After a Sea Change

It was hard to have any sort of career in the 80s or 90s that did not involve working through a merger, acquisition or even the complete dissolution of an employer.

A good friend has been doing some reflecting (in his retirement), and with his permission, I am sharing his thoughts on a time that still causes angst. There he was, leading a large and successful team, when everyone gathered to hear that they had been merged.

The news came out of the blue, as these things must I suppose. The announcement made to the stock market was that the newly formed entity would be made efficient by removing duplication through a specific number of redundancies. Given that the staff were all professional people, you can imagine how everyone reacted. How exactly had this number of redundancies been decided – and by whom?

There was no merger management team. All actions to bring about the merger were assigned to existing managers, and we were already fully employed. We saw no sign of coordination or planning.

Our new colleagues had a very different culture, and we were thrown together somewhat arbitrarily. People started asking ‘well, who is in charge? Is this function being duplicated? Most employees wondered, who exactly am I reporting to? We ended up reporting to someone from the other company who had virtually no idea about our work or our potential.

In the melee, many people just tried to get their defined responsibilities done, to avoid being seen as potential redundancy fodder. Others saw the opportunity and took the reins, and in doing so, their ‘land grabs’ morphed into the positions they desired.

But harder to swallow, was that there was no celebration of our history and project achievement. If we ever raised those stories or cited our experience, we were seen as being divisive and backward looking.

To cut a long story short, we ‘lost’ the company, through major project losses, surprises that arose from cursory due diligence and the eventual prosecution of the CEO, for taking bribes.

Blimey! Who could have predicted that an ‘every man for himself’ culture would emerge?

Like my friend, I have been through both productive and destructive changes. I’ve seen some very good people head out the door during changes, or worse, stay put and keep their potential to themselves. I have seen fabulously mediocre people survive the culling and do well out of the chaos, sometimes taking managerial positions they were not qualified to hold. And it was laughable that the rationale for the change was ‘enhancing shareholder value.’

About 60% of Mergers and Acquisitions will fail. It’s not hard to do an autopsy on most of these. Sometimes you are left wondering – what was all that about? We don’t seem to learn a lot from the disasters either.

We could all revisit Kurt Lewin’s three step model of change, from unfreezing to implementation to refreezing. Kurt suggested that leaders consider the impact on the people who will make the change succeed or fail. It was a model of good sense that was expanded upon by others. Today it is criticised (by some) for its simplicity. It was a bit heavy on the need to talk to people and listen to them. This criticism may come from consultants who sell change management expertise as a process requiring the mastery of spreadsheets.

I once thought that boards were simply naïve in assuming that a major organisational change would be straight forward, because the numbers looked rational on paper. I now think they do not care about the wreckage. A more Darwinian ego dominates, and shareholders would be aghast at the waste that ensues from the reckless, unplanned growth that discounts the value tied up in people.

I remain sorry about the waste of talent. My colleague was (and is) a good guy. He had some very smart, capable people who were with him, in the engine room of that ship back then. Almost all made it into career lifeboats of some kind, but the loss of that team was the organisation’s loss.

These experiences haunt us at times, but they do not define us. My friend was resilient. This setback takes up a line in his CV and is not the whole story. That is true for any lousy experience in a working life. It’s only a line, it’s not the whole story. Or as an old saying has it, we may not control the winds, but we can adjust our sails.  

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