Recently I spoke with a friend in the financial services industry whose company had announced “a merger of equals.” Such a merger is a big deal. Having assisted clients over the years with this type of leadership challenge, I asked her what they were doing to prepare people. She said, “John, we are all over that--our CEO has instructed us to get close to our people.” It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve heard very smart people say. The approach sounds logical, but it’s also a key reason 83% of mergers and acquisitions fail to deliver expected results (KPMG study, MoneyWatch, April 2012).
I’ve heard all the talk about multiples, competitive edge, market dominance, technology capture, culture compatibility, etc.—all good business thinking that we find at the best MBA schools. Few savvy executives go into a merger without having done their homework, run it through their financial models, and performed a detailed due diligence. So why do so many fail?
It’s a myth that joining two organizations is primarily a quantitative-analytical and rational process. The greatest risk is managing the psychological and social aspects. Hypnotized by the financial opportunity and perhaps the balance-sheet risk, executives often look in the wrong direction and ignore the key factor that will bring life to their investment—the people! For employees of an acquired organization it is one of the most anxiety-producing events in human experience. The acquired employees’ fear of being “not known” is palpable, and many executives and investors fail to see this until the best and most talented start walking out the door.
People within the acquiring organization remain relatively comfortable in their emotionally stable “pasture” of being known by those in authority. These executives, managers, and even the lower-level high potentials still feel safe, as executives in control who determine their fate know them well, many on a first-name basis, but this is not so for the acquired. The emotional instability of the acquired sets the psychological stage for a feeding frenzy by headhunters. This is the real risk—when newly acquired talented employees’ fears are eased by headhunters hired by your competitors. Picked off one by one, the REAL VALUE of your acquisition vanishes—poof! You can argue and rationalize all you want, but when the solid performers start walking out, slow death (entropy) sets in and it is so gradual you may not even notice until it’s too late. Many executives either don’t know this or, as in the case of my friend referred to above, they know, but receive bad advice as to what to do.
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