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Communicating as a Leader

Five Biggest Ways Leaders Sabotage Acquisitions

Jennifer Selby Long asked:

Copyright (c) 2008 Jennifer Selby Long

Actually, there are at least a dozen ways to sabotage an acquisition, but for the sake of brevity, and to stay focused on the areas in which I can speak from the most experience, let’s explore five of them:

1. Grossly underestimating what it will take to integrate people, processes, and systems. I’ve seen few successful acquisitions of any size without a dedicated integration team. At a minimum, you need full-time, dedicated resources in IT, integration of different business models and processes, facilities, and change management, by which I mean how to get all of the people moving in the same direction, not the processing of change orders related to the acquisition process.

2. Moving too slowly to reorganize the company. Some people are going to lose their jobs. Better sooner than later. That’s not as cold as it sounds. When you prolong confusing, duplicate, and overlapping roles, you increase cynicism, frustration, and the fear that the acquiring organization’s leaders are inept, indecisive bureaucrats. This is often the most painful step for executives and managers alike, but it’s better to move quickly than to keep confusion and fear hanging over everyone’s heads. I particularly like the effectiveness of a reorganization that takes weeks, not months. It’s so painful and exhausting for everyone involved (even me, and I’m just the outside consultant), but the results are worth it.

3. Viewing “acquisition communication” as the stuff you announce to people about the acquisition. Depending on its size, an acquisition can be a small change or an enormous one. The tendency is to make announcements and think you’re communicating. The most successful large-scale changes involve a two-way process, and it’s given the respect it deserves by being somewhat formalized and measured for its contribution to the success of the change. It’s certainly a lot more than saying to your managers,” So, how are your people doing? Be sure everyone announces the latest news at your next staff meeting.”

4. Putting lipstick on a pig and telling people it’s beautiful. Do not put a positive spin on obviously negative developments. Be honest, and share your plan to address the issues, or at least your timeline for pulling a plan together. Your people are living day-to-day with the consequences of these negative developments. They’re probably even the ones who brought the problems to your attention. You will kill your credibility, particularly among the employees of the acquired organization, who have no relationship with you, and therefore no particular reason to trust you in the first place.

5. And from deep in our unconscious selves…Telling the employees of the acquired company how lucky they are now that they are part of your company. Of course, these days no one is so crass as to literally say this out loud, but the fact that we don’t say it out loud in no way addresses the fact that we feel it, if that’s what we feel. Attitudes and emotions leak out all over the place. But reverse this attitude quickly, because if the undertone set by the acquiring company’s leadership is in any way superior, the employees of the acquired company will pick it up, along with their bags, as they head toward to door to your competitor. You’ll also lose out on all you could have learned from the employees who stay, because you’re demeaning their knowledge, skills, and expertise. I recall the time I found myself sitting in the regional sales office of an acquiring company. When the SVP of Sales announced the acquisition of a close competitor, the sales team cheered and yelled, “We win!” At that moment, let’s just say I knew I had my work cut out for me. The acquisition turned out to be a stunning success, in part because the SVP had the good sense to say, “Cut it out, you guys. Each of these people is part of our team now. We’re all in it together and frankly, I’ve seen their numbers and they’re every bit as good as you are.”

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