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Merging corporate cultures

Remove roadblocks that can hurt morale

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

During a merger or acquisition, senior executives typically huddle behind closed doors trying to produce synergy in the combined company. Meanwhile, front-line managers try to keep good employees from quitting, while promoting teamwork among shellshocked workers.

“The initial period is hard,” admits Tom Ruffolo, vice president of business development at Conexant Systems in Newport Beach, Calif. “Early on, it’s tough to get everyone working together. And the people issues are so much more important than dotting every i or crossing every t on a revenue forecast.”

The keys to success are preparation and communication. Roadblocks are inevitable, especially when employees from two units try to look beyond their differences and trust one another in the middle of a stressful transition.

Follow these guidelines to lead people during a merger:

Make it personal. Put high achievers in charge of various aspects of the transition. Introduce them to employees at parties, picnics and other informal gatherings. This helps workers know whom to call with questions or problems.

“Make people part of solving problems that come up,” says Ruffolo, who has led three completed mergers. “Personalize it. If Sally down the hall is in charge of 401(k) plans and Bob is the guy who’ll help you integrate your computer system, then you’re less likely to blame an impersonal company.”

Hunt for stars. Encourage employees to make suggestions and take initiative. Enact their best ideas, and reward selfless workers by giving them more authority. Their fine example will influence others.

During a merger, one of Ruffolo’s employees came to him and said, “I can do more to help.” So Ruffolo made her the point person on supply-chain issues. “When a person raises her hand, take notice,” he says.

Scan the horizon. “Make employees feel they’re part of a long-term vision,” says Veronique Wittebolle, executive vice president of Keyware Technologies in Woburn, Mass. “They’ll be more motivated if they feel there’s a plan in place that benefits them and their careers.”

Wittebolle, who has overseen two acquisitions of smaller companies, urges managers to learn workers’ expectations of how they think a merger might affect them. Then sell them on how they fit into the new organization.

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