How Jane survived an M&A and changed her life

By |2019-01-27T10:07:43+00:00November 29th, 2018|

You feel helpless. Your stress levels are sky high and rising. Your survival instincts are screaming at you to do something.

You can’t shake the worry and sense of hopelessness you feel when you think about controlling or planning your future. It’s out of your hands.

You’re desperate for a resolution – a time jump to a new beginning where you can feel safe and focus on getting back to normal. A place where you can look back and feel a sense of pride that you survived without too much damage.

But the problem is you’re afraid.

The truth is when it comes to Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A’s) you can expect chaos, disruption, and redundancies.

It’s like a disaster movie where most people get injured or suffer a hideous death, but somehow a lucky handful of people escape and thrive.

The survivors always emerge battered but unbroken at the end of the movie.

So why can’t this be you?

Don’t just sit and wait for the tsunami of change to overwhelm you and carry you along without any control.

Don’t just survive; come away feeling positive from what could be the biggest change in your life and career.

Listen, here’s a powerful story from one of my coaching clients who’s just like you.

A person that can inspire you to victory, but not at all costs.

The story starts, four years ago when Jane took a risk leaving a steady corporate job to join a high-tech start-up, offering flexibility, unrivaled autonomy, and personal growth.

The company doubled in size, giving her the opportunity to become Head of Operations and part of a select few who the founder considered his inner circle.

Life was comfortable, content and calm.

But then everything changed.

From nowhere a gut-wrenching, hard-hitting body blow turned her world upside down. Like an unexpected attack from a person in the street, the news was surprising and devastating.

Without warning. Without consultation.

And not even any warning signs from those inner circle meetings.

Not even a whisper.

For Jane, it happened midday on an ordinary day. The founder opened a town hall style meeting with a bombshell. He announced the immediate sale of the business to a US-based venture capitalist firm.

That bombshell moment caused Jane to go into shock. Into survival mode.

For many of you who work in larger corporate businesses, an M&A announcement might be a little softer, handled with more sensitivity. But for a small tech firm, this is more acquisition and takeover than M&A, and frequently means the start of a rough and stormy ride for everyone.

Especially as the buyer demands are high, insisting on driving revenues and continual growth.

Not only is the future of the business at stake, but also everyone’s career and the knock-on effect in their personal life.

So what’s involved in an M&A and why can it be so stressful?

What happens in a Merger & Acquisition

An M&A isn’t just a corporate strategy, it’s a personally disruptive, often traumatic, event.

You hear the term “post-merger integration” and it’s usually a period marked with tension, uncertainty, and chaos. Your workload goes up and alongside it, the pressure and stress.

The adaptation required is massive because you have to quickly change your standard way of operating to now embrace unfamiliar policies, practices, and politics. And then there’s the need to start working with strangers from a different corporate environment (and cultures), on top of a new boss who needs to learn about your skills, capabilities, ambitions, goals, and track record.

This is what an M&A really is.

The real killer here, of course, is that you do all of that while not even being certain that you’ll have a job in the company, let alone a long-term career.

The statistics aren’t great. On average, roughly 30% of employees are deemed redundant after a merger & acquisition in the same industry.

And a reorganisation during a merger & acquisition has a disappointingly low chance of total success (defined as delivering all desired outcomes in the planned time).

A recent survey on HBR.org, found only 11% of reorganisations achieve total success – which is a sobering statistic. Add to that the fact that 28% of mergers & acquisitions have a negative impact on the business and you can confirm that they are messy and stressful for all involved, but especially for you as a head of a department.

When you take into account the cases of popular, but bad M&A’s you get the entire picture. Examples such as Daimler-Benz and Chrysler, eBay and Skype, and Sony and Columbia Pictures are just some that prove the point.

Now there are exceptions, such as Amazon and Zappos, but most of the time its a stressful and negative experience for those involved.

Take a step back…

So, now you understand how damaging an M&A can be you need to take a moment to regain focus.

For Jane, she was about to get married, buy a house, but the thought of going ahead with these big decisions just didn’t make sense.

The uncertainty hovering over her was too much.

That’s why it’s important to take a step back and think deeply about your own goals. See what aligns the best with your “end goals,” as Vishen Lakhiani, the CEO of Mindvalley would say it.

Can you cope with gut-wrenching uncertainty, politics, and secrecy which makes you want to jump ship into the nearest lifeboat?

Or can you step back, breath, take a moment and see a path through this chaos?

Don’t sit still and let yourself be carried along by the process, like a swimmer lost in a fast flowing river. There are things you can do. Act; get those arms and legs moving.

Do something.

You might choose to take the easiest path and direct yourself with the flow, or the more difficult path across the river or against the flow where you may find a new direction paved with opportunities.

Whatever path you take it won’t be wrong, because your own personal circumstances and values offer the best clues to your choice. It has to be your choice. Inaction is not an option.

One of the best ways to make this choice is by using the Change Management Decision Framework.

Change Management Decision Framework

Borrowed from Adam Grant’s book Originals

So you’re currently facing a major decision in your career life which will impact everything. By taking all of this into consideration, there are four things you can do in this type of situation to manage change and the M&A the best possible way.

If you chose to leave the organisation by exiting, you will change the current situation you’re in and find a different wave to ride on. This has its downside because you have to start all over again in a different company. I don’t mean with the hierarchical position because that one can be quite high. I mean the relationships that you have to build with your co-workers from scratch.

If you choose neglect, you will maintain the status quo (as much as that’s possible in an M&A) by pulling back on your workload and disengaging from work as much as you can. This will be detrimental to the organisation because you won’t be giving your best at work but it will maintain the current status quo regarding your position and possibly lessen stress levels.

If you choose persistence, it means that you are willing to stay at the organisation and deal with the grunt work that’s ahead of you. By doing this, you will build up greater influence and grow a support system within the company. This will keep the same status quo but it will be beneficial for the organisation because you will be actively engaged in work.

If you choose to voice yourself, it means that you want to change the current situation and you want to do that to the benefit of the organisation. You are actively asking and giving feedback, making sure that you want to lead people and make this the best possible merger & acquisition possible.

Let’s see all four options in details now.

Exit

You need to evaluate the stress and chaos that will come into your life, both professional and personal.

The amount of preparation needed for that kind of move is extensive. The best thing would be to apply for a couple of job interviews and see where you stand in the job market. As soon as you have a couple of options, you will make a decision out of abundance and not scarcity. Even if you know how to ride the wave of change, it’s great to have a rescue boat nearby – it will make you feel safer and more in control.

Jon Morrow quit his job, moved to paradise, and got paid to change the world.
You might as well.

Neglect

This entails staying at your job but completely minimising the efforts that you put into the job. You start looking at work as a “minimum viable effort”— doing just enough work not to get fired from your position. People taking this decision is one of the reasons why employee engagement is at its all-time low (only 15 percent).

You might feel like you’re missing out on new opportunities but being compassionate to yourself is a key strength. Why ride a destructive wave when you can find one which offers you an easy ride where you can step back as an observer and take the long-term approach to your own wellness and career progression.

It’s important not to feel guilty about Neglect, because what you are actually doing to conserving your energy for other activities which can help you maintain your wellbeing and other interests – family, community etc..

Persevere

Perseverance is different than neglect because this is about building your influence, power, and connections within the company so that you can later on leverage that strength for good use.

During an M&A, things tend to get pretty hectic and chaotic. So keeping up with the tasks and pushing through until the situation is more stable will make you more influential. Especially when you take into consideration that leaders show their true face during struggles.

These are the moments when leaders of the future will emerge and you have a golden opportunity to be one of them. But you have to stay at it. Like Brian Dunn. He started working at Best Buy when he was 24 (1985) and worked there until he became the CEO of it in 2009 even though he recalls his experiences in the beginning as lousy ones.

Sometimes, the best option is to keep on gritting your teeth and pushing through, building resilience through compassion, even though you don’t like the current situation. You will form new connections, build up skills or reputation so that you can later on voice your request.

Voice

Voice means actively trying to improve the situation. This is where you come to your bosses or the person who leads the merger or acquisition and tell them suggestions, improvements or about the availability that you have for extra work.  This is how you become a rising star in your company and how Carlos Diaz Perez became one at giant SAP.

Voice means that you put yourself out there. It can be dangerous if you have not prepared the terrain for that, especially when it comes to merger or acquisition. But on the other hand, they can see you as a leader and a person with high potential who could be a rising star in the company.

But be ready and literally have eyes on the back of your head. You need to find your way through the minefield of corporate and office politics, secrecy, and alliances. Not to mention you need to build new relationships with people who are entering the company, rebuild the old relationships with the people in the company and have great stakeholder management.

I’m not trying to scare you with all of this information, I’m just trying to prepare you for this option in the best possible way.

This can be the greatest ride of your career on the biggest wave ever or the biggest crash that you experience. So I won’t tell you that this is the best option because all of them have their time and place and they are heavily context dependent.

#1 ACTION POINT – Take action now, sit back like Jane and think about your own goals.

To help you, I’ve added Jane’s goals here:

  1. Persevere – She wanted to take the high mountain path – see opportunity from the M&A and make an impact. Possibly into a new and wider role within the new group
  2. Build new relationships and cooperate with the transformation process
  3. Work towards helping combine the values of each business into a culture that puts people at its centre i.e autonomy, women in leadership, community engagement…

So what did you decide?

With your goals tattooed on your arm, you take those first steps into a new world. This might feel like David versus Goliath, where the purpose, values, and politics makes you feel afraid to make an impact. But there is a formula how David can beat Goliath if played right.

For Jane, the problem became even worse when the buyers (Goliath) sent in troubleshooters to not only bring the situation under control but to look for opportunities to cut costs.

This is the reality of an M&A that surprised Jane.

She was expecting a smooth transformation headed up by a crack team from one of the top 5 consulting firms. Where the agenda talks about blending capabilities, complementary values, sustaining profitable growth, and all the time maintaining diligence.

The fact is none of this happened.

The in-house Human Resources team was pushed to one side leaving the operational team without guidance or support.

This further amped-up Jane’s stress levels.

Her goals were now under increasing threat to the point where she started to take sick leave.

If you know anything about the change curve then Jane was right at the bottom. She’d gone from denial and doubt to acceptance in a short period of time. Now she was back firmly in doubt, struggling to function and felt anxious.

Gone were the comfort and support of the inner circle which had broken apart under the pressure of constant change. Gone were the calm waters of a small business unit, replaced by deep, dark and uninviting waters of change.

In fact, with the founder openly struggling to lead a structured transition, rumours and power struggles became part of everyday business in what was a classic power vacuum.

Does this remind you of your own situation?

Where are you on the change curve?


#2 ACTION POINT – where are you on the change curve? Don’t worry if you move backwards and forwards.

The change curve starts with the denial for change.

This is the shock that Jane had when she heard that an M&A is underway. After the initial shock, comes the doubt. This is where your internal voice asks you questions like “What will my job now be?” or “Do I carry on with my work?”

But the real transformation starts happening when people stop focusing on what they have lost (the past) and start looking at what the change can bring for them (the future).

It’s through accepting change and finding solutions for the problems ahead that you come out as a stronger person from this. The change starts when you shift the way you look at things, as Mark Manson would say it.

Because it’s not only about the transformation that the company goes through, it’s about your personal journey and the things you learned and acquired through it.

Jane is still uncertain about her future and it’s eating her up and you’re probably in the same position. It’s hurting your own identity. Driving you into yourself. Pushing your head below the waterline to a point where you struggle to catch your breath.

Refocusing when in Conflict

With Jane firmly stuck in doubt, she took the decision to invest in herself.

She contacted a coach (that’s me) and explained everything.

The conflicts, the lack of support, the in-fighting, power struggles and what she thought was her inability to make an impact on her goals.

In fact, it was a perfect storm for creating a highly charged, stressful environment.

After a number of sessions, we found that she was actually in a good place, but needed to refocus her energy. Together we came up with a 3-way plan:

  1. Focus heavily on relationship building with the new CEO and leadership team. Move towards more open and direct communications. Sometimes you won’t have access to transformational plans so work on influencing stakeholders. This is especially important if one of your peers is tainting a relationship for their own self-interest.
    Follow the advice of Dale Carnegie who said “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain — and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
  2. Have an exit plan (or Plan B). Polish the CV. Go for a few interviews and test the job market. Have a few opportunities to hand, just in case you end up in a redundancy situation. That way you keep all your options open both inside and outside the business.
  3. Invest in self-compassion. Book a spa weekend. Switch off by doing things that create joy and fun. Meet up with friends. Get plenty of exercise and sleep. This will allow you time to think and feel grounded, rather than feeling overwhelmed and at the verge of a burnout.

#3 ACTION POINT – So what’s your plan. Can your plans support your values and offer you new possibilities to support the 3 options?

Just get started on your own plan.

Ignore what everyone else is doing, even from people who appear to be a supporter. Not everyone has good intentions and even if they do, remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Only rely on trusted friends or seek out a trusted coach.

Conclusion

You might be wondering what happened to Jane?

Did she manage to achieve her goals?

Did she go ahead with her marriage and house move?

The truth is she stepped right back. When someone tells you their glass is half full then you know they have a positive mindset to be optimistic.

For Jane, her focus on relationships helped her rebuild bridges with the acquisition team, which at one stage was seen as beyond repair. She even received an apology from one of them who ultimately said his behaviour was probably not supportive but was instructed from above to test the people in the business to understand their true values.

Jane didn’t waver and as a true leader, she stood tall.

She came through the test and was recently offered a chance of a wider role across the group. Not only that, but she also has a firm offer from another company giving her that all-important lifeboat.

In her own words, she survived the ordeal and now can plan her future.

Do you have a plan?

About the Author:

Alex Burbidge
Alex is the Founder and Lead Consultant of BigSmiles.co, a forward-thinking wellness and stress management consultancy helping companies large and small to transform their health, for good. His experience spans 16 years assisting entrepreneurs, managers and entire departments to navigate the highs and lows of modern corporate life. He is also a professional member of the International Stress Management Association and a Chartered Member of Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

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