M&A: The Perfect Change Management Storm

By Emerson Vice President of Consulting, Mark Bashrum

Cartoon image of business merger

Take confusion, distrust, speculation and a healthy dose of unrealistic expectations and you have the typical M&A environment. New leaders struggle to align and communicate the new direction. Teams are smashed together in reorgs that make sense only on paper. New systems add chaos to players who don’t know or trust each other yet. It’s painful but a few guiding change principles can lessen the agony.

Align, Message and Cascade…and Do it Quickly

A lot of money and thought went into why the merger or acquisition was important and how it would benefit the combined organization and the people in it. That message must get out quickly and it has to be delivered often and consistently throughout the organization. Specifically, people need to understand what they are moving from, what they are moving to, how they are going to get there, and how the end result will benefit them.

Albert Einstein famously said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The message must be simple and concise, and that means the leadership team has to be fully aligned on the problem, the solution, the action, and the end goal. If the organization hears different versions of the truth from different members of the leadership team, they won’t trust or buy in to the direction.

Just as importantly, the message should cascade through the organization - not as a view from the top, but as a vision of the future for the listener. Select facts and examples that resonate with the people you’re addressing. Message framing is both an art and science.

Don’t Sink the Learning Life Raft

M&As are naturally going to create some level of redundancy, and rationalizing those redundancies drives a good bit of value to the new organization. As a support function, Learning and Development is one group you’ll be tempted to trim early on. Don’t! The combined organization is going to need every L&D resource they have, and then some. Your M&A rests on a foundation of new teams, new processes, new systems, new policies…all of which require new skills and knowledge. That’s the job of your learning experts! Once the change has been fully absorbed by the organization, everyone has been skilled-up, and new systems and processes are purring along, then it makes sense to look at the ongoing resource requirements of L&D, but until that time don’t even think about it.

A Cube with a View

It is amazing how often M&A projects are run as a series of separate activities, with little or no consideration of how they impact each team. Employees assume someone has thought through all aspects of the change - the people impacted, their roles, the timing, and the magnitude of changes that will hit them. That’s the expectation, but rarely the reality. M&A is complex and it makes sense to divide and separate the integration into multiple work streams. But once you have a high-level plan, look at the work through an organizational lens.

Focus on each team, one at a time. Think of the change as if you were sitting in the employee’s chair. Determine how and when they are impacted by each of the work streams. Can they expect new leadership? When? Will they use new systems and processes? When? What new skills and capabilities will they need, and when will they get the training? What is the communication plan for each team – what will they know, and when?

People view change from their own workspace. Their dominant reaction to the M&A is, “What’s going to happen to me and my team?” Only when we understand that can we answer their big questions, ease uncertainty, and show them a path forward.

Engineer the Experience

Successful change initiatives engineer the win by focusing on the employee experience. “Familiar, controlled and successful” should be your mantra. First, make the change feel familiar to employees by comparing it to other programs they feel good about. Second, give them a feeling of control by sharing that employee-centered information on what’s ahead for them. Your goal for them is no surprises. Third, create employee interactions with small parts of the change – a new procedure, new terms, a new task – and make sure they’re successful. If your change includes new technology, build support into these practice sessions. Let people discover how easy it is to get help when they need it. Simulate a help desk and “white glove” support for managers, power users, and key influencers. As employees demonstrate to themselves that they can succeed, their resistance will lessen and their readiness will improve.

M&A is naturally difficult and messy, however, a thoughtful change management approach goes a long way to mitigate the pain and help the organization realize the benefits that were promised. In the end, it comes down to aligning on the right messaging, viewing and communicating the change from the employees perspective, and helping teams through the change with support and positive experiences.

To download a preview of Emerson’s Change Management Methodology, click here.

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