Written by Kerryn Fewster
Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) represent a significant challenge for financial businesses in terms of changes to workforce models, products, services, technology, workplaces and branding. With these changes comes the difficult task of communicating to employees about the proposed impact of the M&A changes to them as individuals.
Considering the disruptive nature of M&A and the impact they can have on staff, surprisingly little attention is given to ensuring leaders are able to communicate key messages clearly and effectively.
Successfully communicating to staff about business change is paramount and can have a direct impact on minimising productivity dips, which often occur during major change. It is important that leaders are coached to handle critical elements surrounding an M&A, including the tricky task of understanding likely impacts and communicating accordingly.
There is a lot of hesitancy when it comes to communication, which can stem from the fear of getting information wrong or not being able to answer questions from employees. Leaders are often scared to put themselves in a position where they have to say ‘I don’t know’.
CEOs and leadership teams are notorious for avoiding situations in which they may be asked tough questions or expected to explain complicated information when, in fact, they should be as visible as possible and interacting with staff.
The key to addressing this risk-averse behaviour is coaching leaders about what is expected of them during a time of business change. It is unrealistic to think that they will be able to answer every question from every person so it is important to give them the confidence to handle not always knowing the answer. Leaders need to be comfortable to say ‘I don’t know’ without the fear of some sort of backlash.
Employees benefit from and appreciate face-to-face and personal communication – during an acquisition or merger the core leadership team needs to increase effort, which will often mean more travel, to talk to staff about what is happening and the changes they can expect. Employees want to hear straight from those in charge and will gain confidence seeing the leaders care enough to spend time and effort dealing directly with them.
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Put an End to Gossip
Without this direct communication, companies run the risk of employees constructing their own information and gossiping amongst themselves. They are not naïve; they can see what is happening and will talk to each other about it, filling in the blanks if they are given too little information. This means it is vital for leaders to be visible and open to communication – they need to control and own the messaging process.
Ultimately, companies should be willing to have frank and open discussions about the differences employees should expect after the merger or acquisition. The change in business processes and culture of a company must be explained so people are able to understand and identify with how things will be done in the future.
While it is important to ensure leaders are actively communicating information to staff, the way in which they communicate is also essential. How people speak, including their body language and the way in which they explain concepts, can also impact whether staff receive information positively or negatively.
Keep the Message Clear
Coaching leaders and CEOs on how to approach speaking sessions can mean the difference between employees accepting or resisting the upcoming changes. Often the information that needs to be conveyed is highly technical, including financial figures and processes. The leadership team needs to communicate information clearly and without overly commercial or technical language so employees are able to grasp the complex financial concepts.
To do this, CEOs and leaders need to talk about things people can relate to in a way that do not alienate their audience. Sharing a message via the age old skill of storytelling is incredibly effective: break down the situation, make it relevant for the audience and include messages which demonstrate that you understand the fear and uncertainty – the audience needs to trust the storyteller. They need to do this simply and remain optimistic to show the merger or acquisition is going smoothly.
While it is important to ensure the core leadership team is well equipped to handle communication during a merger or acquisition, coaching must be done at all levels to provide support across the organisation. This means key staff, such as frontline supervisors, should also be coached, as they will be the first point of contact for most employees. When the information is available, frontline supervisors need to articulate the impacts on teams and the general workplace.
Ultimately, though, it is the CEO that employees will look to for important information. They want to see a leader who cares about how staff will be affected and can communicate this clearly and simply.
About the Author
Kerryn is co-founder and co-director of Change2020, a change management consultancy founded in 2005. She has expertise in leading critical human resource, cultural change and organisational development projects across a range of industry sectors, including utilities, transport, finance, construction, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical sectors. She also has broad experience in workshop facilitation ranging from business planning to supporting bid teams during tender processes.