisitions is the synergy that exists involving shared best practices. One company we worked with set up teams within every major function — comprised of people from both companies — to work together in identifying best practices.
Be willing to listen and learn. Overlap managers with the newly acquired company to understand how they do it and why.
For 35 years, I’ve relayed this adage to leaders seeking to improve: Good people want to get better. The same is true with organizations — even great or seasoned ones. Be genuinely curious about a new organization’s history, processes, and methods. Ultimately, you’re working with people who have invested themselves into a company; take time to recognize that.
Around 10 years ago, I was involved in a high-performance operation that, because of its incredible culture and efficiencies, was acquired by a global brand. At first, the acquiring company gave every indication it intended to maintain the organization’s culture.
But almost immediately, the acquiring company felt compelled to apply corporate policies, citing “ease of management.” Thus, the plant’s talented employees began to leave, and morale and productivity dropped — the two reasons the company was valued to begin with. Within a year, the plant was unionized, and it became the lowest-performing plant in the organization.
5. Never violate trust.
Once that happens, everything else goes downhill — quickly.
Any attempts to regain that trust is almost impossible. This is especially true if trust is lost through the amorphous entity — “corporate.” In contrast, if a business manager violates trust, it’s possible to recover by hiring a new one to regain the overall team’s trust. However, when a corporate reputation is tarnished, it’s virtually unshakable.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If mistakes or gaps in communication occur (and they will), recognize and acknowledge them. Then engage people in helping to fix them.
How can you maximize an acquisition and make it as successful as possible? Through the people you’re inheriting. It’s an opportunity; don’t pass it up. Make the obvious choice to care about people during such a delicate process.