How to Bridge Company Cultures after a Merger
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One of the most difficult aspects of managing the merger of two companies is bringing together their respective cultures into one unified team. Companies come with their own unique personalities, customs, ideals and relationship dynamics that can lead to clashes, if not downright dysfunction, regardless of how culturally aligned the companies may be. Handle everything with great care.
This task became doubly difficult last year when our company merged with not one, but two related firms: storage performance analytics developer Load DynamiX and cloud software monitoring specialist Xangati. This happened shortly after I joined as engineering head to lead its 50-plus member engineering group.
Culturally, these groups were very different. Their skill sets were different, the team locations were different and their organizational structures were different. We had a challenge on our hands. The way we handled it holds lessons for other companies that are merging businesses -- and cultures.
Accentuate the positives.
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 tend to just chat with people rather than have a preset set of questions. I literally make a cup of my favorite tea, walk over to someone on my team and then go on from there. It’s a successful approach because people are relaxed and open and I get all my questions answered.
The need to network across newly merged cultures requires a leader to sometimes step outside the boundaries of her defined job, which can be risky because it puts both her and her subordinates in uncharted territory in terms of corporate policy and the established hierarchy.
I don’t like to feel constrained in my role. If there is something that needs doing, I’ll step in and do it. I’ve taken on roles that someone would not expect a SVP of engineering to do, and I’m not averse to some people doing the same on my team.
At the same time, it is vital to recognize that everyone has different talents and skillsets and a successful cultural integration will depend largely on the ability to assess the strengths of the individuals while understanding skillset gaps across all teams.
Some people are very happy staying in a tactical bucket and churning out code, some folks are resistant to change. It takes a certain mindset and level of maturity to appreciate that. I have engineers who ask a lot of questions about new product ideas -- they want to get started on new stuff. Others aren’t interested. 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.
Reach every single person.
I also make a point of reaching out to the “quiet people” on the staff, not just about the projects they are working on but to discuss things like career goals, professional interests and how they would like to contribute to the organization.
People want to feel valued and heard. It’s important to keep management and executives focused on all of their people and products, so they don’t feel left out. I get knocked back on my heels when someone says, “I can’t believe the head of the department keeps coming to talk to me,” and not in a confrontational way. I give people advice about how to approach people, what kinds of organizations they might want to join, a service project they could get involved with inside or outside of work to open their minds to the opportunities around them.
Above all, however, I like to maintain a sense of optimism in the work environment, which can only come about if individuals feel they are getting back from the company as much as they are putting in. Enthusiasm is the No. 1 skill. If they say they really want to work on release management and that comes up in a conversation later, I’ll remember them. I won’t hire someone who doesn’t have enthusiasm for the company, their role, the product or their colleagues.
In the end, managing the merger of corporate cultures requires equal parts guidance and flexibility. As managers, it is important to establish expectations and ensure that the team is working 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.
In sports as in the business world, goals can only be achieved if the coach can improve all players on the team.