Over the last ten years, I've talked with hundreds of managers who have been deeply involved in the post-merger/acquisition integration process. When asked to describe their experience, the overwhelming majority of affected managers quickly characterize the work as stressful, anxiety-producing, and emotional. Yet when I probe a little deeper, many of those managers grudgingly acknowledge that the integration process was a period of intense learning. A few even say that it was the most important growth and development experience in their careers.
That being said, being involved in putting two companies or units together is not easy: Processes need to be aligned, systems updated, structures shifted, and responsibilities redefined. Getting the myriad of tasks done is a major program management exercise, with lots of people putting in extra time and working under pressure. Even worse, much of the work is done with relative strangers, who may come from different cultures with different assumptions. And to top it off, all of this takes place at a time when there are no guaranties about even having a job, let alone a future, with the new company.
If you're involved in integration, you have a few choices. You can easily dwell on all of these negatives, get your work done, and hope that the outcome will be positive. You could also avoid getting involved, polish your resume, and start looking for alternative employment. But there is another choice: Embrace the complexity, ambiguity, and intensity of the integration period and turn it into your own leadership development academy.
Post-merger/acquisition integration is like a change project on steroids. There is an overwhelming amount of work to be done with insufficient time and resources available to do it. But because of this, the process provides at least three learning and career opportunities that don't usually exist during normal times.
First, integration is an opportunity to develop execution skills. Dozens of teams representing either functions or business units are required to simultaneously develop and execute complex work plans, often with short-time frames. With so many teams going at once, companies can't rely on the "usual suspects" to do all of the work. So if you're looking to strengthen your execution skills, integration can be a real-time case study in learning how to put a plan together, how to distinguish between critical and "nice-to-have" activities, how to overcome unforeseen obstacles, how to collaborate with other teams, how to measure results, and a host of other execution capabilities.
Second, integration can give you a chance to learn how to work with a diverse range of people. In ordinary times, we usually do most of our work with colleagues who share the same goals and corporate culture. Integration, however, is like a forced marriage in which you need to quickly learn how to work productively with people who may have different perspectives, aspirations, culture, language, and processes -- and who may not even want to work with you. It's therefore a rich opportunity to develop skills for identifying differences, solving problems, resolving conflicts, and building consensus.
Finally, integration is a unique chance to get visibility. Because of the stakes, senior executives will hold frequent discussions with project teams where you can present ideas and updates on progress. Also, because so much change is happening around the company, innovation will be highly valued -- and if you can find better ways to do things, these may get attention as well. Most importantly, executives will be determining who will stay in the new company -- so being constructively engaged is a signal to them that you are a "keeper."
Whether you end up with a job in the new company or not, integration is an opportunity to learn skills that you can apply anywhere. That's why companies like GE, MeadWestvaco, Merck, and many others intentionally assign high-potential people to key integration roles as a way of getting an additional dividend from a merger or acquisition. If you take the initiative and approach integration as an opportunity for learning, you can get part of this dividend for yourself as well.
Have you been able to take advantage of an integration process to strengthen your skills? What has been your experience with mergers?
This blog post is a sneak-peak to the upcoming article, "The Merger Dividend," by Ron Ashkenas and his colleagues Suzanne Francis and Rick Heinick. Look for "The Merger Dividend" in the July-August issue of HBR to learn how leading companies use the integration process to develop their managers.
Cross-Posted from Harvard Business Online