How “Experienced – Learning” became a “Leadership Game Changer” in our M&A Integration Strategy!

Over the years, I have led numerous dealership acquisitions in the Heavy Truck, Construction Equipment, Materials Handling and Agricultural dealership world.  Some of the biggest challenges we had were around people, culture and leadership, especially in the few critical months after the acquisition.   It became very apparent over several acquisitions that three very identifiable and very predictable cultural and leadership behaviours surface:

  • Enthusiasts:  20% of the organization immediately engages and says this is a great move.  “I welcome the new organization and I want to be a part of the future.”
  • Fence Sitters: 60% of the organization sit on the fence.  “I think this is good, but I’m just going to wait and see how it goes.  I will decide later where to place my loyalty.”
  • Acquisition Destroyers:  20% of the organization do not engage, attempting at every opportunity to discredit the acquiring company and destroy the partnership.  “This isn’t good for me or us in any way.  It should be stopped!” 

Acquisition Destroyers were the most damaging to any efforts we made to engage the team and align cultures.

As you can imagine, we had our work cut out for us.  Most of the efforts we made to shift the 60% Fence Sitters and 20% Acquisition Destroyers failed.  It became an even bigger challenge when we discovered that the acquired management team held some of the same beliefs and behaviours.  Since non-management employees looked to their leadership team for behavioural clues, we needed management to look squarely at themselves, before we could expect them to shift the other’s beliefs about the acquisition and to engage. How to fix this challenge was the million-dollar question, until I had the very fortunate opportunity to observe and feel the “Experienced-Learning” process at a board governance education program I was attending.

In this program, we were tasked with sitting across the table from a professional actor playing the role of a very unprofessional board member.  Our assignment was to develop a communications and coaching strategy to help the board member see and acknowledge his unprofessional behaviour and help him see that a different path was critical to the success of the board and the organization.  When you are in an experience like this – feeling, seeing and hearing – it’s a learning game changer!

When I brought the Acquisition Integration Team together and related this experience to them, we had a great discussion and decided on a path forward to try this “Experienced – Learning” process at an upcoming, significantly sized acquisition.

The plan we laid out was to write a business case on an acquisition that would tell the story of the three behaviours that are typically seen in an acquisition.  We decided to deliver this experience to the new management team during our two day “Strategy & Culture Integration” program that we held in the first week after the Acquisition deal closed.  Each member of the new team was partnered with a member of our current leadership team to work through the process together.

The day began with a review of the business case and a theatre-format presentation of the story by our professional actor team.  The three actors acted out a five-minute introduction of their character’s role within the company, revealing in full personality, their observations and opinions on the acquisition.  While very entertaining, after these presentations, we had a lengthy discussion as a group on what was observed and how people felt about what they saw.  Then, the three characters, played by the actors, held a meeting “in the lunchroom”, having a very colourful discussion and debate on the acquisition and our company as the acquirer of their business.  Clearly, forces hostile to a successful acquisition were at play inside our business case; something needed to be done.

The next step was for each team to develop a communications and leadership coaching strategy to help each of the three characters see how their approach and behaviour was helping or hindering the acquisition.  Leaders learned that they needed to find a way to help staff surface their hopes and fears about the acquisition first, before these strategies would be accepted and Internalized by them.  The practice sessions where leaders supported the characters’ stories and delivering the strategies in front of their peers was a “Felt Experience Game Changer”, bringing deep awareness and immediate behaviour changes to the management team.

During the practice sessions, one of the new managers stopped his presentation and said to us, “I just realized that I’m a fence sitter too.  I’m actually hurting our success.  I need to change and help my people change and engage”.  Over the following years, I had several of these new managers pull me aside and tell me how that day was a defining moment for them in their leadership journey.  These testimonials were powerful and honest assessments of the impact of an “Experienced – Learning” event.

I have learned from years of integrating acquisitions that one of the most important things we need to do is to help the new leadership team see and support the journey forward. Most importantly, we need to realize that it is our responsibility to give these new managers the new tools and experiences that will allow them to lead with confidence.  Sometimes the only way to do that is to put a big mirror up in front of them and have them look at themselves.  That and be ready to be candid with them about yourself as a leader too.  When the stakes are high, when you know your acquisition might be compromised by a group of Fence Sitters and Acquisition Destroyers, a “Felt Experience Game Changer” can be just what you need.

If you’d like to discuss how we can assist you and your business, get in touch with John Higgins, the author of this article, at