How to bridge company cultures after a merger

How to bridge company cultures after a merger

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July 07, 2017

One of the most difficult aspects of managing company mergers is unifying teams. Companies come with their own personalities, customs, ideals, and dynamics that can lead to post-merger clashes – if not downright dysfunction – regardless of how aligned the companies may be. Leaders must handle post-merger management with great care. 

This task became doubly difficult for me last year when our company merged with not one, but two related firms: storage performance analytics provider Load DynamiX and cloud performance monitoring specialist Xangati. This happened shortly after I joined as engineering head to lead Virtual Instruments’ 100+ member engineering and QA group. Culturally, these groups were very different. We had a challenge on our hands. The way we handled it holds lessons for other companies that are merging businesses – and cultures.

We focused on these issues as we built a cohesive engineering team:

Get the team together – literally

We have several offshore engineering groups, but for the most part, our merged teams were all based in San Jose. When we moved from three separate buildings into one, I took it as a chance to make our space unique and build cohesion around our physical environment. I engaged an artist to paint graffiti murals throughout the office, especially in the shared spaces where our team was likely to collaborate or just chat while pouring a cup of coffee or sitting down for lunch. 

[For more advice on culture change, see our related article, Adobe CIO: How we rallied IT around a new purpose.]

Creating a shared, fun, unique workspace might not sound like a SVP of engineering’s job, but it should be if that person is focused on retaining talent after a merger. While it’s important to respect the individual corporate cultures employees are coming from, this is a moment when team members can start to feel loose in the socket. If they were thinking of leaving before the merger happened, they’re even more vulnerable afterward. Creating a sense of shared belonging and togetherness can help keep the team in place.  

Connect with each individual

One of the most important aspects of cultural integration is to identify and cultivate the best aspects of each organization, which can be most easily done by simply talking to people. I made a point of reaching out to everyone, especially the “quiet people” on the staff, not just about the projects they were working on, but also about career goals, professional interests, and how they would like to contribute to the organization. Enthusiasm is the number-one skill I look for during these conversations, and it shows up in different ways based on an individual’s talents, skill sets, and preferred work style. 

"Post-merger is a dangerous time to manage by fear."

Some people are happy staying in a tactical bucket and churning out code, and some folks ask a lot of questions about new product ideas and want to get started on new stuff. There are no cookie-cutter ideas of what makes a good team. You need to leverage the attributes and skill sets of the team you have, and communicate that when everyone is performing well, the whole team will be kept in place. Post-merger is a dangerous time to manage by fear or by chopping off the end of the bell curve.

Kill your assumptions

I came into a merged team as a new leader, which is an advantage in many ways. I didn’t have a clear allegiance to one part of the team or another, and neutrality is a good first step. However, I did make some assumptions about what I had believed were Engineering 101 processes. I shouldn’t have. When I dug into how the team was triaging work, testing systems or fixing bugs, their approach did not completely meet my expectations. 

In hindsight, I would have asked myself what those expectations were for every development and delivery process, and spent time walking through those processes with the merged team in more detail from the outset. This is a key management step following any merger, when different corporate cultures can create clashes in expectations. Assume nothing.

Make it safe to fail fast and move forward

If you’re lucky enough to inherit multiple strong teams as I did, the best characteristics and habits will come to the new company, while the worst will get left behind. Even when that happens, though, employees will be reticent to point out their own mistakes or those of their original teams. They must quickly learn that doing so is OK if you’re pursuing an agile workplace. 

The leader of the team must communicate repeatedly that it’s safe to say, “We failed,” “We need to change this process,” or “We have to add some critical items to this checklist.” When people speak up with critiques and suggestions, act on them and move on. Don’t make t-shirts out of the lesson. Learn. Adjust. Continue.

Managing the merger of corporate cultures requires equal parts guidance and flexibility. As managers, it is important to establish expectations and ensure the team works together for a successful outcome. But this should not devolve into a rigid work atmosphere that stifles creative problem-solving and out-of-the-box thinking.

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Lisa Alger joined Virtual Instruments in September 2016 and leads the worldwide engineering, support and QA teams. She has more than 25 years of engineering management and software development experience.

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