Change management

Aug 06, 2018

Mergers and acquisitions, among other events, can wreak havoc on firms. Keep in mind that when faced with upheaval, different people adjust in different ways.

I checked Wikipedia at the start of this article, and found a broad and interesting definition for the term “change management,” as follows: “Change management is a collective term for all approaches to prepare and support individuals, teams, and organizations in making organizational changes. The most common change drivers include ... pressure from new business entrants, acquisitions, mergers, and organizational restructuring.”

Having been a full-time employee in multiple firms that either acquired or were acquired by another, it is my experience that the two most troubling of the drivers listed above are generally acquisitions and mergers, especially in a professional services company.

Both acquisition and merger change your company’s service offering and the way it delivers those services, and also change the overall way your company does business, the way it plans for the future, the way it pursues new projects, the way its administrative processes flow and impact the work, and a host of other factors.

And when the two firms involved have different cultures, the “settling in” period can be longer and much more painful than any of the owners imagined.

Some changes are small, requiring little effort beyond acknowledging the change and the new process it requires. Other changes are huge, requiring a lot of implementation planning, a lot of explaining to ensure company-wide understanding and acceptance, and a lot of pain as staff members work through the change.

Some changes are potentially so big that two of them should never be attempted at the same time. Here is an example:

An A/E firm with multiple offices acquired another A/E firm with multiple offices, resulting in a firm with six offices in five cities. The different corporate cultures of the firms resulted in some internal competition. Settling into its new dynamic, the leaders decided that two major changes needed to happen:

  1. The overall management structure had to become something completely different from the previous structure of either firm.
  2. The six offices needed to recognize that “we are all one firm,” and focus on the real competition – other firms.

I talked about these two changes with leaders at other firms, both large and small. They agreed that these two changes should not be undertaken simultaneously because each one represents almost as much change as any group can handle at one time. Pursuing both simultaneously would likely just overwhelm the staff.

So it looked like there would need to be a lot of staff hand-holding, because people process change differently. Some can process multiple changes at once; others are strictly one-at-a-time. In addition, different people have different individual coping mechanisms and attitudes about change, so they adjust to change at different speeds.

Given a large organizational change, you can count on some people adjusting easily, making the change, and moving into the new processes easily. But you can also count on others who will have great difficulty making the change, and who will require much more patience if you value them as employees and don’t want to lose them. In addition, there will be people at many different places along this spectrum.

Finally, and most unfortunately, there will be those who will actively refuse to adapt to the changes. The one thing a leader must not do is tell any of these resistors that they don’t have to make the change, because that will anger those who have already worked through the change or are still struggling with the difficulty.

The ones who can’t, or won’t, change will ultimately have to be let go, unless they leave of their own accord first.

Then the leaders must make decisions about how to deal with these departures. Is there severance pay, are there reference letters, is there help in finding a new position. This will depend on the individual’s place in the spectrum of adaptation and whether the leaders feel they made a true effort to adapt or just dug their heels in and resisted.

Change is never easy, and it brings its own difficulties to the leaders who instigate the change as well as the employees who have to adapt.

Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant of The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultancy located in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 559.901.9596 or at

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