What to Do Before Merging Cultures

Mergers and acquisitions often seem like good ideas on paper. But when it comes to integrating two (or more!) cultures, people have a way of not conforming to formulas. In our experience, leaders downplay how hard it is to merge cultures, and as a result, spend very little time or energy on implementation. As a result, "more than two-thirds of [M&A’s] that fail do so at the execution stage."

Without a plan or clear expectations laid out, teams flounder: some jockey for dominance, others actively ignore the new teams and keep doing the same-old same-old, and some get so distracted that their daily work suffers or stops completely. Of course, you don’t have to be going through an M&A to experience these issues—they can occur any time you’re trying to coordinate the efforts of two separate groups, whether that’s a merger, or you’re just trying to improve how you work with another team or department. If you’re going through a current culture clash, consider doing the following:

  • Join forces. Bring your leaders together before the teams are set to combine, and use this time to define shared values and determine what success looks like. What behaviors do you want to carry forward? What habits should be left behind? No merger has to be a perfect 50-50 blend of cultures, but everyone must be clear on how both teams should behave. This is also a great opportunity for leaders to start to learn each others’ working styles. Without this foundation in place, the rest of the team will feel the lack of joint leadership and start to panic.

  • Honor the past. Even when change is for the best, people experience change as loss. Your role is to act as the cultural barometer of the team. Don’t just celebrate all the new and exciting things to come—hold space for people as they mourn and let go of the old ways of doing things. When the agency KBS merged with Forsman & Bodenfors, for instance, they decided to adopt the latter as their name. But to commemorate their history and all they’d achieved, they named a star after KBS.

  • Make the right thing easy. In the first few months after you’ve combined teams, find ways to connect people and ways of working across offices and cultures. This doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive: one client we worked with created a "pen pal" program where people from different teams wrote each other actual letters. This simple act really resonated with the team and directly impacted engagement levels. Another client held an offsite in which teams from merging departments gave presentations to the rest of the team about the work they’d been doing together.

  • Take the pulse of the organization. Survey people regularly—it shows that you're listening and can identify potential problems before they become full-blown crises. Of course, this also implies that you take action. Repeatedly surveying people but not making changes will only make people cynical about future surveys.

  • Be as transparent as possible. It’s always tempting to put forth a message that "everything is under control”—but no one will believe it. Not only is it okay to admit you don't have all the answers, it empowers people by giving them a role to play in making the merger a success. One of our clients did this by holding an all-hands meeting with an open Q+A session afterwards. This can be risky—not all leaders feel comfortable answering challenging questions on the spot—but the payoff can be impressive: people were talking about the all-hands for weeks, and it set a tone of openness within the organization.

No matter what stage of culture integration your team is in, we can help, with a 1-2 day workshop to bring your leaders together to plan, or a 90-day Culture Change Sprint to establish the new ways of working. 


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