First-Class Coach

The morale of the leader always has a direct impact on how the rest of the company feels.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I started a small, dynamic company seven years ago and sold out to a bigger group last year. I find having to fit in with their systems and bureaucracy very trying. My employees seem demotivated too. How can I get our energy levels back?

A: What were your expectations when you sold your company? Did you think it would be business as usual, or did you imagine that some things would change?

Entrepreneurs who've sold their businesses but are still involved in running them often feel rather out of sorts, once the sale has happened. They've rarely spent much time envisaging their future and working out how they'll adapt to their new role. They have focused on finding a buyer, setting the right price and getting the deal done, with all the rigmarole of due diligence. As a result, they tend to look up when the thrill of being chased dies down and find that things have changed, and not necessarily in ways they enjoy.

One of the great benefits of having your own firm is the autonomy it can bring. Perhaps you were beholden to the bank, but otherwise had a free hand to do the things you felt to be important, in the way you wanted to do them. And when there are only a few of you, there's no need for lots of systems and processes, since communication is easy - just raise your voice a little and all five employees will hear you. As a previous boss of mine used to say, the problems start when the phone list is longer than one page.

And yet, if you are ambitious to grow the enterprise, to attract bigger clients, to do bigger projects or to make more money, you have to evolve a more formal structure and put in place processes that let you work efficiently. I suspect that, to have survived seven years and be worthy of being acquired, your company achieved this transition, but that now you're part of a group, the degree of formality needed has ratcheted up, and that is what's proving irksome.

This is understandable but inevitable. Your business may have survived on UK customers, but if the group operates globally, particularly with blue-chip US companies, it will have to be Sarbanes-Oxley compliant, and this involves a 'granular' approach to financial reporting. After selling his company, one of my clients told me ruefully: 'The culture of the group is very different to ours. Theirs is financial; the language they understand is money.' He'd accepted that to keep on good terms with the new owners, he'd have to speak their language, and, by doing this, he'd be able to keep the group's executive from interfering directly with how the business is run.

If you resent having to focus solely on the figures, hire someone who enjoys this role to perform it, so that you can concentrate on the areas where you add value - perhaps maintaining and developing senior client relationships; being the public face of the business; or developing new products and services. Getting back to what you enjoy doing will make you feel more useful and happier with your new working context, and it will help restore your energy levels.

If you've been off the boil, it's no surprise that the rest of the team feel demotivated. The morale and energy levels of the leader always have a direct impact on how the rest of the company feels. This is especially so in acquired firms, when most people have chosen to work for one business but ended up working for another, usually with a different style and culture.

Although it's clear that the business owner has gained financially from the sale, employees can be left wondering what's in it for them. If their leader isn't helping them to integrate and encouraging them to find sources of satisfaction in the new situation, they may well be feeling resentful. They may also feel vulnerable, fearing there's about to be a swathe of redundancies and that, as the new owner doesn't know them and their capabilities, they'll be forced out.

Giving your people a sense that you still have a vision for the company and that you are engaged in creating opportunities for the business and its staff will help them acclimatise. It will also signify that the culture and values they appreciated in the past are still present, even if some of the administrative details have changed. You can also explore other parts of the group, to discover where you can do the sort of work you do best and what career-advancement possibilities are available for others in your business.

Don't sulk in your cave - get out among your people and show more positive leadership.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, e-mail:

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