Maybe your company just merged with another organization. Or perhaps you were a member of a group that was just bought out. Chances are you’ve been there: more than 75 percent of industries have become more concentrated since the late 1990s and the mergers and acquisitions boom is only expected to grow.
Mergers and Aquisitions (M&A) is part of Atlassian’s strategy for growth – to date, Atlassian has acquired more than 20 companies for approximately $1 billion, including recent acquisitions like AgileCraft, Opsgenie, and Trello.
Bringing companies together is about more than profits and market share. You’re not just combining organizations, you’re integrating people and teams, which can be challenging and emotional. It certainly has been for us!
Employees (from both companies) can feel angry, excited, frustrated, and anxious about their future. They’re dealing with divergent leadership styles, new operating practices, and often, poor communication. Failing to address their concerns can tank the entire operation. In a recent Deloitte survey, 23 percent of executives ranked effective post merger integration as the single most important factor leading to a successful M&A.
“Strategy, the deal, the business model; they’re all important. But don’t ignore the crucial fact that none of it will happen without the willing help of people,” says Betty Jane Hess, the former head of the acquisition integration team at Arrow Electronics who led or participated in the integration of 62 acquisitions.
Building teams that have been thrust together during an M&A isn’t easy. But done right, it can be a win-win for employees on both sides. Operating with openness and transparency – and these best practices – can ease some of the biggest pain points.
1. Start integration before the deal is announced
Often companies leave the due diligence up to the finance and legal people, but there’s an awful lot that you need to know about a company and its culture that you’re not going to find in the data room, says Hess. “With Trello we spent a lot of time asking questions about their culture, particularly the fact that they are remote first and for those in the office they all had private work spaces,” says Jessica Hyman, Head of Strategy and Operations for Atlassian’s People Team. “We asked questions like: ‘How did that work for them? What was important to maintain? How could the cultures and values live together?’”
“The other things we spent a lot of time doing is understanding what people on their team do so that we could make the right short term and long term organizational decisions both in terms of where to integrate and where to not integrate,” says Hyman. It’s a strategy Hyman says created buy-in and confidence among Trello employees.
If you’re working on a deal that hasn’t been inked yet, assign someone to figure out what’s different about the company you’re acquiring. What’s important to them and how do they work? What can you do to ease those possible pain points asap?
“When we were acquiring AgileCraft, we brought their leadership team together with their peers at Atlassian for a joint leadership kickoff and strategy session prior to Summit,” says Christina Amiry, Head of M&A Strategic Operations at Atlassian. “We used that week to learn about each other, gain a common understanding of each other’s businesses, how we run our teams, and what we do and why we do it. It was a great catalyst for moving forward.”
If you’re already beyond this stage in an M&A, tuck this thought in your back pocket for the next one.
2. Be as transparent as possible
Acquisitions are a time of great friction, says Amiry. “We’re introducing a massive change. We’ve consistently found that people are happy to become part of Atlassian because they identify with the values, but there’s still a lot of angst about how things will change for them personally.” Mike Walsh, Head of Sales for Opsgenie, experienced this first hand. He was part of the Opsgenie team prior to the integration. “There’s a deep level of uncertainty that comes with any acquisition,” Walsh acknowledges. “But everyone was excited to join Atlassian and it was clear from the get-go that Atlassian was prepared to meet the team in a way that was very welcoming.” Atlassian President Jay Simons visited and had round table discussions with leaders, notes Walsh. Greg Laderman, Head of Enterprise Growth and Jose Morales, Head of Global Field Operations both made multiple visits to the Opsgenie offices. “There was an abundance of communication.”
”When we announced Trello we did an Ask Me Anything (AMA) with a bunch of Atlassian leaders so we could have a really open conversation from the start. It set the tone for Trello that they could ask anything they wanted and we would answer candidly even if the answer is we don’t know yet,” adds Hyman.
3. Answer employees’ most pressing questions
Hess says every employee has just three questions that you need to address as quickly as possible: 1) Do I have a job? 2) Who do I report to? and 3) How will I get paid? Until they get answers, nothing else matters,” says Hess.
“With Trello, we made the announcement and personally handed out offer letters and benefits info (and swag!) to each person a few hours later. We wanted to relieve fear and take care of the basic needs as quickly as we could so we could move on to answering other questions people had about their future with Atlassian,” says Hyman. Telling people this kind of information as soon as possible relieves a lot of anxiety, says Hess. “It helps people relax just a little bit. And then they want to help you make this work.”
Amiry agrees. “With Jira Align, we told people, ‘There’s going to be an org change. We don’t know exactly when that is, but we feel like it’s going to be around this time.’ Having a future date lifted some of the weight, so people didn’t have to worry about it day to day. Acknowledging some of the sticky decisions that were coming helped people process them faster.”
4. Get to know the pain points
“As People Partner, when I would start working with a new group, I prioritized going on a listening tour. I spoke to every manager and several employees focused on learning what they do, how they do it, what makes them tick, and where they may need support,” says Jessica DeGrado, an Atlassian who worked on the integration of Trello, Opsgenie, and Jira Align. “This helped me establish relationships and tailor my approach. Opsgenie, for example, was not used to working with someone from HR or a larger People Team, so I wanted to spend some time helping them understand what we do and how we can empower them to do their best work.”
With Trello, on the other hand, Hyman knew people would be worried about losing their remoteness since Atlassian didn’t have a remote policy. “We were open about knowing this was a difference between our two teams and went about trying to learn from each other. By not forcing Trello to change, Atlassian evolved, and we’re even piloting a few new remote work programs. The pain points can actually be huge opportunities.”
5. Find the hidden leaders
Every company has thought leaders and problem solvers – the people that other employees trust – who aren’t at the top of the org chart. During the first days of an acquisition, Hess would email long-term employees (ten year+) and ask who they went to when they had an issue. Identify these go-to people on the team you’re acquiring and put them on an integration task force. This establishes trust and can help you identify landmines in the integration process, because these trusted individuals are the ones others turn to when they see problems creeping up.
6. Introduce culture over time
The team you’re acquiring likely does things differently. They may even have different core values. So they might need some time to adjust. One of the ways Amiry navigates this is to introduce a buddy system, where team members at a new company are paired with Atlassian peers in the same role. (Product management or customer success, for example.) “It gets people working at a team level so they have someone to ask the ‘dumb questions’ and can start building personal relationships.” The buddy system that paired employees in Boston and Ankara with their counterparts in Austin and New York was an instrumental part of introducing culture when Atlassian acquired Opsgenie last year, says Walsh.
Hyman notes that, with Trello, her team was careful not to replace the signage at their office right away with “Atlassian.” “We didn’t force them to identify as Atlassians on day one.” Hess suggests that instead of expecting a new team to adjust to your methods, meet them halfway. “One company we bought had what they called ‘blue sheets’ that contained instructions of how to get stuff done,” says Hess. “Our teams had this information on the computer, but we printed it out on blue sheets so that after the conversion, the new people would be more comfortable. After a few months, they stopped using the blue sheets. But they had them there for the transition.”
7. Provide support on the ground
“The first 30 days of any acquisition is hell, because no matter how much you try, no matter how much you plan, stuff goes wrong” says Hess. If you’re managing a team that’s in a different physical location, make sure you have a mid-level man (or woman) on the ground for at least the first month (but ideally up to six months) to field questions so new team members don’t have to call up some stranger at headquarters whom they’ve never met. When Atlassian acquired Opsgenie, HR people were in the Boston and Turkey offices once a week to handle pressing questions.
When Atlassian acquired Trello, they introduced something called Trellocation, where Atlassians physically worked from Trello offices as Trellists for a year. “There’s a benefit when people come to the office,” says DeGrado. “Trellocation brought in so much information and knowledge about how tools work and bridge the gap between the two worlds.”
8. Sweat the small stuff
Make sure your new team members have everything they need to do their job asap: Equipment, software, access to company email, and intranet systems. These small details may not be critical to getting your customers orders, but they’re critical to your employees feeling like they’re a part of the team, says Hess.
“We thought through every single benefit that would change and made decisions on if they were worth keeping because of importance to the team,” says Hyman.
One hiccup that Amiry has seen is teams having to learn to use familiar software in new ways. “A team might already be using Confluence,” she says, “but not embedded with Slack, for example. There’s a whole culture of norms around using these tools that are only learned through tribal knowledge and observing your teammates; they’re not actually written down anywhere.” In other words, new team members may already have the ingredients, but they’re being given a whole new recipe on how to use them. Amiry says she’s working on getting some of these unwritten rules written down to make this onboarding easier.
9. Over communicate
Your team is made up of smart people who were probably kicking ass at some level before the company was bought out. Ask them: What worked well in your old team? What was hard to navigate? What are you looking forward to about the merger? What do you fear?
This information can highlight problem areas that you can workshop together. Invite questions, and answer as honestly and as openly as possible. “So many of the things that we found valuable in integrating companies were just life lessons about graciousness and honesty and candor,” says Hess. “Tell them what you can, tell them as soon as you know it. And if you can’t tell them, say, ‘I can’t tell you that, but as soon as I know it I will.’”
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