IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How to survive and thrive after an acquisition

After a merger, employees don’t know what to expect. But if you survive layoffs, it's a good time to come up with a strategy to survive and thrive in the new company.
Pedestrians walk past a Washington Mutual bank branch in New York City
JPMorgan Chase & Co. took over Washington Mutual on Sept. 25 after regulators seized the failed bank.Mike Segar / Reuters

For more than a decade, Ron Weston worked as an architect for Hillier Architecture, one of the biggest architecture firms in the United States. So he was a bit nervous about his future when a global architectural powerhouse, U.K.-based RMJM, acquired the firm last year.

“I wondered if I would lose my job despite what we were told. We all know when mergers happen there are overlaps, or for other reasons you can get pushed out,” he said.

Thankfully, he is still working for the combined company, and he’s happier than ever. But he made sure he was proactive after the merger, researching the new owners, networking with managers and putting in extra hours.

“You have to reach out and pursue opportunities,” he said.

The rate of mergers and acquisitions lately is almost dizzying. JPMorgan Chase & Co. gobbled up Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual. Last month, Bank of America bought Merrill Lynch in a $50 billion deal. And last Friday, federal regulators cleared Wells Fargo's $11.7 billion acquisition of Wachovia Corp.

After a merger, employees don’t know what to expect. Job loss and uncertainty are workers' biggest concerns, according to an Accenture survey of more than 900 workers who were part of a merger or acquisition.

More than 40 percent of those surveyed said “it took three months or more before they understood how the deal would affect them in terms of departmental reorganizations, new responsibilities, layoffs, and other changes, and 36 percent said the merger or acquisition made their job more difficult.”

But if you are lucky enough to survive immediate layoffs, it's a good time to come up with a strategy to survive and thrive once the new bosses descend upon your department.

“Think about it as an involuntary job change,” said Rebecca Schalm, a senior consultant at management consultancy RHR International. “You got a new job without going through the recruitment process.”

A new company culture
Change after a corporate marriage sometimes comes within weeks, but it can also take months, depending on the financial circumstances. If your company was struggling, the acquiring company may want to come in quick and clean house. If two fairly healthy companies merged, integration may take longer.

But the bottom line is, two different cultures cannot exist together, so expect the new owners to impose their way of doing business, experts say.

Getting disparate cultures to mesh well is the hardest task. It can be “a shock to the system” for employees on both sides of a merger, adds Elisa Hukins, cultural integration leader for Mercer, a global human resources firm.

Indeed, a recent Mercer survey found that more than half of organizations report cultural integration issues hurt the overall success of many mergers and acquisitions.

The shock of the merger, says Hukins, “costs time, emotional energy, and ultimately all these things lead to dollars lost. If an organization has a long protracted integration, people can’t work effectively together. The bigger difference between two cultures, the bigger the shock will be.”

So how do you minimize the shock to your career?

Many merger integration experts have told me the management at the acquiring firm often relies on the leaders of major divisions at the company they’ve bought to tell them who should stay and who should go.

If you’re the top banana at a profitable division within a company, often the new managers will want to keep things intact at that unit, even if they do impose their own manager to oversee the operation.

For everyone else, it’s time to do more than just your job.

Get to know new managers
Paula Kosin, career consultant for Career Vision, advises employees to “put your CEO hat on” and figure out what the top leaders would want from a business standpoint. “They want to make the merger a success and they are not looking to rape and pillage and destroy things. They want to make sure what is going well in the acquired company continues, but they are also looking at what they can do as far as creating efficiencies.”

Chances are, higher-level employees will probably be invited to meetings with top managers at the acquiring firm. If not, you need to start connecting with the new management and get your name out there so you can snag a seat at the integration table.

Learn everything you can about the new company. You can even make calls or send e-mails to key officials when you have an appropriate opening so you can get to know them — and they can get to know you. Talk about what your unit is doing and outline your responsibilities. And offer suggestions on how to make things better, or how to compliment an existing project, or how to grow a division, experts say. But do this all with real information about the new company and its business strategies and goals.

For rank-and-file employees, it’s easy to become a nameless face in the crowd after a takeover, so you have to do what you can to raise your profile.

“There’s a natural tendency to duck and cover after a merger,” says Will Werhane, global managing director for Hay Group Insight. “No one wants to be the person that stands out and might be identified as being redundant.”

But executives are looking for people who “step up, even in difficult times, and find ways to make a difference,” Werhane says. “Our experience has been that those who make their presence known are the ones that stay around.”

If you can, it might be a good idea to move over to a division that’s actually making money so you don’t end up on the merger trash heap just because your particular unit or office is struggling.

Focus on doing a good job
And don’t slack off now. Focus on doing your job well and even consider putting in extra hours so your bosses think they can’t live without you.

Attend every informational meeting the new owners hold, and make sure to get the new managers' cards so you can follow-up with an e-mail to say, “It was nice meeting you.” Be sure to slip in some information about yourself and what you do.

Try not to come across as an arrogant jerk. Instead, just let them know who you are and what you can do to help make the combined company great.

“It’s a fine line you walk,” says RHR’s Schalm. It’s hard to just go out there and sell yourself, she adds, but be on the lookout for opportunities and people you need to know.

“The acquiring company is very interested in the talent because what these organizations are buying is the people that come with it,” she explains. “They actually want to know who they have and where the talent is.”

Many managers will rely on what other managers say about their staff, Schalm says, and they’ll also be looking at past performance reviews if they decide to cherry pick in a certain unit and not just get rid of the whole division.

It’s not uncommon for workers to be interviewed by a so-called integration committee and even be asked to take a psychological assessment test, she adds.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to say, “That’s not how we used to do things around here,” Schalm says.

You have to come to terms with the fact that, indeed, it’s not the same around here anymore, and focus on how you can make this new place the best for your career.

In the end, you may decide the new owners just aren’t your cup of tea. So dust off your resume, just in case.