Fasten your seat belts: Leading during mergers, acquisitions and divestitures

"I read about it on the Patch," said Joy, a Raytheon employee and dear friend who learned from an online newsfeed about her employer’s merger with United Technologies, a deal valued at more than $100 billion,

I bumped into her the day after the announcement at our local indie coffee shop. We were both a little late and desperately in need of caffeine. She wasn't trying to be funny, just honest. No email to employees? No company-wide video announcement?

I was speechless but not entirely surprised at how she learned about this major corporate event. Overnight, Joy and her colleagues were drafted into a dynamic that is increasingly part of our employment experiences, the world of corporate transactions. Last year alone, US businesses initiated mergers, acquisitions and divestitures valued at more than $1 trillion.

Short of fastening our seat belts, what’s a leader to do in the face of such an announcement? I’ve found that the best place to start is getting clear on some key vocabulary related to transitions initiated by M&A.

Our social norms condition us to use two important words -- "change" and "transition" -- interchangeably even though they mean very different things.

Transitions occur when there is a shift in what holds value to an organization. In fact, transitions are processes that require organizations to re-examine their assumptions about identity, capacity and values. Changes, on the other hand, are goal-oriented. We rely on change processes when we have a desired outcome in mind.

For anyone who has lived through an acquisition, there are typically long lists of changes that occur. Change is everywhere during and long after these events.  For example, the acquiring company may choose to reorganize your region, which can lead to changes in reporting relationships between you and your boss or between your boss and her boss. Or the acquiror may task you with converting your enterprise resource planning system over to SAP even though you’ve spent years perfecting your use of Oracle. These changes know no boundaries. They occur in performance appraisal processes, in signing authorities, in hiring and firing and in so much more.

Would it surprise you that none of the changes listed above is, in and of itself, a transition?

Transitions involve shifts in value. Values lie at the heart of decision making at most companies and play a fundamental role in successful M&As. In an M&A environment, values can get affirmed, updated, refreshed and/or totally revised. For example, if the acquiror puts the customer ahead of all else and the company being acquired elevates innovation above all else, how will the two reconcile their differences?

Value statements alone don’t guarantee a successful transition in M&A. Values require an ecosystem to come alive. This ecosystem includes not only how the values are communicated but also if the new company will assess managerial and leadership behaviors against the values. What happens when there is a gap between desired and actual behaviors? Will anyone take action?

Next time you are invited to a company meeting about M&A, I would encourage you to rely on questions related to these two simple words. Listen for the list of anticipated changes, but don’t forget to ask about the desired outcome of each change. Watch for the value statements that will likely accompany the announcement, and make sure you ask about how the values will be disseminated and when and if you and your colleagues will be evaluated for behavior in alignment with those values. 

Like my friend Joy, we all may encounter unexpected corporate announcements, but our ability to contribute to the conversation and influence the outcome can be substantially affected by focusing our attention not on seat belts and safety doors but on two simple words.

 

Linda Rossetti is a Harvard MBA, serial entrepreneur and expert on transition and its impact on individuals and organizations. 

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