The Human Side of Acquisitions

By Lisa Olson

It wasn’t until sometime in 1993, after assisting in the sale and close of twenty telephone answering service offices that I realized there was a human or personal side, to acquisitions. One evening, as I passed my daughter’s bedroom, I heard her little friend ask, “What does your Mom do?” To my amazement and horror, my daughter responded “She flies around the country and fires people.” That statement, coming from a mere 12-year-old caused me to take a good look at my life. My trouble, as with other leaders was my inattention to values–forgetting to ask “why?” and “what for?”

After nearly 20 years in the telecommunications industry and having over 35 acquisitions, mergers, consolidations or office closures under my belt, I guess you could say I have some experience in this area.

I wasn’t really firing people, but as a result of what I was doing, people were being put out of work. After a short bout of depression and convenient short term memory loss, I came to the realization that most people, when faced with inevitable change such as down sizing or consolidation, typically move on to bigger and better things. Ultimately, they are simply forced to take a risk and move forward in their lives. As was the case a few years ago when we were forced to close a 200-seat start up call center due to a slow antiquated operating system. All employees were let go.

The telecommunications industry is in a period of economic prosperity. The boom began in the 1980s and will probably continue for the next 20 years through the year 2020. It started with the first PC and was quickly followed by the breakup of the Bell Systems. Those two events have changed the nature of business. It has put call centers, long distance companies, paging and cellular companies in high-speed change mode. We are fortunate to be part of this phenomenon. Just think, we could have been part of Encyclopedia Britannica. In the past 5 years their sales plummeted by over 80%.

We need to prepare our people for change and for the future. We need to encourage personal and professional development. One way to do this is to stimulate creativity. This helps us to grow.
Here are some simple ways to accomplish this:

  • Question the norm.
  • Tolerate bad ideas.
  • Leave diverse books in the lunchroom for your people to read.
  • Have a sense of humor.
  • Be comfortable with chaos.
  • Appreciate the out of ordinary.
  • Experiment and encourage your staff to experiment.
  • Create excitement in the workplace.
  • Pay for developmental classes for your staff.
  • Share information and tell stories about your experiences.
  • Build relationships with your people.

During a merger or acquisition, your people are vulnerable. They will listen to rumor and be uncertain about where they fit into the company. They will want to know how the changes benefit them. You all know what turbulence feels like on a plane. Now you will know what it feels like in an office. You will eventually need a new cultural chemistry. You will need your people.

As soon as you can, start to communicate with your people. Reassure the people in your organization by telling them where they fit in, where their loyalties should lie and most of all, tell them the truth. By communicating short and long term goals everyone works toward a common purpose. The employees feel part of the team and part of the “new”. Set direction quickly. Make your new company values and expectations known. This is the best way to avoid giving the competition an opening to take market share away from you.

When preparing for your acquisition:

  • Get on the front line. Be sure you are close enough to the front line to know what’s going on in your business. Encourage an open flow of information. Convince people to go towards, not shy away from, new ideas.
  • Aspire higher. Go head to head against stronger competition. Aspiring higher is motivating and involves self-discipline, persistence, hard work and knowing your competition.
  • Keep focused. “Everything-is-on-the-line” concentration especially in your sales and retention departments. Tune out distractions.
  • Accept imbalances. Be sensitive to the individual uniqueness of other people, both with your employees and your customers. Unlock potential in others.
  • Keep perspective. Most successes do not change life for the better and most failures do not change it for the worse.

Without the right people, you risk launching an acquisition that won’t work resulting in weakening of your existing business. Plan your new organizational positions. Prepare your people to fill those spots. If you plan to increase sales, you must train for that position now. If you are unable to promote someone to general manager from within, then plan to hire a new manager months prior to your acquisition. There are two pieces of solid advice I’d like to give you.

  1. Established traditional telephone answering service businesses are at a disadvantage. They are saddled with yesterday’s sales and yesterday’s ways. The core competencies in an established bureau are the wrong ones for today’s high technology market. Unless you plan to always provide simple traditional telephone answering service you should “Buy Up”; don’t buy someone else’s problem.
  2. Be over staffed during your conversion. This will minimize the impact on your people, not to mention the positive impact it will have on your customers. It’s fine to say that you want to grow, but if you can’t deliver to your customers, the acquisition will cost you more than it’s worth. In conclusion, don’t forget the human side of acquisitions or mergers. Do your best to “do right” by your people. They are your business.

[From Connection Magazine – May 2000]

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