Of all the work I do, perhaps the most difficult is helping organizations work through the challenges of a successful merger. Here are a few of my learnings…
Mergers take time.
Mergers take time, a lot of time. There is no way around it. It takes time to build trusting relationships, especially in a process that is often emotional and personal and fraught with tension. It takes time to understand what you stand to gain and lose in a merger (and the same of your partner). It takes time to address the myriad of financial, programmatic, cultural and governance issues that must be considered thoughtfully and carefully. It takes time to make a merger go from an idea to a success. Take the time to do it right.
Respect the process.
I realize that you might think that you are special (you are!) and do not need to follow a process (you do, I promise). It will save time and make life easier. There are three general phases to a merger:
- Pre-Merger. The pre-merger phase focuses on assessment and consideration. Key questions that are addressed include: Is there a strategic fit with services and brand? Is there an organizational fit in terms of mission, vision and culture? What would be the financial impact of a merger? What are the expectations of each partner?
- Merger. Once it has been established that a merger may make sense, you enter the negotiations stage. During this phase, the team conducts extensive due diligence, considers the risks and benefits of a merger, and prepares a merger agreement for board approval. At any time during the negotiation phase, one of the groups may decide not to move forward.
- Post-Merger. After the merger papers have been signed and delivered, the organization starts the careful and, at times, difficult integration process. Areas that must be carefully and thoughtfully integrated include governance, programs, systems and culture.
Address culture… early and often.
Studies have shown that cultures don’t often merge, the dominant culture dominates. Yet cultural integration is possible. Oftentimes the two entities are not of equal size and, while still referred to as a merger, the process leads to an acquisition. The group that is being acquired needs to identify key cultural elements they would like to survive. Then the groups need to talk about their cultures and how to create a new culture by integrating elements from both.
Accept conflict and work through it.
Conflict is a natural part of the merger process. Early on establish ground rules outlining behavioral expectations during the process. Expect fidelity to those rules. People will hold themselves and others to high standards if those standards are clearly defined. Some of the ground rules I use:
- Everyone participates and takes ownership in the group’s accomplishments.
- Treat each other with honor and respect.
- Different opinions are welcome.
- Be tough on the issues but soft on each other.
- Silence is agreement.
- Limit side conversations.
- Listen actively and respectfully.
- Keep comments brief and to the point.
You have many stakeholders in mergers. Mergers make people nervous. Staff are afraid of their jobs. Funders want to some assurance that their investment remains sounds. Your board needs to understand what the organization may gain and lose from a partnership. Communicate often (enough) and honestly.
I have witnessed the power of mergers to strengthen organizations, expand service reach and preserve quality programming. They are an opportunity for organizations to create something new where the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Proceed with cautious optimism!