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You Say Tomato; They Say Tomahto…
How to sing from the same song sheet in a post-merger culture

It’s not an
uncommon story:

A merger is announced—two important corporate names join forces to create a superpower. Management and shareholders are highly optimistic about the new value proposition. Meanwhile, below the line, it’s another story—the story of oil meets water. One company dresses casually; the other is strictly suit and tie. One is entrepreneurial; the other, hierarchical. One values the 18-hour work day; the other places a premium on work-life balance. In the company dining room, rumblings are overheard at different tables:

Table 1:
“Here’s how they work: ready, fire aim!”

Table 2:
“Getting a decision out of these people
is like trying to speed up the Ice Age!”

This kind of polarity is not harmless chatter—it’s a potential brand grenade.

Merging corporate cultures is not about how to get everybody in the same boat singing “Kum baya.” It’s about creating an alignment that most people can be comfortable with, that suits the merged organizational personality and results in synergy with positive momentum that enables culture to be an added value. But for a firm’s culture to be a competitive advantage—as opposed to a barrier—everyone in the organization has to have a clearly defined idea of what is valued and how to deliver. In a merger environment, this needs to be a conscious, and conscientious, process.

“The soft stuff” has a sharp edge
Culture isn't invisible—it’s the internal expression of a company’s brand. You may merge two brands on paper, but a piece of paper doesn’t automatically merge two cultures. Nobody expects, or wants, Stepford, Inc. But if people are uncertain of their role in the cultural landscape, they’re not happy. They’re less productive. Valuable human resources may leave, or worse, spread their discontent—inside and out. Malcontent employees complain about their jobs to their friends, their associates—and their clients. That impacts not only attitudes, but business.

Cultural consolidation—a new kind of diversity
Mergers, consolidation and reorganization are creating a critical new level of cultural segmentation, one which increasingly requires distinctly different sets of often deeply-entrenched attitudes and behaviors to not only coexist, but create a seamless competitive advantage for their newly-aligned team. Edges are raw, and so are emotions. Yet expectations are high.

Can a set of diverse corporate cultures be blended while preserving the advantage of the unique benefits and characteristics of each entity? What can management do to chart a course that maximizes the value of the merged culture—while maintaining both high morale and maximum productivity? How can the organizations quickly and effectively create a single charge forward?

While business goals may mesh compatibility, cultural expectations can be either an asset or a barrier. As in any good relationship, work is often required.

Increasingly, cultural considerations of a merger are as impactful as the business scenario. For instance, merger discussions between Disney and Comcast resulted in media frenzy—and heated hallway discussions—about a potential culture clash. The New York Times referred to “profoundly different management styles,” a difference in corporate DNA that would result in resounding management and cultural implication for a combined firm. At Disney, Michael Eisner was known for a highly centralized management style, where “no creative decision is too small for his consideration,” including the color of bumper cars in the parks. At Comcast, Stephen Burke favored a delegatory style, a legacy of his own father, whose favorite quotation, from an ancient Chinese philosopher, read; “a leader is best when people barely know he exists… when his work is done, (his people) will say: we did it ourselves.”

This lack of alignment is not atypical of the cultural landscape of a merger. The challenge to management is not just to acknowledge the situation, but to turn it into a proactive and positive scenario. It’s unrealistic to expect employees—whether twenty or twenty thousand in number—to instantly act as one. And no one would want them to. Each constituent in a merger brings valued qualitative assets that the new entity will strive to retain. Yet the sooner and more seamlessly a newly combined culture becomes a true team, the more positive and powerful the quantifiable impact will be. To maximize this potential, merger planning needs to reach beyond the balance sheet and include focus on cultural awareness and accountability.

Creating task-directed merger teams which integrate representatives from both cultures is an obvious first step. But there are further touchpoints which can be built into the process to help ensure a smooth cultural merger.

Do your homework
As part of the upfront due diligence phase, employees need to learn about their new colleagues’ personalities and historical management and work styles. Research case histories about how each organization has operated pre-merger. Learn about the geographies where they operate. Read bios of the people you will be working with. Become knowledgeable, and make the information available.

Map the cultures
Create a compelling graphic that maps and dimensionalizes each culture’s core attitudes and values. This can be based on qualitative or quantitative data-gathering. A physical representation of each culture’s personality profile clarifies where synergies exist and where gaps are of value—or need to be closed.

Link cultural goals to the merger business strategy
Culture does not exist in a vacuum. Its core role is to enable the business to function as seamlessly as possible, to create a competitive advantage that is built into the organizational DNA. In order to achieve this, culture initiatives must work not just side by side, but as an intrinsic, organic element of the business strategy. If your goal is to deliver a certain return on investment, you need to answer the question of how the newly merged culture can help make this happen. The answer needs to be specific—and quantifiable.

Use culture to deliver a shared vision
Compelling as it may be to shareholders, it’s hard to get people excited about R.O.I. on a day to day, working level. That’s where culture can play a key role as motivator. Culture is the delivery system for a vision, a sense of greater purpose, that the entire organizational population is not just willing to work toward—but is eager to work its heart toward. A clear vision of that emotional mission makes the link from head to heart. This is the spark that can ignite your organization and give every employee a shared sense of why they come to work everyday, and why they want to go the extra mile. These same employees become the message-carriers. That message will probably not be instantly clear—but the journey there will be a key task for the newly-merged team to take together.

The event of a merger often brings newly expanded goals, new players, new geographies, and new leadership. The deck may not be totally reshuffled, but it always contains some new cards. This is a trigger opportunity to create a renewed cultural commitment or sense of focus. At HP, for instance, this was memorably achieved by using the Compaq merger as a lever to underscore the core cultural commitment to “Invent.”

This is a basic that never goes away, and is never more important than during a merger, when employees at all levels may feel disconnected, out of the loop or just plain uncertain. Providing constant, ongoing communications touchpoints, on a 360° basis, is key. Meetings, e-mails, websites, newsletters, management town halls or fireside chats, streaming videos or walkabouts—bring out all your artillery. It never hurts to create occasions for bonding. “Family dinners” can bring groups together on an informal basis. There is no such thing as over-communicating key messages to employees during a merger environment. As soon as legally permissible, open the communications channels wide—and keep them open on a two-way basis. Feedback is just as important as output.

Don’t forget to have fun
The facts and information are critical, but spirit, humanity, and fun keep energy flowing and people motivated. Mergers create their own level of gravity, and a touch of humor, a tweak of style, can go a long way to lighten a heavy situation. This can be as simple as augmenting a PowerPoint presentation with an upbeat video or cartoon, or starting a lighthearted new tradition like pizza Fridays.

When the pressure is on and there are a blizzard of meetings, deadlines and deliverables, it’s tempting to push culture conversations to the back burner. But to do that would be to ignore the fact that culture, in any environment, is what makes us who we are. It delives the distinct identity that defines how we do business.

In a merger, a new culture is being created. What we make of it is up to us.

Liz Nickles

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