Maximizing the value of mergers and acquisitions

Disney and 21st Century Fox. CVS Health and Aetna. Walmart and Flipkart. Loblaw and Shoppers.

In business today, the biggest headlines involve mergers and acquisitions. M&A has become the ultimate growth strategy, the easy way to boost market share, acquire technologies, break into new categories, or intimidate or buy major competitors.

In the first half of 2018, M&A activity hit a record $2.5 trillion – a sign of corporate leaders’ faith in this strategy. But the fact remains that most mergers don’t deliver the anticipated value. In 2016, leading business academic Roger Martin observed that “70% to 90% of acquisitions are abysmal failures.” There’s nothing wrong with the concept of M&A. When two companies provide complementary product lines, distribution and growth opportunities, 1 + 1 can indeed equal 3. Unfortunately, it’s the awkward merging of cultures – the coming together of two companies with different histories, processes and trajectories – that often results in sub-par outcomes.

One inherent problem in M&A is the tendency of the acquired side to feel like they “lost” in the transaction. This feeling of victimization can turn top leaders into reluctant followers, eroding the culture of success that made the acquired organization a desirable target in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In my involvement with acquisitions in my career, I have seen teams come together to make sure both sides win. Ironically, the biggest opportunity often lies with the acquired team. If they can shed the mantle of “victim,” they can create new opportunities for growth amid the larger reorganization.

I call this: “Be the cause, not the effect.” If we can focus management teams on creating their own best future – not clinging to past glories – we can make mergers and acquisitions a more predictably successful process.

In my experience, organizations on the selling side can take three steps to maximize the benefits of a merger for both sides.

  1. Cast off the “victim” mindset. Leadership is about powerlessness and passivity. Change the attitude of the team from “But, we’ve always done business this way” to “Let’s get on board and accept the mandate of the acquirer” – for everybody’s sakes.
  2. As leader, actively seek to understand the acquirer’s motivation. Why did they buy the business? How do they wish to unlock its value? As the true experts in this business, how can we help them achieve – and even exceed – their expectations?
  3. Create a culture of change, not stability. An acquisition presents a rare
    opportunity for a management team to push for substantive change. Ask,
    “What activities can we change (or drop altogether) to strengthen our core
    competencies? How can we manage our own affairs so we can reinvest in our most crucial activities?”

Let me give you an actual example of how this process has played out.

In one case, I was heading up a division of a multinational organization that had just been bought by a third party. I decided the best way to serve both organizations would be to take charge of change – and make sure my organization started contributing quickly and productively.

As soon as the deal closed, I actively pressed my new superiors for answers. “Why did you buy this company? Where do you want to take it?” Sometimes our new leadership didn’t have the answers yet. But by initiating these tough conversations, I ensured we became part of that dialogue.

I advised my team that the management that bought our organization expected to see us reduce costs by a certain percentage. That’s how acquirers unlock value: through synergy and simplification. But it had been some time since our organization had rigorously reviewed its operations, so I challenged my team to double that amount. “Tweaking” operations might get us through the current crunch, but it wouldn’t create new thinking. The acquisition was giving us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ask, “How would we run this business if we could start all over?”

Our team went to work with gusto. No longer victims, they unleashed their energy and creativity to take charge of our future. We inspected every business fundamental with an outsider’s eye. With the help of external consultants to guide our discussions, we asked, “What’s necessary, and what’s not? Where’s the value-add in every process?” We discovered new epiphanies and efficiencies, and sacrificed some parts to enhance the whole. Given a situation we couldn’t control, we created a meaningful initiative that demonstrated we were still winners.

In the end, our team was so successful creating new value that we were able to reinvest some of the proceeds back into our business. By acting instead of reacting, we were still determining our own destiny. We were cause, not effect. Over the following year, as the two corporate identities fused into one, our people retained their pride and their faith in the future.

If your organization is wrestling with change initiatives, or anticipating an M&A event, remember that optimists accomplish more than pessimists. Focus your people on the bigger, positive picture. Help them win. There’s an old nautical saying: “I cannot control the wind, but I can adjust my sails.”

Saquib would be happy to meet with you to discuss how your organization can benefit from “Cause, Not Effect” leadership. Give him a call at 647-338-5762. Or email him at

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