In 1987 BP took over the minority interest in Sohio, a company for which I had been working for less than two years. BP had owned 51 percent of the company for some time, but let Sohio function with its own processes and objectives. Now, with the acquisition, everything was to be merged into one.
Sure enough, teams descended on us to integrate. Some of them were great, they listened to what we were doing, looked for what was of interest and value to the new company, looked out for good people as well, and generally took us through a gradual transition process. But others were terrible. They started with the presumption that there was the BP way and the wrong way, and we had better get going on moving over to the BP way quickly. Moreover, when we talked about achievements in our projects, they conveyed a clear message that there was already someone in BP who had cracked that problem or was tackling it in a better way, so you can just close down your effort. Often this was spoken with only the most casual knowledge of what the BP group was working on.
Later, when as a senior person in BP I was part of the merger with Mobil in Europe, and later with Amoco, I thought I could still remember the good and bad experiences I had had during the Sohio acquisition, and try to behave properly. But I didn't. I found it was very hard to be appreciative of the other company, no matter how deserving they were of respect. Moreover, when I gave a message, a useful message, I sometimes gave it in a way that was not sensitive to the feelings of the person to whom I was speaking. They did the same thing, and as a result we underperformed for a while.
We do things in a certain way, and become imbued with our way, take a lot of pride in it. So it is hard to have the maturity to step back and look objectively at my way and your way and learn to use the best, or at least to persuade you around to my point of view rather than impose it. But that is what leaders need to do during a merger transition. I have come to believe that, while we are always in a hurry to move things along in a merger, and so we should be, a few days of training for those leading merger teams would pay big dividends. Not just in what we are going to accomplish, but in how we are going to accomplish it, so that the people from both companies, and especially the ones who will be crucial to its future success, come out of the process feeling valued.
It is the people at the top, for example the two CEOs in a merger, who set the example by their behavior in front of others. The other senior executives will take their clues from the examples they see, and this will percolate down through the management. When bad behavior happens, the senior people will talk to their people and do a little course correction. Some will learn from these experiences and improve; those that don't become part of the cost synergies to be achieved in any merger.
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?