It’s not common for a CEO or president of an acquired company to remain after the deal is closed. Many count down until their contract expires and then leave, sometimes taking members of their former leadership team with them. Two years ago my company was acquired by a larger one. My experience – and that of my management team and our employees – leads me to suggest a different conversation: how can we create an environment where we all thrive, both personally and professionally, together at our new company?
Like most of us, over the course of my career, I have heard the horror stories of acquisitions gone wrong. Anticipated business synergies don’t emerge, cultures don’t gel, former leaders feel disempowered as frustration grows on both sides. But there’s also a less well-known story that may offer a more positive path. I helped found a small tech company just as I was graduating from college. Over the years, we grew to a company of 700 employees with offices around the world, and I was honored to serve as President. When we reached the stage where we needed to compete on an even larger scale, we made the decision to look for an acquisition partner.
The decision to sell a company is a serious responsibility. We had deliberately built a very people-oriented business. Our clients and our employees were at the core of everything we did, and they would be the ones most impacted. From the outset, we looked for an acquisition partner whose commitment to their people and clients matched ours.
Lesson #1: Choose carefully, if you can
Of course, not every company is in the position to select who will acquire them. In this case, we were fortunate to be able to choose our acquisition partner. When we vetted the company we selected, we saw a good fit in two important areas. They were approaching this acquisition strategically; we had skills they hadn’t yet developed. And they listened; they were open to learning from our leaders. We had a strong sense that if we could help our people find their voice within this larger organization, if we could position them correctly, they would do well.
Lesson #2: Make sure you value the same things
As a leadership team, we had tremendous pride in what we had built. It was a top priority to find an acquiring partner that operated the same way. Once we knew we shared the same commitment to our clients and to employee growth, we began to take personal pride in making sure our selected partner felt good about the acquisition.
Lesson #3: Nurture your own positive attitude
It is very easy to come into any environment and focus on what the new company doesn’t do well. It’s easy to say it is bureaucratic, that we know better. This is not a productive mindset. Early on I said to myself, what are the five to 10 things I do better than my new company? I will help them become better at those. At the same time, surely they have leaders who are better than I am. How can I as a leader use this as a learning opportunity? I decided to study the styles of my new fellow leaders. Looking back, this approach has been a tremendously positive experience.
Lesson #4: Coach and mentor your heart out
Of course, I am the one who made the decision to sell the company. Our employees had not decided to work for a different company. It was important to our entire leadership team that we help our employees find their voice – and the best role for them – in this larger enterprise.
I encouraged our leadership team to adopt their own positive mindsets. And early on we met individually with employees to make sure we all went on this journey together. We continued to meet formally as a leadership team for the first year to be sure we were on track and were successfully helping our employees settle in. We still do occasionally. We are in different roles, but we still meet.
From the perspective of two years later, the acquisition wasn’t perfect. Some people left in frustration. But our goal was to get everyone to a place where their talents were seen, where they had opportunities. From there, they were able to make their own decisions, and I believe that overall we were successful.
Personally, I have learned and grown a lot. I respect that our new company allowed themselves to absorb new leaders. They have continued to listen and to be open-minded. Our legacy leadership team is proud that we have delivered financial results for the company and contributed strategic capabilities that will benefit us all as we go forward. Most of all, we are proud to offer an example of a company that today honors separate pasts and looks with enthusiasm toward one future.