I thought I had a good understanding of organisational culture, until I became involved in the Notting Hill Genesis merger; if you really want to know what culture is, lead a merger!
As I have watched our new organisation develop, I have learned a great deal about the human psyche and group dynamics. We are imperfect beings, driven by our emotions, which, if left unchecked, can quickly create unhealthy environments, anxiety, feelings of loss and ultimately disengagement.
Whilst it is important to focus on merger outcomes e.g. customer satisfaction and financial savings, it is equally (if not more important) to consider the impact of mergers on your people. After all, they will be responsible for driving your targets. Ultimately, your merger will only go as far as your people will take it.
Through my research and experience, I share the common feelings that arise through merger, along with the strategies and tools that can be deployed to manage them:
Number one has to be FEAR. I learned about our proposed merger long before it was shared more widely with our people – there were many sound reasons for this e.g. investors, risk, regulation etc. However, with such a long lead-in it can be easy to forget that your people have not had the luxury of time to help them mentally prepare for the change. If anxiety is left unchecked it can quickly escalate leading to stress in your workforce.
It would be easy for me to say “communicate” but there is no substitute for talking to people. In my experience, the best way to do this is share information as soon as is reasonably possible; this eliminates rumours and inaccuracies which can be detrimental to morale. It is also important to provide context for every decision you make, do not fall into a parent/child approach – telling and not explaining why.
It’s very rare as plans unfold, that most information cannot be shared widely; avoid “need to know conversations” unless it’s absolutely necessary – share, share, share! Don’t stop listening and communicating with employees throughout the integration process, and most importantly where possible, do this face to face.
I was recently asked on Twitter, “How do you deal with the received wisdom, ‘our way is the best’ from one organisation to another?”
Notting Hill Genesis undertook a “merger of equals”, but what does that really mean? Equal in size, equal in leadership, equal in geography? Regardless of how you cut the cloth, it is difficult to avoid perceptions and feelings that one organisation is more dominant than another. In some instances this can lead people to take the role of “defenders” and “attackers”. The emotion I allude to is PRIDE, which can lead to feelings of attack if not managed effectively. For example, I have seen brilliant people defend bad practice when they feel their organisation is being ‘attacked’.
To create a unified culture, these battlegrounds must be quickly extinguished. If they are not managed effectively pride can create a chasm that prevents a new culture evolving. For example, individuals holding onto key knowledge that is critical to mobilise new ways of working.
Where people have strong knowledge, use this to your advantage – make them your mentors. We did this successfully at Notting Hill Genesis by co-creating our new ways of working with our people. It is important not to blame individuals where bad practice has ensued; there are pockets of poor process in all organisations, it is not personal.
Finally, I think it’s important not to pretend “everything is equal” if it isn’t. All decisions made should be put into context. For example, it maybe that you finish up with 80% of one organisations systems/IT – that is ok if it is explained e.g. “we have chosen this IT system because it is more efficient, not because it is the HR Director’s favourite” – use data to demonstrate decision making.
Whoever you are, during a merger at some juncture you will have to give up something that was part of the old organisation. This could be a job role, a team, a colleague who moves onto a new company, a CEO, a culture or an office. We all know that change is not an easy process, but the feelings of LOSS that arise throughout integration can feel relentless. Even the most resilient of people, will at some point feel loss, and the impact of this on mental health should not be underestimated.
Whilst we understand the importance of loss and closure in our personal lives e.g. supporting a child to move to a new school, or helping a friend through a divorce we often don’t provide similar support for loss within our organisations.
At Notting Hill Genesis we invested a lot in our Leadership team and Management teams to provide support for our employees experiencing loss. Acknowledging feelings and providing safe spaces for our people to discuss emotions has been the foundation of our integration strategy. It is also important to celebrate accomplishments and successes of the new organisation, whilst being sensitive to the impact this may have on people experiencing loss.
Finishing on a high! It’s fair to say that many of our people have been motivated by the merger and the opportunity that change brings. When a new organisation if formed, it generates ENTHUSIASM, the chance to build something new.
I’m sure you are all familiar with the technology adoption curve? There will always be resistance to change, and some individuals will never accept the change (in my experience these are few and far between). Take hold of the excitement of those that want to change, excited employees are the ones who will build your new world.
I look to ‘ensnare’ positive individuals and quickly! Ask for volunteers, ask managers to put forward optimistic employees and handpick people to be change champions. I have seen the brightest and best thrive during our merger, as well as identifying untapped talent who will very likely be our future leaders.