For a CEO, one of the highest stakes, highest pressure situations is delivering on the promise of an acquisition at the speed and level of value avidly anticipated by the Board and the shareholders. The temptation for most action-biased CEOs is to push hard to bring the two cultures and companies together as quickly as possible, so they can realize the strategic goals of the acquisition sooner.

In this situation, slowing down when it comes to culture and buy in, can get you to bottom line results much faster. It also lays the groundwork for a more sustainable foundation for the future of leadership. It’s a classic exercise in culture change transformation, but an easy approach to overlook. And the more complicated the level of culture change, the more critical it is to build the new organization from the base up.

So much culture change, so little time

Take the story of a CEO we worked with. His traditional, 80+ year old European manufacturing company was a major player in their mid-market category. They were growing rapidly, and they sought to evolve their brand from mid-market dominance to higher end player. Their culture was rooted in volume, efficiency, quality and scalable process, and their rigorous, structured approach to manufacturing had driven their market excellence.

To achieve the competitive shift, the Board supported the acquisition of a bespoke, high-end manufacturer based in another continent with an equally storied history but a very different culture. Their processes were focused on personal touch and a priority of output quality over volume. Automation was a far-off future state. The company had been struggling for some time to modernize, maintain let alone increase production levels, and turn a profit.

The acquisition was a turning point. The new post-merger entity with an integrated leadership team was responsible for delivering on an aggressive revenue turnaround and production increase so that they could reap the fruits of the acquisition. They needed to create a new combined culture, a shift made more complex by the dramatically different national and organizational cultural characteristics of the respective companies that created a shock on both sides when they were brought together.

Taking a thorough staged approach to building culture change from within

Given the significance, complexity, and leadership challenges of the culture change required, the CEO and the CHRO brought us in to advise the Board and the new executive leadership team while simultaneously supporting the push to execute the people strategy. The key to success was going to be providing the opportunity for both organizational cultures to be part of creating the new entity. Our approach included these key elements:

  1. Alignment at the top with the Board and leadership. We started with the Board and the integrated executive leadership team to develop a staged, step by step approach to translate the strategy to automate the newly acquired part of the business and integrate the teams throughout the business.
  2. Systematic cascade to build momentum. This became the roadmap to work with the different functions and business units to help them create the corresponding shifts in each of their parts of the business. This gave all of the teams the opportunity to understand their own role in achieving the strategy, and what needed to change in their own business or function. The Executive Leadership team regularly revisited the road map to make sure they were on track.
  3. One-on-one coaching and support for leading through change. As the business and functional leaders worked with their teams to make the business shifts real, they received 1:1 coaching to ensure they understood what it was that needed to be done so they could drive that forward into the business. We continued to advise the CEO throughout the process and beyond to help him navigate the cultural challenges and shifts, as well as his role in leading the organization through those shifts.
  4. Convening to become One Team. After the work across the business was completed, the CEO brought everyone together in a Town Hall event to highlight the work everyone had done to understand their part and bring the company together as One Team. The message and the content communicated the critical move from stovepipes and silos to one matrixed, cross-functional organization. The Town Hall event was scheduled later in the process to allow sufficient runway for everyone in both organizations to be part of bringing the new integrated strategy and company to life in their part of the business.

Bringing the strategy to life

To the delight of the Board and the company’s shareholders, the business was able to implement the automated assembly processes that had never previously existed in the acquired company. They went on to exceed their very aggressive 2-year production volume targets within the first year.

Another key element of the strategy was to create a solid integrated bench of future leaders to support the joint enterprise and offer executives from both companies the opportunity to learn from each other and from both brands. The cross fertilization was a big success, with revenue, process and quality targets exceeded.

On the cultural dimension, they were able to modify people processes to be tailored more closely to the newly structured organization and in doing so were able to work that into their core values to guide the new joint entity.

The CEO’s key takeaways

The CEO learned a lot from the process, much of which required him to go against his learned tendencies as a leader, including:

  1. Teach don’t tell – Communicate to achieve understanding and buy in as opposed to telling people what they should do next. If people simply smile and nod, be worried – they will listen to what you tell them and then go off and do what they want to do.
  2. Hold the discipline to take all of the steps – Leaders are judged at the speed with which they can effectively manage a change. Slowing down is uncomfortable and it is tempting to skip over important steps that create communication, buy in and acceptance. The CEO struggled to go back over ground, and it took him 2 years to understand the price to pay for not giving due consideration and time for those important first steps. Going fast at the cost of doing it right is often an impediment to accelerating change.
  3. Allow your teams to do their part – Resist the temptation to do most everything yourself. As part of an action-biased leader’s impatience with moving more slowly, it can be easy to take on many key elements of the change process rather than engaging your leaders and their teams. Now is the time to involve more people, not fewer, if you are going to get to the finish line more quickly.
  4. Play the convening card carefully – Avoid the temptation to hold the galvanizing “one team” event early in the process to accelerate the process. If this happens before the teams and individuals have sufficient time to work together to understand and buy in to what the new strategy means for their own part of the business, the words are empty and the vision is hard for the teams to grasp. You will waste the communication opportunity and delay the culture shift you seek.

It’s possible to deliver on even the most complicated and challenging culture change – if you slow down to speed up and set the team up to bring about the change as a collective not a fragmented entity.

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