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314 — How Fast Can Culture Change?

The speed of culture change depends on size, commitment, and resources.

  • The size of the organization— with fewer people to involve, small companies change faster than big companies.
  • The commitment of the top leaders to walk the talk. If leaders show by their actions that they are committed to the change, employees and managers will quickly join them. If leaders delegate the task, little will change.
  • The resources available. Developing a work culture takes a little extra time. If the operational needs are too demanding, if there simply is no time to meet and discuss the culture, it may be best to wait.

Cultures Change When Leaders Show That They Want Them to Change

Holding monthly “Culture Leadership Meetings” with the management team jump-starts the culture development process (see The Five Steps to An Unbeatable Culture). There managers discuss their relationships, the values they want to encourage in the organization and the actions they will take to demonstrate these values. Through this process of discussion and action, managers learn about themselves, the culture, and how they can lead it. When they are ready, leaders can then involve lower levels in a similar process. This step-by-step process is the fast and simple way to build a powerful and productive workplace.

Results Begin Immediately

With active leadership, positive results will begin immediately. Even in the biggest organization, people at every level will soon be aware that the culture is changing for the better. With visibly committed top leadership you can use the following general time guideline for completing the culture change, top to bottom and across all divisions. (Many factors can affect these numbers, e.g. if you are a local plant, eager to change, but the corporation’s leadership does not understand and accept your changes, that will slow down and limit the extent of your effort.)

Number of Employees      10  100  1,000  10,000  100,000
Year to complete change   1     2      3         4         5

It is only natural and human to want an engaging workplace with trusting relationships and good communications, where you feel valued and productive. If leaders move in that direction people will eagerly follow. Once leaders learn how to go with the current of human desire, see Evolution and Company Culture, they usually look back and wonder why they ran the company any other way.

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426 — The Opportunistic Employee

Early man often acquired food by chasing away a predator from its recent kill. He used its fur for warmth, dug edible roots from plants found along the trail, made tools from stones, vines or branches, and systematically scouted an area for the night’s shelter. He was opportunistic. We still are. What we wear responds to the weather. How we drive to work responds to the traffic. What we do at our desk largely responds to other people.

Smart companies tap into this basic human skill by creating a culture where employees think and act opportunistically, taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. It brings growth and profits.

Niels Bohr famously remarked, “Prediction Is Very Difficult, Especially of The Future.” With today’s rapid change, prediction has never been more difficult, so  rewards go to cultures that don’t try to predict the unknowable but help employees see opportunities and grab them. Some top-down planning is essential, but too much leads to passivity in low levels.

For employee to grab opportunities, he or she needs to know:

  1. The overall game plan — where the company is going and how he or she fits into that picture, plus background information on finances, customers, company resources, and products — the information that helps a person make good decisions.
  2. When to decide independently and when to involve a superior or another department — what are the boundaries within which he or she has freedom to act, where does he or she stop and where do others need to be pulled in?
  3. That he or she needs the strong personal relationships and trust that give the confidence to act on opportunities. Seizing opportunities is too risky without the confidence that comes only from experience; that the organization will focus on successes, rather than on failures.

Every Employee Can Be an Entrepreneur
I worked with a company where package delivery drivers were presented daily with dozens of opportunities with customers to further the company’s business. Unfortunately this company did not see the drivers in the role of business development. That function went to the Marketing Department. Every day drivers watched business development opportunities slip by. The company didn’t see what it was losing.

Now imagine every employee unleashing their potential as an entrepreneur, a business developer, salesperson, R&D member, marketer, and customer service rep.

Release what’s already in your employee’s genes. It’s good for people and good for business.

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214 — Organization Climate Survey

To use the Survey

  • Copy and paste the Survey into your word processing program. (In Word, use narrow margins.)
  • If needed, modify it to suit your organization.
  • Print a copy for each person. (You may choose to omit these instructions, or you may leave them.)
  • Have each team member privately complete the questionnaire. No names!
  • Confidentially tally the results by marking everyone’s Xs, Os, and Checkmarks on one blank. Destroy their originals.
  • Discuss only the combined results.

Organization Climate Survey

For each question mark an ” X ” where you personally experience the item. Mark with an ” O ” where you feel it should be (where you would like it to be.)

 What is the direction of information flow?



Down and up

Down, up and sideways

 How accurate are upward communications?

Often wrong

Censored for the boss



How well do you feel your manager knows the problems you face?

Not well


Quite well

Very well

 How much trust and confidence do you feel is shown towards you?


Pretend to

Once in a while


How inspired are you by your manager?

Not at all




 In difficult situations, does your manager back you?





How much are fear and threats used to motivate?




Very little

 How much are reward and involvement used to motivate?

Very little



9. Do you feel involved in decisions that affect you and your work?
Not at all



Fully involved
10. Who clearly understands the goals of the company?
Only top

Top and


11. What are activity, production, and other measurement data used for?
Policing, and

Reward and

Reward, some self-guidance

Self-guidance, and problem-solving

12. Put a checkmark next to those items you feel are the most significant and are worth discussing in a group meeting.

This page from is reproduced with permission.

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334 — Employee Involvement Doubles Plant Productivity — Two Examples

Preparing the Soil

Managers of a California manufacturing plant with several hundred employees, at corporate’s prompting, agreed to build a more open workplace. Several meetings with the plant leadership group produced a vision and a plan.

Supervisors were trained to lead open problem-solving meetings with employees. Through a series of discussions with supervisors, managers committed to initially support just two employee problem-solving groups: manufacturing and sanitation and safety. Each group began by identifying problems interfering with their tasks.

1. Production Team

Breakdowns gave the production line group the most trouble. These were physically and psychologically draining for the workers. With guidance, the small group systematically collected data on the frequency, type and cause of breakdowns. The process of identifying and analyzing problems soon led to problem-solving. As their analysis looked deeper at root causes, the group involved other shifts and other departments in the analysis; first to collect and analyze data, but later to list and map broad system-related issues connected to the breakdowns.

It was not easy for the managers to remain open as the employees took responsibility for analyzing and addressing inter-departmental and, later on, external supplier issues. Many managers felt that this was their exclusive territory. (“If I don’t own that who am I?”) But with a little help from the plant manager and Meridian Group, they restrained themselves from interfering and soon adopted a strongly supportive role.

2. Sanitation and Safety Team

Meanwhile, the small group of sanitation and safety employees had begun analyzing their own work-related problems. Their biggest frustrations were the large mounds of product waste they had to constantly clean up. As a long-range goal, they wanted to keep the plant cleaner by stopping the mess at its source. As with the production group, it wasn’t long before they involved other parts of the plant in mapping broad system-wide issues that led to product waste.

Uncovering Systemic Problems

From a broad perspective all problems are related. So the two groups quickly found themselves working closely together on system-wide issues, a process that eventually involved, to some degree, almost everybody in the plant. It was clear that a new wind was blowing.

Trust in Management

Employees knew that upper management now supported employees in solving their frustrations at work, even if this sometimes involved changing comfortable and long-standing (but not necessarily constructive) relationships with supervisors, managers and other departments.

Not only did productivity increase and product loss decrease, but morale rose to the point that people were openly excited about coming to work. People discussed at home what was going on at work — something few had done in the past.

Other Leadership Changes

It wasn’t just employees who experienced change. I was pleased to hear the assistant plant manager talking with a group of new supervisors say, “After 28 years with the company, I’m looking forward to bringing you along so that you don’t have to unlearn what I have unlearned about leadership in the last year.” With employees taking more responsibility for issues in their work area the plant manager told a visitor, “I have more control of what goes on here now when I’m away from the plant than I had before when I was on-site.”

The Key: Senior Management’s Open-mindedness

It was upper management’s new openness to employees’ concerns that set the stage for these innovative changes. Management didn’t give employees these problems or abstract goals such as “increase productivity” or “improve customer service.” Managers allowed employees to identify real concerns and solve these through an open evolutionary* dialogue with each other and with management. Because employees identified the problems, they were highly motivated to solve them and to make their solutions stick.

The specific problems or their solutions were not set by upper management. While the process began with people’s workplace frustrations it soon led to addressing broad, system-wide interdepartmental and supplier issues that had been unapproachable for many years. At this plant, in 18 months, productivity doubled. Small evolutionary steps had led to big changes.

* Evolutionary Problem Solving?

Evolutionary change means changes that happen as a response to the environment. Here we use “evolution” to mean the step-at-a-time changes where the next step depends on what happened at the last step, i.e. how the situation responded to the previous action and what you do as a result of that new information. This contrasts with planned change, where the end goal is set and actions all geared to achieve it. To illustrate one difference: in planned change obstacles are identified and overcome with effort. In evolutionary change there are no obstacles because the path forward is always the easiest next step — whatever the situation (environment) suggests.

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213 — How To Draw Your Cultural Landscape

The Landscape Metaphor ®

It’s impossible to put most of life’s experiences into words. At work, it’s fairly straightforward to verbally describe operational issues — projects, the finances, the structure, and hardware. But when it comes to our personal lives, what really counts — our relationships, hopes and fears, trust or lack of, apprehensions, being heard or appreciated or ignored, i.e. the immediate, concrete, ordinary experience of being an organizational member — words just don’t cut it.

For thousands of years people have used music, dance, art, and forms of literature such as metaphor and poetry, and more recently film, to convey human experience. Of course, none of them get to the core of it, but they’re the best tools we have.

To help people describe the subtle complexity of the work culture, Royal Foote, Ph.D. at Meridian Group, developed a tool that quickly records and communicates many difficult-to-describe and often too-scary-to-talk-about-directly qualities of the work culture.

What I describe here may sound to some of you a little simplistic or even childlike. But I can assure you it works spectacularly. I have used it dozens of times to great effect. Many managers look back years later to these drawings, warmly and vividly recalling the issues the metaphor helped put on the table for discussion, often for resolution. Years later managers recall the relief they felt, at last, getting into the open deep-seated, chronic, frustrating issues around relationships, authority, and communications.

What to Do

Because it’s so strange and unconventional, the group has to be warmed up to the task. If you are the group’s leader/facilitator you tell them the group will divide into groups of 4 or 5 people. Each small group will draw one picture that includes all the elements that individual members feel are important at work. They all have 40 minutes to do the drawing and it can only use items that you find in landscapes — any kind of landscapes — but not words.

Landscape Items

As the facilitator, you now ask the group to name things they might see in a landscape. Write down the words they say on a board or pad for all to see. They might start with trees or roads or houses or people. If the group gets into one track, widen their view with a question such as “How about in the tropics?” Or “What other kinds of landscapes do we have here in America?

When the list has 20 to 40 items on it and seems to cover a wide range of landscapes, say, “Now I would like you to take 40 minutes for each group to draw a picture describing how you experience . . . . . (name of the organization) using the elements from landscapes as a metaphor. No words. We are not looking for artistry. The picture should include what is important to each of you. You each have many important experiences that you can describe this way. To start you might discuss and agree on some general picture that will allow everything to be included. Everyone should contribute. You can all draw or not, but everyone must contribute and participate. The drawing must include everything you think is important. When we get back together in 40 minutes, I’d like each group to describe how it decided what to do and then what the drawing means. Any questions? . . . . . . . . . . . . Enjoy yourselves.”

Be Patient

There’s always confusion at the beginning. It’s a strange exercise and some people may be embarrassed: “Adults don’t do things like this.” But it doesn’t take long for each group to get into the swing of it. If you have a particularly small group of leaders or managers, say six or seven, you can still make two groups. It’s important that each group work independently so they don’t see or hear what another group is doing.

People usually get very creative, drawing forests with tall trees, race cars, mountain climbing, warships at sea, battles, playgrounds, money bags, battles. These describe important parts of the work culture conveying meanings that could not be described so clearly, simply and richly by any other means.

When you return, ask each group to describe the process they went through in deciding what to do, then what the drawing is and what it means. Usually, each group will have one person speak for the group, but it’s a good idea to invite each other person in that group to add anything he or she feels was missed in the description.

Drawing a landscape metaphor is an excellent beginning for a retreat or a little way into the culture development process. The drawings reveal important areas for discussion that might otherwise remain under the table. Group members typically want to take these drawings back to the office and pin them in a very visible place. It’s a memorable experience. Two examples.

landscape 2


413 — Collaboration, Teamwork and Cooperation

People like to be valued and appreciated, and involved in decisions that affect them. Involvement, teamwork and collaboration are basic human desires. To get them, invite them.

Here are two examples. The first is a manager, deep within the organization, who created a new collaborative setting with her peers. The second is how a top leadership team decided to change its collaboration message to those below.

Example I: Initiating Collaboration as A Mid-Manager

Jo-Ann, a second-tier manager in a major manufacturer, had a special assignment: to better coordinate the functions across R&D, marketing, sales, manufacturing, shipping and service. Jo-Ann and I carefully planned an approach that included “Interviewing” key people, together with carefully practiced group facilitation techniques (see Make Better Decisions).

At the first meeting, the managers, directors and VPs she invited, were suspicious. Some had wanted to send a subordinate in their place — she took this to mean that they were not on-board. It took Jo-Ann three, very carefully facilitated meetings, where she stood thoroughly neutral on all issues, before attendees trusted her enough to put their real concerns about collaboration on the table.

It was several more meetings before members allowed the group to make decisions that affected their functions. The group liked their experience and the positive results so much that they continued, expanding the topic to include other cross-functional issues. The Executive Committee applauded Jo-Ann’s success, rewarding her with a significant promotion.

The Lesson; You can invite collaboration from any level in the organization

Hidden behind much of people’s initial resistance to collaboration is the common human longing for teamwork and good relationships. If you have a project that affects others, talk with each one personally. Build a relationship. Take your time explaining how your project will affect them or their people. Stay open. Be clear that you don’t have the answer. Say something like, “I’d like to pull together everyone affected so we can all find a way to make it work for everyone. I’m planning on inviting . . . . . . . . . If I find a time that suits everyone, could you join us?” This way you can take the lead on collaboration.

If you persevere, most people will eventually join you. Don’t be fooled by people’s sometime gruff initial response. That usually just a defensive reaction to being burned in the past.

Example II: Upper Management Encourages Collaboration by Cutting the Criticism

This was the leadership group of a 5,000-person company located in the southwest. We met for several hours monthly, discussing how to build a more productive company culture. At one of these morning meetings, a manager complained that at lower levels of the company, divisions were not working well together.

In my role as their company culture consultant, I frequently reminded the group, “Nothing occurs in a vacuum. What you do as leaders sets the stage. People follow your example. What happens below is partly because of your actions here at the top. And in any case, to be practical, that is the part you can most easily change.”

This time I did not give them this full spiel, but I did ask, “What might you be doing that inadvertently supported this lack of cooperation? For example, in the last six months have any of you criticized another person in this room or another department or division?” Immediately a manger shot back with, “You mean since breakfast this morning don’t you?” Another manager chimed in, “You mean since the coffee break!” As the laughter subsided, I hardly needed to say it — but did anyway. “So here we are setting an example, by criticizing other people and divisions, and then wondering why they don’t feel like cooperating.”

This was one of those rare moments of insight for the group. At the next meeting they told stories of how they had stopped criticizing, and instead, were working together on visibly cooperative solutions. They also reported that people below had noticed the change and liked it.

The Lesson; To Understand Employee’s Behavior, Look at Leader’s Behavior

The cultural or system perspective says: “No event occurs in a vacuum. If you want to understand an event — in this case, why people aren’t collaborating — just look at the situation. It will tell you.” Ask yourself, “If people aren’t collaborating, how is our organization saying, ‘Don’t collaborate’?”

People don’t collaborate when leaders give the signal not to. This is rarely intentional. I have never found a leader who says he or she wants non-cooperation. However, I have seen many leaders whose personal actions do not demonstrate or invite collaboration. For example, they might be critical of people’s suggestions or actions, or they might make decisions without involving the people affected, or they might be generally distant. Whatever the reason, if leaders don’t show collaboration in their daily actions, people throughout the organization will follow their lead.

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425 — Quickly Build An Effective Work Team

When a new work team is formed, members look to the leader for guidance. If the leader provides too much direction, the group will become passive, frustrated, and eventually disband. With too little direction, the group will flounder like an infant, becoming frustrated with itself and its inability to settle down to work.

The skillful leader avoids this apparent dilemma between too little and too much direction, by taking firm control of the group’s decision process, while insisting that members contributed their skills and knowledge to the group’s task. One way of doing this is spelled out in the paper titled, “Make Better Decisions”. Another example is described in “Selecting The Best Candidate for Promotion”.

Groups Can Be Scary

Members of new groups are apprehensive. They need a secure and dependable leader. Over the years I have heard many “tough managers” deny that groups are scary places. But they are. If you think that’s not true just imagine yourself entering a new peer group. You don’t know:

  •  Who knows who and what existing relationships and commitments exist.
  •  Who is going to do what—participate, dominate, attack, undermine.
  •  What effect your actions will have on your career.
  •  What covert agendas exist with members and with the leader.
  •  If you will inadvertently make a fool of yourself in front of everybody.

If there are people from many levels of authority present in the group, the problems are compounded. In these groups, particularly when trust and relationships are weak:

  •  People in power will behave to assert their rank.
  •  Subordinates will attempt to show their competence, or try to out-do their peers.
  •  Others will posture, showing they’re not afraid of authority, or they will try to demonstrate their independence.

For these and many other reasons, it is very difficult for a group, with many levels of authority, to become a smoothly functioning team. Usually it requires a skilled and experienced facilitator, and ideally at some point, a frank discussion by the group of how it will manage these all-too-dominating authority issues. But eventually, if all goes well, over time, our personal questions about the new group are answered enough so that we can settle down to work. This process quickens if the leader takes firm control of the group process, so that members feel productive.

Each of us has probably been in a group where an inexperienced leader allowed the group to wallow for too long in uncertainty. Is one of life’s most frustrating experiences, and it can happen even if everyone in the group is highly competent and experienced. Few want to tell the leader he or she has no clothes. Don’t take a group’s failures personally. Group issues are about the group psychology and dynamics, which are not necessarily connected to the competency of individual members.

First—Solve an Easy Problem

Experienced managers and professional facilitators often settle the new group by asking members to list their favorite meeting ground rules. The group then decides if the list is one they will work towards and follow, to better manage themselves. This simple exercise is probably familiar to visitors of this site.

  •  It’s an ice-breaker.
  •  It gets everybody to speak out.
  •  It shows the meeting will be run democratically, that the leader is open to people’s ideas.
  •  It shows that the leader respects members as competent.
  •  It provides a quick win, i.e. the group immediately solves a problem and makes a decision.
  •  It helps people get to know each other.

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411 — Morale

High morale is a key to success. But what is morale? How can you build it? Here are some facts and suggestions.

What is Morale?

Morale is that special feeling you share with others of trust, usefulness, purpose, team loyalty and support, pride in your achievements and those of the group, and faith in the organization’s leadership and in the organization’s ultimate success.

High morale inspires people to be self-sacrificing and courageous, to go way beyond what is normally expected, to take extraordinary responsibility for their own work, and be totally dedicated to the work of the team.

Curiously, studies show that some apparently negative job factors, such as a safe working environment, are not necessarily connected with morale. For example, prison guards, firemen, and policeman, all work in dangerous jobs, but often have high morale. Even interpersonal difficulties between employees and line managers may not affect morale. Other factors related to individual job satisfaction, such as personal gratification around the tasks, or moving forward with a career plan, may not connect with morale.

To Build High Morale

High morale is closely connected to teamwork and confidence in the leadership. There are many things leaders can do with the team to build teamwork and morale.

  • Make decisions as a team.
  • Hold regular team meetings.
  • Encourage team activities such as:
      • Hold team celebrations for individual or team achievements at work or elsewhere with a BBQ or party.
      • At the team level this could celebrate meeting a tough deadline, responding well to an unusually difficult situation, or reaching a new level of productivity.
      • At the individual level this might recognize a marriage, a new baby, or a community or scholastic achievement.
      • Establishing a (softball) team or other outside group activity.
  • Encourage team members to work with others on solving problems.
  • Encourage everyone to take responsibility for, and initiation of all of the group’s actions, including the above items.

The goal is to have the team know they have real power and are in control of themselves as a team. You serve as their resource.

Build Faith In The Leadership

  • Be there for the team when they need you.
  • Be clear to the team about the overall direction, goal, and purpose of the organization and the team.
  • Bring the team’s relevant concerns and issues to the next level of management, and get back to the team with management’s response.
  • Don’t take the team’s problems away from them. Be a good coach.
  • Take the moral high ground during emergencies, such as:
      • Really put safety before productivity.
      • Voluntarily recall sub-standard products.
  • Give everybody information on the big picture, particularly anything that might help people make better, more informed decisions.
  • Let everybody know of successes in other parts of the organization, and make sure that their successes are known in other parts of the organization.
  • Invite senior managers to visit your department and talk with team members, perhaps even sitting in on a team meeting. This shows openness and cooperation and support of your efforts to build morale. Everyone likes to meet senior managers.
  • Share financial information with the whole group.
  • Foster their relationships with other parts of the organization, which might include:
      • Smoothing the way for them to invite a member from another department to a team problem-solving meeting, when the subject affects the other department.
      • Encouraging team members to work on company-wide problem solving teams.

Believe that high morale and personal pride are possible in large organizations.

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114 — Some Company Culture Maxims

  • There is no event in a vacuum. To understand an event, look at its context.
  • The event is not the problem. The person is not the problem. The system is the problem.
  • What people do reflects the culture. Culture is established by its leaders. What people do is information about the culture and about the leaders.
  • A company’s culture is the context for all that happens in the company.
  • Because the culture determines productivity and profits, it is the real bottom line.
  • The purpose of human systems is to serve people. If people are the subject, not the object — if people are put first — enthusiasm and high productivity will follow.
  • Don’t involve people just to solve problems. Use problems and problem-solving to involve people.
  • You can’t have a safe workplace if you don’t have safe meetings.

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435 — Smoother Mergers and Acquisitions — Participation Brings Higher Success Rates

Six out of ten acquisitions fail to meet their financial goals. Usually the operational and financial plans are realistic, but they don’t meet expectations because people and cultural issues prevent proper company integration.

Manage Uncertainty

When properly managed, a good merger process will strengthen both cultures, retaining key people and yielding the hoped-for synergy that sadly eludes most acquisitions. Culture conflict is particularly acute when the two cultures are quite different, for example in size, centralization, openness, and formality. Even though details of what will happen cannot be known in advance, the process for merging the cultures and managing uncertainty can be clear.

The merger process will be unique to every merger but typically includes: scheduling regular update meetings, a dedicated process for posting and answering questions, and a way to include people who want to be involved in decisions. Post this decision process and invite comments for improvements. Participation is the key to success.

Communicate, Inform, Involve

Frequent and open communication reduces water-cooler talk — that is often misinformed and reinforces fears. Explain simply and clearly the acquisition’s purpose and goals. Make sure that people can personally identify with the combined company’s vision and mission.

Whether in reality or in people’s imagination, acquisitions affect everyone. Involving those affected in the acquisition decision process — without slowing or complicating it — takes some skill, but is not as difficult as it might first seem. People want to know how they will fit into the new structure. Too often the merger team rushes to define the new structure, rather than involving employees in setting the new structure and direction, particularly how each person will fit into the new structure, his and her role and tasks. Involvement ensures a stronger plan with everyone committed to their new roles and to making the merger work. Ideally, you have one person (or more) on the acquisition team who is focused on cultural issues. This person, not consumed by the financial, legal, and logistical problems, provides feedback on the people side to the technical experts.

Example — The Acquired is Participatory

Managing any complex company is filled with uncertainty. This problem is magnified for managers facing a newly acquired company, of which they know practically nothing. Ideally, they get help from the place of most knowledge — from the managers in the acquired company. Here is an example.

I was working with the Northern California division of Fortune (name changed) when it was acquired by a competitor, Allied (name changed). Anticipating what would happen if they did not act, I urged the Fortune managers to take control of the merger process before the Allied team came on-site. The Fortune management team was very apprehensive, “What could we do? Do we have the authority to do anything? What if we do something and they change it? Who should we ask for permission? etc., etc.”

The Acquired Managers Take Control of the Process

The Fortune team was a sophisticated leadership group that over three years had built open communications and strong relationships at all levels of their Division. Their early discussions of the merger, often about operational details, evolved into a realization that they could best serve the merger process by acting as facilitators between the two companies. So they planned a series of meetings and invited the leadership from both companies to meet, identify issues, and make decisions. They also decided to present the same open and inviting stance they had learned, not the defensive or protective one they had left behind, that still characterized other Fortune divisions, and also the acquiring company.

When the Buyer is Autocratic

They knew Allied had a centralized leadership style, concentrated in their mid-west headquarters. Allied middle management was used to taking orders and giving orders. They did not use, nor understand, participatory decision-making. The incoming Allied management team accepted the Fortune manager’s invitation to meet, but at the initial meeting, I could tell, from the Allied manager’s words and faces, that they found the experience confusing. Understandably they had expected to meet people like themselves, managers who acted defensively, withholding information, jockeying for position, and highly deferential to superior authority. Instead, they met a deliberately relaxed, friendly, open, candid, and non-deferential management team.

I was concerned by this, because I know that authoritarians usually interpret open behavior as weak. It tempts them to go for the jugular. Indeed a few of the younger managers from Allied were provoked by what they thought was a vulnerability in the Fortune managers, and became openly hostile and aggressive. It was almost embarrassing to see these young managers strutting their stuff. But the Fortune managers knew better than to react to this. While they were concerned about the hostility, they controlled their impulses and maintained the open dialog, which, over several meetings persuaded most, though not all, of the Allied team to act similarly.

After several meetings I felt that the Allied vice president recognize the maturity of the Fortune managers, the sophistication of the process they had initiated, and the major benefits it was bringing to the merger.  But he had another problem. Above him was Allied’s top management that tolerated no challenge to their decrees. He rightly saw the dialogue of the joint meetings as a potential problem if it moved in a direction that conflicted with directives from his bosses, or with his own plans.

These joint planning meetings, conducted over several months, had many rough spots but when the dust settled the Allied vice president said that the Northern California Division merger process had been the smoothest and most successful of the many Divisions under his authority.

Example — The Acquirer is Participatory

A Texas chemical plant “A” was under threat of closure. We worked with the managers helping them build a participatory workplace that dramatically improved productivity while rebuilding the self-confidence of the A management team. When an adjoining chemical plant B declared bankruptcy the A managers propose to corporate that they acquire and merge the two plants. Though surprised by this local initiative, corporate agreed.

A was a vast international Corporation with sophisticated, detailed procedures. B was a standalone plant largely operating from the seat of its pants. Managers at A planned to bring order and stability to B. Managers at B feared stifling and suffocation from the order and procedures of A (which they saw as micromanaging and over-control). While the A managers held most of the cards, they did not know the plant B equipment and they wanted to retain if possible the experienced plant B employees and managers. What followed was a merry dance that lasted many, sometimes excruciating, months.

When the Acquired is Autocratic

Just as in the previous example the autocratic managers from plant B interpreted the openness of plant A managers as weakness. Plant B managers quickly became aggressive, thinking they could gain the upper hand. Plant B managers were confused when plant A managers did not fight back or fold, but simply held their ground, restating their position, mostly about bringing more order and predictability to plant operating procedures and how the plants would be physically joined.

The confusion reached a head when the general manager of plant B resigned. He failed to see how plant could be run without his familiar top-down control style. His view of the participatory decision process was that he was being stripped of authority, that is, he was being asked to resign. When the plant A management team refused to accept his resignation he was totally confused. From his experience how could he run a plant if he didn’t have complete authority.

He wasn’t alone. Most of the original managers and supervisors could not understand participation. To help them learn, the plant A management team assigned some of their lower-level managers and supervises to act as “buddies”, working side-by-side with their counterparts at plant B. As these buddies develop stronger interpersonal relationships most of the plant B employees began to see that they were not being rolled over but were being welcomed. But it took a painfully long time for this to happen.

I was most impressed at the fortitude of the plant A managers in tolerating the kind of disruptive, sometimes childlike, acting-out behavior from plant B. I put it down to the sophisticated maturity of the plant A team that they kept the long-term goal clear — “Use the merger process to demonstrate the values that renewed our plant and made it so successful.” The A management team demonstrated participation, trust, openness, teamwork, tolerance, compassion, and true leadership.

Though physically the merger of these two plants was extraordinarily complicated, merging the people side was more so. In the long run both cultures merged beautifully, almost doubling plant capacity at a very low cost. Corporate was delighted.

cc 435 — vanhoadoanhnghiep