Taking charge after the merger: Getting multiple leaders to follow you into the future

By Bruce Tulgan, CEO, RainmakerThinking, Inc.

When two firms merge, it brings together two sets of executive leaders who are used to wielding authority and influence in their old regimes. Now a new regime is emerging. Somebody needs to be the boss. That somebody is you. 

How do you take charge?

If you are the big boss, then it is your responsibility to make sure everything goes well. Employees at every level -- especially those who see themselves as would-be leaders -- will look to you first when they need something, when they want something, or when something is going wrong. If there's a problem, you are the solution.

Step one

Own your new role as the "even bigger" boss than you were before. Come on strong, but not too strong. Next to soft-pedaling authority, the most common mistake made by new leaders post-merger is coming on too strong. Start out strong, for sure, but also with maturity and balance. You have to acknowledge the big change and assume command of the team; take charge and accept the mantel of authority. You don't need to justify why you are now the boss. Instead assume your position and explain how you are going to operate as the new leader.

Step two

Let every leader and every employee know exactly what kind of leader you intend to be, starting with your senior executive team. Pull together your senior executive team for an inaugural meeting. In that meeting, do not only talk about vision, mission, goals and shared responsibility. Talk explicitly about your role as a leader, your style as a leader, your modus operandi and what you expect from the senior executives who will report to you. Let the executive leaders reporting to you for the first time know that they have a huge amount of power in helping you recalibrate: Demonstrating consistently high productivity, high quality and great attitude is the way to gain increased responsibility and greater rewards.

Step three

At the same inaugural meeting, give every leader the chance to introduce him or herself.  From the outset, get everybody focused on their common ground -- "our shared work" -- by asking everybody to introduce him or herself by answering the question, "Who am I at work?" Everyone needs to introduce him or herself: "This is who I am, at work. This is my portfolio of experiences. This is what I can do. This is how I operate and these are my work habits. These are the commitments I am willing to make to my fellow leaders on this leadership team."

Step four

At the same inaugural meeting, or at the next meeting very soon, give every leader the chance to provide input about what should change and what should stay the same. You need a forum where you can say the same things to everybody in the same way at the same time, in which everybody can speak on the record in front of each other, hear each other and respond spontaneously. You need the light of public disclosure and discussion, at least for a little while. Depending on the group dynamics, more or less information may come out in this format. My advice is to stage a series of brainstorming sessions around three questions:

  1. What should change -- from the legacy firms -- about how our new firm operates?
  2. What should not change?
  3. If you were suddenly the leader of this new combined firm, what would your first, second and third priorities be?

After you've taken in everybody's input, in short order, you want to make sure you never lose the spirit or habit of constantly learning from everybody's input. But once the discussions start going round and round, over the same ground, that's your cue to make some decisions. At some point you need to be prepared to report back to the leaders and make it very clear: "Here's what's staying the same. Here's what's changing. The following will be our top three priorities for the foreseeable future."

Step five

Take charge by learning. No matter how much experience you may bring to the table, you will have a huge learning curve to climb: You need to learn the new aspects of your new job, all about the "other" organization, the new aspects of the "new" combined organization, a whole new cast of characters and more. I've seen so many new executive leaders daunted by the learning curve in a post-merger situation and, thus, hesitant to assume command decisively at the outset. They want to learn first and take charge second. Remember, the need to learn is not a position of weakness. It is a position of strength. You don't learn first and take charge later. You take charge by learning. 

Step six

In your first days and weeks, fill as much of your schedule as you can with one-on-ones with every person you possibly can. Start with the senior executives who report to you and work your way down to the front-lines. When it comes to the "other" firm, of course, everyone and everything will be new. But don't make the mistake of leaving out your "legacy" firm and your "legacy" leaders and "legacy" staff: With your "legacy" firm personnel, go through the intensive one-on-ones as if you are starting fresh and re-learn your own firm from a brand new perspective. Go to every one-on-one with a clear learning agenda. Start with this open ended question: "If you were in my shoes right now, what are the things you would want to know?"

Step seven

As soon as possible, clarify individual roles and responsibilities for every single member of the executive team and have each senior executive do the same with his/her direct reports. Often, you will be given individuals who are presumptively slotted for a specific position; maybe you are given a third baseman, a shortstop, or a left fielder. But what you really need is a pitcher. In any event, you rarely get to choose all of the individuals who will make up your team, or any of them for that matter. Even if you get to choose them, you may not be able to find the ideal candidates. Your team will be made up of the players you have. Your job as the leader is to figure out how to make the best use of each player and leverage all of the players on the team, together, in concert with each other. As soon as possible, you need to create a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. Make it 100 percent clear what role each person is going to play: Who owns which tasks, responsibilities, and projects or project components? Who is expected to do what exactly, how, where and when?

Step eight

Take decisive action wherever needed sooner rather than later while the change is still under way. As the nuances of your new leadership challenge become increasingly clear, you will have plenty of surprises.  Once you've had a chance to digest what's going on, you will naturally get to a point where some decisions are obvious: You probably need to fire some people. Others you want to make darned sure not to lose. Perhaps you realize that it would be wise to shift around certain tasks and responsibilities from one person to another. You realize you need to meet with one person much more often than others. Whatever those decisions may be, trust what you are learning through the process. Take action swiftly and surely.

Step nine

Do everything you can to retain the superstars, from both firms. The best people at every level should be in a position to negotiate the best deals. When a valuable person goes to the trouble of customizing his work situation, negotiating special arrangements with the organization, his manager and his coworkers, his stake in the position grows tremendously. If you let the very best people customize these factors, they will design dream jobs. Nobody quits a dream job.

Flexibility is key

Finally, stay flexible every step of the way. Be prepared to revise and adjust as you keep learning, and as circumstances and people change, as they inevitably do.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), It's Okay to be the Boss (2007), Winning the Talent Wars (2001), FAST Feedback (1999), and the classic Managing Generation X (1995). For more information go to www.rainmakerthinking.com.