When companies grow through acquisition, their staff often suffers. And when workers hurt, so do shareholders. In his latest guest blog, talent risk expert Steve Trautman recommends three steps to help you retain top IT talent when mergers and other big changes happen.

When I think about mergers and acquisitions I sometimes get flashbacks. Growing up at Microsoft in my early career, I witnessed many acquisitions of top brands into the Microsoft machine. I had a front row seat to the parade of new talent coming in from the outside, often bewildered by being sucked into their new mother ship with little warning. And I watched as many of the best workers were plucked away by other companies before they had a chance to find their feet.    

2018 was a bumper year for M&As, according to the Institute for Mergers, Acquisitions and Alliances (IMAA). But the big story isn’t the combined $3.9 trillion price tag of those transactions, it’s the stomach-turning rate at which M&As fail. KPMG says, “Only about one third of mergers, acquisitions and takeovers add value in North America while almost 70% actually reduce shareholder worth or, at best, are neutral.”  

What the heck is happening here? 

No question, a contributing factor to M&A failure is management’s gaping inability to get top talent to stay put and to get two corporate cultures working in sync. Employees see organizational change as a threat. They lose trust in their company and feel betrayed by the leadership. But even in scary transition times, you can protect your investment and keep high-value expertise from jumping ship by following these three steps.  

3 Steps to Retaining Technology Talent Amid Change

Step 1: Quickly make sure employees understand the new big picture.

Wholesale change is unnerving, so don’t make your people guess what’s next for them. Within minutes of an M&A announcement, acquired employees will be asking some of the more obvious questions like … how long will this transition take? Who will be my boss? Am I better off finding a new job?   

But just as important, they’ll want to know about their new role. Who will be my new customer? What will be our new products and services? How will our success be measured? If you leave your people in limbo, top talent will move on and take valuable skills and knowledge—some of the assets you just bought!—with them. Even worse, the “B players” who came with the acquisition will stay put.  

Step 2: Gather data to really know the technical value of individuals.

Put yourself in the shoes of a talented technical professional whose company has just been acquired. Imagine being “introduced” to your new VP with traditional HR data as the backdrop.   

Along with your slot on the org chart, they’ve got your last performance review. Unfortunately, it was written by a young, distracted boss who may have been too clueless to tell your story clearly. They've got your previous job title (out of date, of course), your last paycheck (you were due for a raise) and your years of experience, which doesn’t mean much in this time of constant, light-speed change.   

It’s no surprise that top talent bails out. They don’t want to be treated like their paperwork. Why shouldn't they take that call from a headhunter and give it a shot somewhere else?  

I advise executives to assess and gather data on who does what work where. By that, I mean tracking exactly what each person on your team actually does. Use that data to solve several of the problems that might cause your best new people to flee. With detailed talent risk data you can:  

  1. Say, “I know what role you played before the acquisition and we’re going to find the right spot for you to continue your technical leadership. Don’t give up too soon.”

  2. Sort out redundancies when you have two people who could fill the same role. Letting them fight it out themselves is bad for everyone. Plus, the wrong worker may win.

  3. Identify work someone used to do that should stop immediately. This is a great way to earn respect as a leader and loyalty from top talent.

  4. Identify workers who should not be retained. Nothing is harder for top talent than watching their expert peers leave while the B players stick around.

Step 3: Chart a pathway to success for your people.

Leaders painstakingly merge buildings, systems, org charts and budgets. But after the logistics are tidied up, acquired people are often left to fend for themselves. That can feel isolating, confusing and frustrating.   

What most technical people really want is a clear mission with an unambiguous role for themselves, a functioning peer group, a challenging problem to solve, and as much flexibility as possible to make it happen. That, plus a killer laptop and unlimited snacks, and they’re golden.  

Chart a pathway to this promised land for your acquired people as fast as possible. Define what “done” looks like and then measure how far along they are each week. Don’t settle for less.   

Introduce them to the cadre of experts who will be their peers. Slot acquired employees into learning or mentoring roles as appropriate. Show which tasks are most critical to know and use on-the-job. Then set out a clear roadmap for how they’ll learn those things through mentoring and knowledge transfer.   

I don’t think “blending the families” after an acquisition fails because executives don’t care about their existing or acquired people. It happens because they don’t know what to do  

Clarifying the new Big Picture, deeply understanding and talking about the skills and expertise these new employees bring to your business, and then providing a clear path to success in both the near- and long-term will both build trust with your people and protect your investment. 

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