First class coach

First class coach - My company has just merged with another, similar-sized, company, and we're expecting an influx of new staff from the partner business.

by MARGARET EXLEY, a non-executive director of the Treasury'smanagement board
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

My company has just merged with another, similar-sized, company, and we're expecting an influx of new staff from the partner business.

They will be joining at all levels - some senior to me, some at the same level, and some directly answerable to me. How can I best assess the skills and personalities of my new colleagues?

Research suggests that only half the mergers and acquisitions made deliver their business promise. In each case the acquiring company or lead partner has paid a premium for the business to persuade shareholders it's a good deal. And so the newly acquired business has to perform better to justify the high price. Yet most of these mergers fail because the people side fails. The cultures don't gel or the leadership fails to impress, or there are disagreements about the best way to run the place. So your question is the right one - not only for you but for the business as a whole. Capitalising on the skills and capabilities of people in the merging businesses is crucial in ensuring a return on the investment.

In assessing your new colleagues, realise that their skills and personalities will have been shaped by the history and culture of their company. Investigate its background. What were its turning points? What has made it successful?

What triggered the failures? By hearing these stories, you will get a sense of what has brought the company to where it is today. Paint a similar picture of your own firm's history for your new colleagues.

When the Leeds Building Society merged with the Halifax, the two were seen as a winning ticket - the Halifax's administrative and organisational skills complementing the creativity of the Leeds. But life is not always that simple. As a consummate winner in operational delivery, you might find it hard to work with your creative and less systematic colleagues.

Only time will tell if the Halifax capitalised on the creative streak within the Leeds.

Discuss with colleagues the possibility of jettisoning old methods and attitudes that may hold the acquired company back. How do these compare with your own company's weaknesses?

By developing a shared understanding of these strengths and weaknesses you can create a much stronger entity. Use the merger as a catalyst for clearing away unnecessary baggage. These opportunities will only emerge through open dialogue and will not be encouraged if people feel they are 'on trial'.

Often, however, the anxiety caused by a merger makes people feel defensive and competitive. They try to get the upper hand by proving their way is best. But that builds resistance to working together effectively. I worked with a drinks company where such defensiveness had created an 'us and them' culture that was still tangible six years after the merger. As a result, the business was underperforming and many synergies went unrealised.

The word 'synergies' is used a lot in mergers, usually as a code for cost reduction. Perhaps this is what is on your mind when you ask about assessing skills and personalities? If this is obvious to everyone, assessment will be difficult - your new staff will not admit to skill problems for fear of losing their jobs. It is better to define new jobs and structures before identifying the people needed to populate that structure. Once the structure has been decided, start a systematic, transparent and fair process of objective assessment and resourcing as soon as possible.

If you want to understand your new colleagues' skills and personalities to work better with them, look at what the organisation champions as best practice. Who are the heroes in the partner organisation and why. Who do the leaders promote and support? How is good performance rewarded and poor performance dealt with? The answers will give you all the information you need about the personalities around you. Beyond that, get to know your new colleagues socially.

Take your time and listen a lot. Identify the myths and rituals of the new organisation and be sensitive to its history and ways of working.

If you do this, as with all good courtships, you should find it leads to a long and productive marriage. If you can pull this off, you will be doing better than many others in similar circumstances.

Margaret Exley leads Towers Perrin's European practice on change and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is a non-executive director of the Treasury's management board.

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