M&A Survival Mode
When Companies Join Forces, Roles are in Jeopardy; Here's How to Thrive amid an Organizational Reset
When companies join forces, roles are in jeopardy. Here’s how to thrive amid an organizational reset.
BY ASHLEY BISHEL
PORTRAITS BY SCOTT SUCHMAN
For all the strategic value that mergers and acquisitions (M&As) can deliver for businesses, they can wreak havoc with project management careers. When two organizations join forces or one company acquires another, the resulting workflow redundancies put roles at risk—and it’s a threat that’s bound to linger. More than 75 percent of executives expect the number of M&As closed in the next 12 months to increase, according to Deloitte’s 2019 M&A Trends report. That’s up from 70 percent last year.
Some of the most prominent M&As this year illustrate the potential toll. Thousands of jobs could be cut as a result of AT&T’s US$85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, which was finalized in February. In March, Walt Disney Co. closed its colossal US$71.3 billion acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox, creating a global entertainment behemoth that could lead to up to 7,500 job losses.
As M&As heat up in a big way, more project professionals will be thrust into survival mode amid shifting strategic priorities. Here are five ways project and program managers can assess how they’ll stand out in a reshaped structure—and retain a vital role.
Stephanie Blanco Gress, PMP, Sound Physicians, Potomac, Maryland, USA
An M&A inevitably will require a blending of workplace cultures, and project managers who understand these differences will be better prepared to navigate them. It’s critical to know what’s coming, especially if a project professional hasn’t been in the eye of an M&A before, says Ed McCloskey, PMP, vice president, project portfolio management, Tindall Associates Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.
“If you join a company that grew through acquisition and you see this is its model, you should be reading everything about their prior integrations. Especially if you weren’t involved in the first one,” he says. “Start to position yourself.”
For project professionals at an acquired company, searching for intel on the larger organization’s work culture and strategic vision is a must. Such research also can provide a clear picture of the acquiring organization’s governance structure and processes—and how a project manager’s skills and experience align with it.
“In my experience, in any merger and acquisition, certain goals and desirables will change according to the vision from the new management,” says Ryan Lum, PMP, supply chain management consultant, Sand System, Penang, Malaysia. “Knowledge will help project managers to operate and move toward the new goals.”
M&As automatically put some projects in jeopardy, creating confusion and friction from the start. Project managers need to move swiftly to get a firm handle on the fate of their projects—which can also signal the fate of their roles with the new organization.
“You must seek out clarity on your current projects as soon as is reasonably possible,” says Stephanie Blanco Gress, PMP, vice president, M&A integration and program management, Sound Physicians, Potomac, Maryland, USA. “Many times large deals have synergy goals built into the deal rationale, and combining or ceasing in-flight projects that don’t make sense to the newly joined organization can very often be low-hanging fruit to achieve those synergies.”
—Stephanie Blanco Gress, PMP, Sound Physicians, Potomac, Maryland, USA
But project managers must be wary about how and when to broach this topic—use tact and approach the appropriate executives in the right forum. Ms. Gress suggests waiting until the dust settles to talk with the business owner or project sponsor. At a minimum, the sponsor should know whether a project is still slated to continue. Proactively asking about the status signals professional competence and a willingness to understand and adapt to new circumstances, and can help clarify the value of a project manager’s role in a new company.
Find the Spotlight
Amid uncertainty and trepidation, M&As also provide an opportunity to shine. Leaders at the resulting new organization value project professionals who demonstrate their ability to execute in volatile and changing environments, says Christian Schmittknecht, program lead, mergers and acquisitions IT, Novartis, Nuremberg, Germany.
“Change creates opportunities for people who can bring ideas to life and to execution,” he says. “For me it’s really around visibility: In these times, organizations need to know who has demonstrated that they can navigate changing environments, that they can collaborate and bring the right people together, and that they are flexible to build something new out of different worlds.”
—Christian Schmittknecht, Novartis, Nuremberg, Germany
Mr. Schmittknecht has witnessed multiple colleagues who have made career jumps thanks to M&As: One found a more senior position in the newly formed company, and another stepped up from managing a part of IT in one country to overseeing all IT in the country at the new company. Part of being a good project manager is finding those opportunities and gauging the best time to jump in with new ideas.
Job loss can be a reality of M&As. Here are three indications that project professionals won’t make the cut.
1 You’re out of the loop.
“If you aren’t getting pulled into any workstream support or activities postintegration, that’s a sign, especially if others on your team are,” says Ed Mc- Closkey, PMP, vice president, project portfolio management, Tindall Associates Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.
2 There’s a pattern.
If the acquiring company generally puts project manager positions on the chopping block, reassess the next move. “Companies that acquire other entities for things like patents or intellectual capital, for example, may have no use for employees or other organizational assets,” says Stephanie Blanco Gress, PMP, vice president, M&A integration and program management, Sound Physicians, Potomac, Maryland, USA.
3 Mentors aren’t involved.
“If you notice that your mentors aren’t getting any communication time or aren’t on a steering committee, it could be a sign that some of the paths you’ve built might not remain intact,” says Mr. McCloskey. If mentors share similar skill sets or capabilities with project managers, this might indicate that those roles won’t be needed in the new organization.
Caution and Clarity
Project professionals need to keep a cool head when an M&A puts their role in jeopardy.
It’s easy to become stressed and paranoid during an M&A. But staying calm amid chaos can help project professionals impress leaders of the new organization—or, at the very least, ensure that emotions won’t overtake sound decision making on the next career move. To avoid distractions, take everything—including assigned tasks—at face value, says Stephanie Blanco Gress, PMP, vice president, M&A integration and program management, Sound Physicians, Potomac, Maryland, USA. “In my experience, and this is admittedly variable by industry, many more people worry about losing their jobs in an acquisition than actually do,” she says. “So know your odds probably aren’t as bad as you think.”
Create a contingency plan.
Even project professionals who are confident they’ll be retained should develop a post-M&A strategy that includes all options. Perhaps the new company culture isn’t a good fit. Or maybe a lucrative severance package will entice some project managers to move on and get a head start looking for the next opportunity. “General good career-management advice applies,” Ms. Gress says. “Keep your résumé or CV reasonably up to date, actively manage your professional network, and keep up with what’s going on in your industry or other industries you may be interested in.”
Be professional and courteous.
Even project professionals who lose their jobs can burnish their reputations and expand their professional networks. Showing professionalism throughout the transition will leave a good impression—no matter the outcome. “I have had the honor of working with a number of colleagues whose positions were eliminated in acquisitions who absolutely stunned me with their hard work, professionalism and grace during their transition,” says Ms. Gress. “I would unequivocally endorse and work for those people again, as they stand out as the very definition of integrity.”
Focus on Value
Finding ways to demonstrate value will vary by M&A circumstance, but it’s a must for project professionals who want to show how they can identify and align with the newly integrated organization’s goals. “One of the main attributes of a project manager is to stabilize the ship when a wave hits,” says Mr. Lum. He advises project professionals to prioritize gaining knowledge, gathering experience and keeping an open mind during the transition.
—Ryan Lum, PMP, Sand System, Penang, Malaysia
Demonstrating value can be as simple as being attuned to the acquiring company’s requests and preferences, since it demonstrates diligence and a willingness to go the extra mile. During a past M&A, Mr. McCloskey found that one acquiring global company, SCOR, didn’t share the U.S. organization’s abbreviations and acronyms, so he took the initiative to remove as many as possible from future decks. He also arranged to have the decks sent over a day in advance, to allow the multilingual members of the acquiring team more time to digest the information. Such seemingly small acts helped him build relationships with some in the acquiring company.
Another way to show value is to demonstrate how past project decisions and outcomes align to the new organization’s strategies. Effectively showcasing past experience and success will go a long way toward demonstrating a project manager’s value to an organization, Ms. Gress says.
“Project managers with a history of successful projects, all-star reputations, and résumés and CVs and LinkedIn profiles that are maintained would obviously stand out among their peers,” she says. “Having a crisp elevator pitch of what you do and what you’ve delivered to the organization is always useful.”
—Stephanie Blanco Gress, PMP
Make Authentic Connections
M&As require project professionals to rebuild their internal networks. Find out who is most involved in the transition and reach out to managers who will help to shape and guide the new resource strategies. Start cultivating these relationships as soon as possible, Mr. McCloskey says. “You try to look for any little hook—usually you have some opportunity to make a connection,” he says. “The sooner you can form connections, the sooner you’ll find the power players and the better chance you have to ride the integration wave.”
—Ed McCloskey, PMP, Tindall Associates Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
For example, when the company Mr. McCloskey worked for in 2014, Transamerica Reinsurance, was acquired by another organization, he built a strong relationship with his new co-workers by asking about preferred communication styles (which turned out to be more formal at the acquiring company) and spent time with certain workstream leads. This investment paid off in a big way. “One day, I was approached by some people from the acquiring company who said, basically, ‘We want to give you a heads up that your department might be getting disbanded,’” he says. “They even suggested a potential new role for me to transition to.” Mr. McCloskey accepted and was in his new role as his previous department was being dissolved.
No connection or opportunity is too small, he says. Mr. McCloskey once volunteered to take an executive to the airport after a meeting ran late. “He shared this with other executives, so I got a lot of mileage out of this simple act,” he says. “I had no idea at the time how someone would over-communicate the value of this gesture to others.” PM