Culture clash has been blamed for many uncomfortable mergers, including the Normans’ takeover of Saxon England in 1066 and Bank of America’s 2009 acquisition of Merrill Lynch. The current downturn has forced many businesses to merge or go under, while an increasing number of advisors are thinking of cashing out in order to retire. More clashes between different cultures seem inevitable.
In a new book, Win at Work!: The Everybody Wins Approach to Conflict Resolution (Wiley, 2010), Diane Katz points out that most of us are unconscious of the unspoken rules governing how we act, dress, and relate at work.
As social beings, we generally want to fit in with our peers. In the early days of the species, sticking out as “different” put us at risk of being banished from the communal fire. Today, we may have a hard time coping when our tribe of like-minded individuals merges with another tribe that does things differently. With the assistance of two veterans of a successful merger, Greg Friedman and Susan Dickson of Private Ocean, a wealth management firm in the San Francisco Bay area, I’ve explored how culture differences can be resolved, allowing a more productive M&A transition and more choices for those affected. With thanks to Greg and Susan, here are some examples, accompanied by knowledgeable advice.
Q. I was recently brought into a multi-advisor practice with a mandate to improve customer service. In my opinion, the core problem is that the employees feel overworked, underpaid, and unheard by top management. Their unhappiness has translated into a culture of doing as little as it takes to get by. What’s the best way to approach changing the spirit?
A. When I relayed this question to Greg Friedman, president of Private Ocean, he said bluntly, “I believe that fish rot from the head down.”
Friedman finds that a good work environment results when people are respected for their work, and collaboration and acknowledgment of individual contributions are modeled and encouraged. He says, “As leader of a company, I try to create an environment that makes people think, as soon as they wake up in the morning and put their feet on the ground, ‘I’m gonna do great things for great people, and be appreciated for that.’” He makes sure associates treat each other well. “I use the terms ‘internal’ and ‘external’ clients, which are similar,” he notes. “We don’t treat each other differently than we treat our clients.”
Clearly, any culture change has to start at the top. If you have carte blanche to propose changes as you see fit, you may have no qualms about leveling with the big boss(es). Many of us would hesitate to bear such bad tidings to the corner office, but there may be no alternative to becoming a “courageous follower,” as business consultant Ira Chaleff advises in his book of the same name (Berrett-Kohler, 2009).
Part of your recommendation might be for the boss to hire a good executive coach who can help him improve his leadership and managerial skills. It may take a while, but I would expect a significant culture shift to occur as he develops into a leader who is liked and respected by his employees, and who can inspire them to give their best.
Q. Our founding partner has a bee in his bonnet about our firm needing a mission statement. I’ve reviewed many examples, and they’re mostly generic blather. I’d like to create a statement that truly expresses why we’re in business. How can I frame this process so that the people who participate will get beyond generalities to define the authentic “us”?