How to Approach Your L&D Integration Strategy After M&A

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Before considering a collective onboarding of an acquired partner, four systemic questions should be asked.

The merger or acquisition (M&A) agreement has been signed and communicated, top leaders have shaken hands, the integration team is established, day zero has arrived. What is the best approach to collectively train and onboard the new employees fast? is often the first question raised to the Learning and Development (L&D) function.

As a result, functional heads, HR, and L&D join forces and start drafting a learning and development swim lane to be added to the tactical integration plan, including technical skill building, vision and values workshops, and leadership bootcamps.

The new kids on the block typically are not involved in the design and get overwhelmed by all the training initiatives. Even if there was initial excitement about the merger or acquisition, they soon may start to feel subject to a hostile takeover. As they lack the company’s history, context, and “do’s and don’ts,” it is unclear which battles they can fight and what not to touch. Most importantly, many of the large training programs turn out to be expensive yet ineffective; well-intended but counterproductive. The new employees do not buy into the new company narrative and become disengaged. Critical talent walks out the door and takes their technology or customer relations base with them.

Here are a few real-life examples to illustrate where integration might miss the mark:

  • Combined sales teams are trained in the expanded product portfolio. Even though at first sight they look like adjacent products, the sales cycles differ, the products are bought by different buyers at the same customer, and the technical application knowledge that is required implies a different hiring profile for the sales representatives.
  • Operational units are getting a deep dive in the new mandatory process safety procedures. However, their risk profile is fundamentally different from the existing units. The new guidelines are jeopardizing their risk containment. As one person illustrated: “Your procedures are intended to keep highly toxic materials in the process pipes at all cost , while our main goal needs to be to keep outside contaminants out of ours. That requires a fundamentally different approach.”
  • Both parties agree on a new set of best practices. A year later, implementation turns out to be scattered. It transpires that the legacy companies had a vastly different approach to implementation. In one company, all headquarter guidelines were considered mandatory and the leaders were used to conforming. The other had a strong local empowerment culture where local leaders could decide on priorities and how to get to results.
  • The acquired team is excited about the new owner—particularly its reputable name and standing—but it turns out that their processes and practices are designed for a much more mature culture. Basics are not in place, making it almost impossible to take the leap. The gap keeps widening.

Questions to Answer

Before considering a collective onboarding of the acquired partner, a few systemic questions should be asked:

  • What are the true motives of this acquisition? What are you trying to buy?  When you try to acquire what you lack, or what you have lost, you risk killing the very thing you wanted to buy when you integrate them into your existing system.
  • What is the new purpose of the combined organization? If this acquisition leads you into a new strategic wave that is fundamentally different than the previous phase, it is likely that different skill sets are required to be successful. It is important to consider how this should be reflected in the executive and middle management levels and expert teams. An executive board or project steering team committee that is solely run by engineers and finance people might not have the full view on what is needed to become successful in implementing a bold digital strategy, for which you have acquired a pioneering start-up with bright, young, innovative gamers.
  • What is your integration strategy? Do you opt for one fully integrated company, or is it better to run it as a holding structure with different units? What about a hybrid model? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, but whatever the decision, it is vital to be consistent in the organizational design and implementation of processes and practices. We have seen companies claiming they would become one whole, but not enforcing the new set of values and rules in the organizations. Single businesses or separate units were still running their show in isolation.
  • What is the founding story, history, timeline and identity of both parties? <Even the best learning and development approach can fail when there are underlying systemic dynamics and invisible entanglements that are not brought to the surface. Whenever resistance comes up in the integration phase, or onboarding and training initiatives are suffering from silent sabotage, find out what is really going on beneath the surface. People might still remember the impact of a previous big restructuring program and experience a sense of loss. Employees can have strong loyalties toward previous leaders and their way of working.

Strategies for Success

In order to set the learning and development strategy up for success—as it is a critical lever for integration success—it is vital to:

  • Include a cultural compatibility and operational reality assessment in the due diligence phase.
  • Pace the onboarding and training journey and choose impact over speed.
  • Include room for mourning in this new situation: company name, title, status, colleagues, clients, work location close to home, former boss, the way things used to be done, etc.
  • Engage experts from the new partner as early as possible in facilitated dialogues intended to get to know their organizational system on a deeper level.
  • Set up small-scale learning labs with the intent to get to know each other’s identities (what are criteria for order in decision-making, what technical and relational skill set made someone successful in the past, what were the formal and informal processes for rallying the troops, etc.) and define the impact on the learning and development strategy.
  • Dare to create cross-fertilization by exchanging resources between legacies. The intention is not to become experts in both fields, but to inject fresh perspectives in both areas.
  • Make sure “the new”—technology, mindset, skill set, leadership style—is reflected in the leadership teams and decision-making committees.

Mieke Jacobs and Paul Zonneveld are leadership and organizational transformational facilitators and co-authors of the new book, “EMERGENT.”