Don't Risk your Merger by Pushing People out of the Door
If you’re acquiring a service company your merger is all about people. Of course, there will be plenty of rational, financial and practical reasons, but without the support of people it’s doomed to fail.
Like all good change programmes, a brilliant communications approach will navigate the risks and be a springboard for the benefits. Tell your story well and you’ll be on the way to building a strong, connected and motivated new company. Create a new culture and you’ll reap the benefits.
Fail to connect with people and you’ll leave them anxious, unmotivated and looking for the door.
Create a strong story
People connect to stories and the trick is to make an emotional connection with all your audiences. Define a narrative your employees and customers will want to support. Make it a compelling* story that’s not just based on facts and figures.
When you’ve created your story and everyone’s bought into it, check it’s not been watered down along the way. The definition of compelling is *evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.
Along with your core narrative you should have a big pack of questions and answers. People will want the ‘me’ questions answered first. So plan your announcement and ongoing messages with this in mind – you can’t just talk on and on about the bright new future at the moment when people are wondering if they’ll be part of it.
Tailor messages for all stakeholders
Targeting comms for your giant stakeholder map is essential.
Who can’t you afford to lose? Whether this is customers, leaders, suppliers, partners or key influencers and publications - identify the people or groups who are critical to your business and tailor activity to them.
The more important they are to you, the more personal the activity should be. Plan a series of one to one discussions with key people to retain them for the future and so you know exactly where the risks are. Include specific plans for investors, analysts and regulators too.
Each brand will have a certain status, position and credibility in the market – treat the general public like they’re your next customer, partner or employee. Avoid speculation and negativity from detractors by setting out your story clearly and deciding when you should be proactive and reactive. Don’t forget social media and plan how you’ll manage your channels at each milestone.
Create a careful reputation matrix to tackle the announcement and ongoing conversations to maintain momentum and enthusiasm.
Playbooks for each phase
Along with the project plan for each milestone you’ll need a communications approach and plan. Your playbook should include goals, governance, roles and responsibilities and content.
Prepare for leaks
First off, in the build up to announcing a merger it’s fair to expect rumours or even a full-blown leak. Have a strategy and plan for what you’ll do based on scenarios that could come up. You should have a playbook, messages, ready to go templates and spokespeople prepared, along with what you’ll tell your customers and people and how you’ll do it.
Remember if the news is, well news, to your people you’ve already lost a bit of trust because they’d expect you to have told them first. Your plan should include what you’ll do to regain their trust.
Announcement – the first time you’ll set out the vision for the future. This shouldn’t be a one-off event; people will need a bit of time to absorb what’s going on and think of what they need to know. Have a message plan that lasts at least a week.
The void – this is the bit between announcement and A day. Where the dreaded ‘in the coming weeks and months’ phrase can slide in. Don’t just stick to high level things and make it sound all glossy and superficial– face the big topics too; it’s much better to be clear that you don’t know yet and explain the activities and things that are happening. Your competitors might try and steal your customers and best people so keep listening to feedback and take action if you need to.
Day 1 – this should feel like a celebration and you’ll have a fuller vision for the future and the steps to bring the organisations together. Don’t forget the ‘me’ questions. All stakeholders will also need to know what changes and what doesn’t – from bosses to processes, be clear about what’s staying the same at this point. And make sure the celebration is mindful of the uncertainty individuals might still face.
Integration milestones – two big tasks continue throughout integration. Continuing to reinforce the culture, purpose and strategy to create the connected company. And communicating the milestone events like leadership announcements, operating model decisions and locations.
It’s important these work in harmony – people will read into everything that’s happening to try and get to their own personal answer (or their own decision to look for somewhere new). Creating a complete plan, focussing on the emotion each event will create, will help to mitigate against the risk of clashing messages.
This is especially important for your culture plan – where what you say and what you do needs to match closely.
Your Post Merger Integration plan
Communication and culture is just one part of a robust post merger integration plan. Merlin Consultancy has an experienced team of experts who’ll create a comprehensive plan. We’ll help you to mitigate risks, create synergies of revenue and cost as well as managing the practical compliance and business critical needs to keep your new business running smoothly.
Create a new culture
Part of the due diligence will be to check there is broadly a culture fit between the two businesses.
Your Post Merger Integration plan should include a culture programme focussing on your first 100 days, that knits together the teams and breaks down the us and them. Make sure it’s clear what the hallmarks of the new culture are in everyday life. Show how everything from recruitment to performance and from processes to leadership will live in the new world. This is likely to be a big programme of change, so set out the vision early and the steps to getting there.
Plan carefully to build culture ambassadors and include practical initiatives and projects to align ways of working.
It’s critical that the new culture is known and understood by the Exec team and senior leaders in detail. They’ll need to act consistently and model the new culture during the deal and integration. People will pay close attention to what’s said, behaviours, gestures and even who is invited to meetings. Everything will be under scrutiny. Make sure what you do and say lines up with what you’re telling people the new culture will be.
Share the new purpose and invite people to join – create an emotional connection so they’ll know it’s the place for them.
Equip your leaders
Your leaders and line managers need reasons to believe. They’re the trusted voice for your people so you should equip them to have honest and authentic conversations. Even if the answer they need to give is ‘I don’t know’, make sure they’re briefed first, they have time to absorb what’s happening, build in the story of their own team and prepare for the questions their people will have.
Making time for regular sessions with leaders – formal and informal – will build their confidence they’re involved and informed, which will translate to trust with their teams.
Share the voice
Waltzing into a new company on day one to tell them you’re the boss might not be the best approach. Leaving it weeks would be worse.
Your action plan should set out the timing, who’ll be the lead voice and who’ll speak to press and employees of each business.
Think about how the people working at the company being acquired will be feeling – anxiety and fear along with hope and possibility. The best way to connect with new teams will be to involve the leaders they already know. Create a ‘bow tie’ for who has the lead voice – starting with the leaders they know and trust introducing the new leaders over time.
This is a tricky time and you need to reassure people, but you’re not there to be a ‘friend’. You need to be consistent and not make empty promises – especially by inferring things. We’ve seen clients create a problem by suggesting its business as usual when of course integration would be everything but usual.
Involve your people
To create a shared belief, you need to involve people. Leaders are naturally fearful of getting into the nitty gritty with people whose main question is ‘Will I have a job’. Timing is really key here; you can’t wait until everyone has the answer to this question but starting too soon will be a mistake too.
Create discussions about ‘what’s great about us’ – to bring people together and share knowledge. They’ll feel good about this and it will start to build the connected company.
Involve plenty of people in shaping the new culture. Like all good change programmes, you can’t just give people the full and final script and expect them to learn it. Use different channels and content to inspire them to create their own story so they feel part of it.
Your approach should be tailored and take into account your old culture, history and future plans. We’ve found what works for one organisation would be a huge mistake for another.
Listen, listen and listen again
Open feedback mechanisms are critical – you need to know the tone and mood as well as what people want to know. Internally you should use a blend of digital surveys and face to face town halls to make sure you spot any pressure points and take action. Use or create influencer groups. Externally stay close to reaction and feedback, particularly on social media.
Use data to monitor reaction, create thresholds for action and you’ll retain more customers and employees.
The last thing you need is to know everyone is unhappy because they’ve already headed for the door.
On the other hand, some people will want to leave – their own ambitions might not match yours. The key is creating a safe place to have these conversations so you can manage any risks and you’re not locking people in.
Merlin Consultancy works with clients to offer a full range of M&A support - including cultural transformation, communications, and Post Merger Integration planning.
We’ll work as your trusted partner throughout the process, providing an independent sense-check and support based on our experience. We’ll help you to shape a culture programme to accelerate the benefits and give powerful and effective results. We’ll tailor the right approach for you – as light touch as you need it to be – including regular support through workshops, coaching and other interventions.
We’ll create a communication approach with a balance of rigorous planning and creative inspiration to help you to avoid the risks and land the benefits of your merger deal.
Retain the right people and motivate them for the next stage of the journey. It’s exciting times!