Survival of the fittest
BY SARAH FISTER GALE
The rumors are true.
The company where you've established yourself as a valued project management leader has been gobbled up in a deal that could leave you out in the cold. Even if you have a proven track record, establishing yourself as a valued member of a new team after a merger or acquisition can take some work. Your best shot at survival is to respond with openness and optimism, making an effort to embrace the new team and its processes.
When one company acquires another, the employees on the purchased side of the deal often react with fear, anger and bitterness—all of which makes it that much easier for the new company to hand them their walking papers, says Karen Otazo, executive coach at Global Leadership Network, Houston, Texas, USA. She is also author of The Truth About Managing Your Career [Prentice Hall, 2006]. “Anyone who you complain to can and will report what you said.”
If you have the data they want and you understand the semantics, context and legacy of the organization, you bring value.
–Jeff Shinn, Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Alsip, Ill., USA
Instead of copping an attitude, look for ways to demonstrate your abilities and willingness to help out wherever needed. “If little things go wrong on someone else's project, offer to talk to the project sponsor about solutions,” she says. “It gives you the chance to help another project manager and gives you exposure to leadership while maintaining a neutral position.”
Another way to gain a competitive edge with new management is to be the person who has the answers.
“Mergers happen because the buyer wants another company's information, profitability, market value or knowledge,” says Jeff Shinn, vice president of IT, Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Alsip, Ill., USA. “If you have the data they want and you understand the semantics, context and legacy of the organization, you bring value.”
Mr. Shinn was a project management consultant for Dominick's, a small grocery chain in Chicago, Ill., USA, when it was purchased by Safeway, the California, USA-based supermarket giant, in 1998. Unlike many on the team who complained, Mr. Shinn saw the acquisition as an opportunity and began planning how he could make his mark. “The people who fought Safeway disappeared,” he says. “The ones who rallied around the company were the few who were rewarded, retained and even promoted.”
Mr. Shinn made it a point to understand Safeway's strategy and position himself as the go-to guy for that information. He knew that Safeway would be unimpressed with the newly acquired chain's older hardware and software systems—and he was right. After the purchase, Safeway quickly began upgrading Dominick's systems and needed an insider who knew the lay of the land and could support the transition. Mr. Shinn was the most qualified—he just had to convince the new owners of that fact.
“I knew they wanted our data put into the context of how we did processing and purchasing,” he says, and he made sure his team was able to bring that information to the table. “Safeway had previously integrated more than a dozen data centers due to their many acquisitions. We first focused on what needed to be done and then built credibility by doing our homework and getting answers.”
Mr. Shinn also shaped his approach to project management around problem-solving. “I was extremely clear and direct about what existing issues had to be solved and what needed to be done for [Safeway] to achieve their goals,” he says.
He was ultimately put in charge of converting all of Dominick's software systems and processes to Safeway's system—and even made the case for adding six people to his project team.
Taking this kind of knowledgeable and supportive approach is the best way to gain job security after a merger or acquisition, Ms. Otazo says. “You have to learn the new way of doing things and find where you fit,” she says.
AVOIDING POST-ACQUISITION ERRORS
Fear of the unknown isn't the only obstacle project managers face when they're swept up in a merger or acquisition, says Parvis Hanson, general director, Hanson Consulting, Geneva, Switzerland. He offers this advice on what to expect and how to handle it.
|Volatile job status. The best way to keep your position is to try to understand your new colleagues, their capabilities and how to work with them, he says. A new organization offers new challenges and if you're open-minded, it may provide new career opportunities. “By listening carefully to the new organizational strategy and focusing on its objectives, project managers will be able to identify new areas of responsibility,” he says.|
|Projects on hold. Mr. Hanson experienced this problem during Oracle's takeover of Peoplesoft. “We managed the fear by giving clients reassurance that none of the products and services had changed and showing them how the new, enlarged organization would better serve them,” he says.|
|Unfamiliar products and services. When an acquisition results in an expansion of products and services, it gives project managers the chance to cross- and up-sell new services to existing clients. That change also means they can extend their own capabilities and project opportunities.|
|Cultural and language barriers. For global mergers or acquisitions, nothing beats a personal meeting between the newly formed organization and all its divisions. “Project managers should meet as soon as possible with their new colleagues and form new working business processes to minimize project problems and internal conflict,” he says.|
|Delays while the system is reworked. With the change in business processes, holdups will cause problems for project managers and their customers. The bottom line is delays cost money, and it's important for project managers to “foresee these delays, inform management and counteract them as soon as possible,” Mr. Hanson says. “This is mainly done by the senior management working closely with the project managers, making sure that their clients do not suffer.”|
Project managers should quickly identify and befriend the company gatekeepers who have information. “Secretaries are often valuable resources,” Ms. Otazo says. They have access to management, know how the leaders like to receive work and can offer new employees guidance on how to meet stakeholder expectations.
DON'T BE A BULLY
If you're on the buying end of the acquisition, look at the capabilities of the people in the newly purchased company to ensure the transition goes smoothly, says Paul Tedesco, senior vice president of IT at SRC Technologies, an artificial intelligence technologies company in Antioch, Ill., USA. Mr. Tedesco recalls working for Amoco Chemicals when it purchased a small chemical manufacturer that made polystyrene, which his company also produced.
Amoco Chemicals had a completely different way of conducting inventory management and product release, and the new owners initially wanted to change it over to their system, he says. However, up-front investigation showed the transition would be costly and cause much strife among workers.
“Instead of physically altering its operation to meet our system, we realized that a much simpler approach would be to adjust our accounting software to accommodate its ‘negative inventory’ approach,” Mr. Tedesco says.
Finding the simpler solution, even if it varies from your own system, can often save a lot of time, money and unrest in the early days of an acquisition.
Whatever solution you come up with, it must also take the human factor into account. “You can't just look at the software or the infrastructure,” he says. “You can't change the system if you can't change the people.”
“For three to six months after the acquisition it's OK to ask questions,” she says. “The natives will appreciate your curiosity—if it's in the spirit of inquiry and not judgment.”
To avoid errors on the first project with a new company, tread carefully and leave room for changes. “Go to stakeholders with ‘talking documents’ that give them something to look at— that lay out your project goals and plans without setting anything in stone,” Ms. Otazo says. “This way, if there are problems, it lets them react to the documents, not to you.”
Transitioning to a new way of doing things can be even more difficult if the new ownership or leaders are not local.
“There may be culture shock for both the new managers and the people being managed,” says Robert Gan, PMP, director of consulting services and business coach, Rogan Strategic Management, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
If, for example, a Western company acquires an Asian one, team members may see the new management as boastful, disrespectful of age and overly focused on money. The new management, on the other hand, might find it difficult to understand why employees “remain quiet and seem devoid of any opinions in meetings, when in fact they are being respectful. It takes a while for team members who are more often introverted to understand and adjust to the new environment and management style,” he says.
“The idea is to understand oneself and how our own beliefs and value systems can affect our actions and behavior toward others,” Mr. Gan says. “For project managers to succeed, it is imperative that we understand that individuals have different behavior styles and we need to approach it in a way that is amiable, motivational and positive.”
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