News & Insight
August 2006

How to Survive a Merger

According to The Wall Street Journal, 2006 is on pace to be the most-active merger and acquisition year in history, with the value of completed deals projected to reach $3.5 trillion by year-end. Of course, this huge figure doesn't account for the human cost associated with corporate matrimony, which can often represent wrenching change for the affected employees. I have done significant work with clients on mergers, specifically with a smaller organization that is "joining" a larger one. The following are "survival tips" for executives at the merging companies as they go through the process.

Be Prepared to Adapt

Recognize that the larger company is buying expertise and market penetration and while they value this they do not necessarily value the way you accomplished this, meaning be prepared to adapt to their culture, style, and processes of getting work done. Adapting to a new culture does not mean you need to abandon life as you know it, it does mean you should be open to how they do things, share ideas for alternatives, and be clear on the compromise or outcome. While most merging organizations talk of "creating a future with the best of both companies" in actuality the processes of the larger company are not likely to be totally abandoned or adapted.

Advice to employees of smaller organizations: take every opportunity to learn about your new business partners. Ask about how they are organized, listen to responses and find commonalities where you can. For leaders I recommend they role model an open-minded approach that demonstrates pride in what they have accomplished as well as a willingness to be open minded about new processes. The key here is to not encourage "us and them talk" but to move to "how we will do it together in the future".

Learn to Speak the Language

It is critical to note that even if we are speaking the same language we do not always mean the same thing. "Delivering the highest quality service", "caring for our environment", or "trusting in our people to act for the customer" can mean very different things in terms of actual behaviors. The key here is to be clear about what you mean and ask others to do the same. Asking "what would success look like", or "what behaviors are people demonstrating when they are successful in these areas" gets you to a better understanding of intent. All too frequently people want to find the commonalities in cultures and jump to conclusions of understanding, for example I was working with a leadership team recently and of the 5 people around the table "immediately responding to requests from your peers" meant anything from 15 minutes to 2 days. Those that thought immediate meant now were insulted and frustrated by others that thought a day or two was soon enough. For leaders, I recommend role modeling a questioning approach that gets beneath the surface understanding to provide real clarity of understanding and to be clear that questioning for understanding is not challenging or confrontational.

Be Ready to Contribute

Know your personal value and the impact you have on the business. Anxiety is part of any transition and we need all of our self-confidence to move gracefully through changing work conditions. Take stock of your strong points then look for opportunities to showcase what you can do. Offer to assist in transition teams or other opportunities to be visible and demonstrate how you can collaborate with new colleagues. Behave as though you expect to be part of the new combined company and are looking forward to the future opportunities this merger may present. For leaders, I recommend encouraging each employee to prepare a career profile that outlines major contributions, skills and impact on the business, as well as future goals and career aspirations. This will help each person be more grounded in their personal confidence and gives leaders a deeper insight as staffing decisions are made.


Communicate more often than you think you need to. Ask questions, share insights and keep positive about the future. For leaders it is critical that they share updates on a routine basis even if there is no new information or a deadline is not going to be met. Set expectations for how often communications will occur and keep your promise. Have an open door policy and encourage your staff to come in with questions or concerns.

Carolyn Ott is a member of WJM Associates' executive coaching and organizational effectiveness faculty.

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