Imagine how you might feel if your boss told you tomorrow that the company you worked for was being acquired.
Generally, there’s a feeling of worry—even panic. You might initially think, "What does this mean for me? Will I get to keep my job?" For many, the first thought is: "I’m getting out of here."
There’s a reason for this feeling: Research shows that most mergers and acquisitions ultimately fail. And often it comes down to a people problem. Whether there’s a misalignment in employee culture, or the transition isn’t effectively communicated or managed, the result is employee departures. In fact, employee turnover can continue at double the average rate for nine years following the initial acquisition. This puts organizations into ongoing states of disruption—precipitating the failure, at least in part.
Today at Cornerstone, we’re experiencing an acquisition firsthand after acquiring Grovo in 2018. But to avoid being another name on the list of failed acquisitions, we’re working closely with Grovo leadership to make sure the transition goes smoothly.
Enter: Summer Salomonsen. She was the chief learning officer at Grovo and is now head of Cornerstone Studios. Not only was she integral to making the Grovo acquisition successful, but also she is uniquely qualified for the job: She holds an Ed.D. in organizational change and leadership from University of Southern California, and she’s used that knowledge to support the Grovo acquisition of November 2018, implementing strategies that apply not only to Cornerstone’s success, but also to the success of any acquisition.
I remember when our team first heard that Cornerstone was acquiring Grovo—everyone internally was very excited. What was your initial reaction to the news?
I knew the acquisition was coming, and I had been part of getting both sides ready. I’d experienced a poorly managed acquisition before, so I was very attentive to: How are we communicating? When are we communicating? What are we communicating?
What was your strategy for breaking the news to your team?
My CEO at Grovo gave me some of the best advice I've ever received around change, which was: Do not give people information they don't have the tools to process.
During an acquisition, everyone wants to know what's happening. But let's say I pulled someone aside as soon as we heard the news and said, "Hey, we're going to be acquired by Cornerstone." Then they would ask 10 questions that, at the time, I could not answer (Like, "What happens to my job? Where are we going to be in the company? What does this mean for my pay?") We didn’t share anything until our executive team knew the date it was closing, the scope of what we were doing and how our people would be affected. I was fortunate in that my entire team was invited to come to Cornerstone, but some of my peers were given hard news.
Beyond sharing information too soon, are there other common mistakes executives make when managing an acquisition?
Executives miss the opportunity to develop trust with teams that are being acquired—and that’s in terms of listening, allowing people to process verbally and allowing them to ask questions that may seem insubordinate or out of bounds. First thing to remember: People are bad at change! Leadership teams need to accept that and then architect a process by which employees feel heard, provide someone to offer satisfying answers to their questions, and understand what the process is for the next week to the next month. Most organizations short-circuit this process because they have to prove ROI. They sacrifice what humans need in favor of business priorities. Cornerstone was amazing. They sent leadership to be onsite when the news broke and arranged for meaningful training on change management for the entire team. It was precisely what we needed—to be heard, to ask questions and to find our place in a new company and culture.
One of the most challenging parts of an acquisition can be the cultural differences between teams. Was there a major cultural difference between your team at Grovo and Cornerstone?
Definitely—the people I recruited at Grovo were startup people. Many of them had never worked for a company the size of Cornerstone. l love the startup space and had spent the previous six years there. And as much as Cornerstone is scrappy, it’s a 20-year-old, global tech company. I knew my team was wondering: "Am I still going to be able to create amazing content? Do they understand our team’s vision?" And for me as a leader, I used to be able to make decisions on the fly and shift our focus rapidly. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in a company with significant architecture, pathways, streams and stakeholders that were somewhat hard to identify. It was an adjustment—but one we were excited to make, so we could realize our vision of creating world-class content.
What were some of the ways you’ve been working to make the transition easier for your team?
Early on I made the case for keeping some things the same for my team. The greatest indicator of change for people is when these fundamental, day-to-day things shift. And while things had to change—for example, we knew we could not keep G Suite in a company that uses Microsoft—we could keep Slack as an internal communication tool. I also spent a lot of time identifying how our goals could shift to align with the Cornerstone ecosystem to help anchor everyone to a shared vision.
One of the ways to make an acquisition go more smoothly is to get the employees at the acquiring company involved in the transition. Did you have a strategy around engaging them?
One of the things early on that we heard a lot—and is a pretty common byproduct of acquisitions—is that everyone internally at Cornerstone referred to my team as the Grovo team. I had to be very vocal in saying: "We are part of the Cornerstone team—we’re Cornerstone Studios." It’s really a learning process for both sides.
We’re now a year into the acquisition. How are you feeling about how the process is going?
I am particularly proud of how this acquisition has gone. My team members have built a place for themselves by reaching out and building connections and identifying new paths. We’ve retained the vast majority of the team, and we’re also adding new members—and that speaks to Cornerstone's commitment to this, too. It took a lot of work on both sides to make sure it was successful.
What’s your advice for anyone experiencing an acquisition, or about to experience one?
Acquisitions should be deliberate, long-term work. If you don't see them that way, chances are they’ll fail. Especially people acquisitions. It’s on leadership to check in continually with employees—and not assume it’s done when the papers are signed.