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CULTURE CLASH

Unless it is a start up, most companies are a blend of multiple acquisitions. Some Big Fish snapped up a bunch of (usually) smaller fish and mashed everyone together. In theory it’s all supposed to be a better enterprise for all concerned but in reality it rarely is. There are a zillion things to sort out and manage through. Even done extremely well there is one persistent pain in the ass that will surely try your patience: the challenge of combining multiple corporate cultures.

Let’s play social anthropologist. Look around your company and unearth these artifacts.

  • Coffee mugs from employees’ former companies that no longer exist.
  • Team photos in company T-shirts that no longer exist.
  • Oft-repeated glorious tales about the (former) CEO from the acquired company that no longer exists.
  • Staff resistance to a Big Fish process/system/method because the small fish (which no longer exists) way is better.
  • Lunch tables filled with cliques of folks from their former companies that no longer exist.
  • Persistent buzz about the good old days at the companies that no longer exist.

If you are the leader of the NewCo you have said or thought all or most of these remarks:

  • They need to get over it already!
  • Can we speed up attrition or offer more packages to get rid of these folks?
  • These idiots can’t even see that they are better off with NewCo!
  • If I hear one more story about OldCo I may have to hurt someone.
  • I won’t stand for this sabotage.
  • I knew we were acquiring a bunch of losers (whiners or fill in the blank….)

If you are a staff person from a small fish trying to integrate into the Big Fish waters you have said or done this:

  • Sat back with arms folded in a “wait and see” stance hoping that this too shall pass.
  • Kept your OldCo business cards tucked away in a drawer.
  • Complained to HR that you/your peers are not being listened to or respected.
  • Said yes in public but meant no and did not take the required action.
  • Began or participated in whispering campaigns to undermine the transition to NewCo.

Et voila! A rather entrenched culture clash. On a good day the leaders will have the gumption to reach out and try to establish rapport with small fish folks. And the staff will take a tiny leap of faith to try new things. But on most days there is an unhappy undertow that everyone wishes would just go away. If only magical thinking worked.

In most companies there is not just one culture but many. Those are usually defined by location or discipline and those variations are usually productive and acceptable. In the end everyone has allegiance to the enterprise-wide goals and strategies and defines their affiliation with the larger company (not their own unit). That is all fine. But this patchwork of merged entities is another thing entirely. Staff question the goals and strategies and identify themselves as part of OldCo…now called NewCo. This kind of cultural disparity is dysfunctional.

So what to do in the real world about these separate cultures? I’ll be honest…it ain’t easy. None of these suggestions are silver bullets but bit by bit they start to add up. And if they don’t, the problem is worse than you realized.

  1. Establish strong ties with a few key influencers who are not yet on board. Spend time one-on-one with these folks in an honest two-way dialogue. Sincerely get to know this person. Ask what he liked about OldCo and what is especially tough about NewCo. Ask what it would take for him to embrace NewCo. Do much more listening than talking and do NOT, I repeat, do NOT use the time to try to persuade him how wonderful NewCo is.
  2. Assign leadership roles to these influencers. Assuming that the leadership team is populated with a mix of old and new folks, further down in the organization where the icky stuff is happening, put some of the OldCo staff in charge of stuff. The combination of authority and a work deliverable will change the dynamics.
  3. Use HR resources. Again, I assume that HR is all over the people integration issues. The leadership team combined with HR can enact some clever programs to aid the transition. Councils of mixed staff groups to support the transition, getting acquainted sessions, internal social networking. The executive team needs to drive this and HR needs to provide the resources.
  4. Work through the top group of managers. Executives need to coach managers on how to break down the barriers and engage all employees in NewCo. Most of the noise and shenanigans happen a couple layers down and these managers need guidance and support from on high. If the execs stay at too high an altitude it will exacerbate the problems. Managers will be left holding the bag and you run the risk of alienating them.
  5. Create an empathetic yet firm mantra. When tensions flair and staff long for the way things used to be find your own way of saying “There is nothing harder than making these kinds of changes. I’ve been in your shoes. What I learned was that no matter how much I struggled with the transition, in the end I only had 2 choices. Get with the program or leave. It was just too painful for me and those around me to dig my heels in.”

Bottom line, smoothing out culture differences is a contact sport. Form relationships, get up close, stay engaged, keep it on your radar. If all goes well, in some time (2-ish years) the divisions will be reduced and the place will feel more like one company. Some of this will be through persistent leadership and some of it will be because OldCo folks will eventually opt out (or get counseled out). Once the naysayers ranks are thinned out the schisms are more manageable. Ultimately these folks will get marginalized by their peers…which is very effective.

To those of you who have been “acquired” you need to ask yourself a couple questions. Resistance and bad mouthing takes up a lot of time and energy. Is that working for you in any way? What is the impact of all this negativity on your well being? What is your end game? Do you imagine that you will be able to undo some part of the merger? If you thrive on being a contrarian, is that really how you want to get through your work day? Can you imagine a work environment that will be more satisfying? I know this situation sucks but the reality is beyond your control. So you are better off taking control of your own circumstances by either coming to the party or find a new place to hang out. Please, please don’t make it your mantra that “I’m not happy until you’re not happy.”

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