Most companies have a set pace at which employees get ahead. As I used to live and work in the Twin Cities and know the business community well, I can provide a few examples. Target Corporation, for example, was well-known for having a 18-month career progression meaning that you could expect a “promotion” every 18 months or so. Because these promotions happened so quickly it created an “up or out” culture meaning if you were not getting promoted at this pace you career progression was likely at an end (although, in reality, because these “promotions” were so common, they were really more of a merit increase than a true promotion). At the other end of the spectrum was 3M Company which is a global conglomerate best known as the creator of Post-it notes. Life at 3M was very different: it was common for managers to tell employees that true promotions were few and far between at around 5 years on average. This slower career progression pace creates a more tenure based culture with many employees having spent their entire career at the company.
Either way, high potential employees tend to be impatient as they know the value of their contributions and are always looking for ways to get ahead faster. The purpose of this post is to discuss three situations that, though high risk, can rapidly accelerate your career progression and potential inside and outside your current company. For each, I will discuss why it is a career accelerator and hit on common pitfalls and key success factors.
Career Accelerator Role #1: Acquisition Integration Manager
Why it is a career accelerator: To get to senior levels of any organization you will have to get on the radar of C-level executives. Acquisitions, by definition, are very high-profile and require a lot of attention by these very senior executives. Being an integration manager puts you in front of these executives on a regular basis. Further, success as an integration manager requires many key skills that are required for executive success: discipline, structure and process, the ability to learn very quickly, make challenging decisions, and align and motivate employees across multiple levels, organizations and cultures. Finally, Integration Manager roles are a career accelerator because they tend to have a clear end date (full integration) where the integration manager will need a new role. That is, the role has a clear end date…a prime time for a promotion.
Common pitfalls of being an integration manager: I have been an integration manager twice in my career, so I can speak to this from experience. There is no way to really prepare to be an integration manager as the job is likely very different from anything else you have done in your career. I have seen integration managers struggle due to the following issues:
- Lack of planning and discipline.
- Lack of communication skills. Both upward to management and at lower levels within both the acquiring and acquired organizations.
- Inability to create a shared customer-centric vision.
- Inability to think cross functionally.
- Not being sensitive enough to cultural differences.
Okay, you get it. Integration manager roles can catapult your career, but they are hard. So, then, how can you succeed in one of these roles?
Create a clear work plan and assemble a strong cross-functional team.
Create a full, highly detailed integration work plan. Create an overall plan with major functional milestones and a detailed sub-work plan for each function. Assign strong functional leaders to own each functional work plan. Set a weekly integration meeting to review progress on the overall plan and within each function. Give each task a due date and assign a simple “red/yellow/green” rating for each action to track progress. Address issues early and step in where it’s needed to ensure timelines and inter-dependencies are being worked out. In short, create a plan with a detailed and disciplined approach and manage it aggressively. Ensure major milestones are not missed, and quickly escalate any major issues as appropriate.
Develop a clear vision for both the company and the integration.
Put yourself in the shoes of the newly acquired employees: one day you go to your job as normal and find out your company has been acquired. What does this mean for you and your career? Your colleagues? You now have to work under a new management team, new HR rules, new culture, etc. Also, think of the employees of the purchasing company: they now likely have to work with new people, will have to answer questions from their customers and channel partners, etc. In short, there is a lot of uncertainty. That is why it is critical from the very first day (ideally at the acquisition announcement) to share a vision for the acquisition. A clear vision will clearly state:
- The rationale for the deal: That is, what was good about the acquired company.
- A value proposition to customers: Why the two companies, now put together, will be more successful in the marketplace and deliver additional value to customers. This will be central to defining success and aligning cultures.
- A value proposition to acquired employees: Why being part of the larger, purchasing company is good for them, personally (better benefits, greater career opportunities, great culture, etc.).
- A value proposition to purchasing company employees: Why having the acquisition will make us more competitive and how it will improve your day-to-day job.
- A vision for the combined company: What the integration end-state will look like and why it is important to the business.
- (Most importantly) The work plan: What is going to change and when, and what the “ask” is for employees of both companies to support the integration.
The first day presentation should include all of the above in detail and leaders from each company should be on-hand to answer employee questions. The vision should then be distilled to one slide and should be shared as the first slide of every integration and employee meeting. Which brings me to the next point…
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
As one of my executive mentors is fond of telling me, “tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” You literally cannot over communicate as an integration manager as opportunities for confusion or misalignment are rife. Meet weekly with your cross-functional integration team and review progress and next steps in detail. Meet monthly (at first) with employees of both companies and share milestones, progress, and next steps. Share the vision slide (discussed above) as the first slide for every communication to ensure alignment. Provide official (town halls, meetings) and unofficial (your contact info and contact info for key functional leaders) for more informal questions, comments and concerns. Clearly and honestly communicate progress to executives on what is going well, where you are struggling, and any resources or changes in strategy that are needed.
Be sensitive to cultural differences.
By “culture” I don’t necessarily mean “race, creed or motto” (although the acquisition I am working in now is owned by an American company, with headquarters in Quebec, Canada with a satellite office in France so true “culture” can come into play on acquisitions) but rather the common set aligning principles of each organization. As an example, on the first acquisition with which I was involved, we were a $1B division of a $30B global company in the Midwest US who purchased a $120M technology company headquartered in Southern California. Whereas our corporate culture was slow-moving, formal and a bit stuffy, the company we acquired was fast-moving, informal (free coffee and soft drinks, Friday happy hours with free beer, etc.) and non-hierarchical. Integrating and aligning these two cultures (without demotivating employees from both companies) was a major challenge. One way of dealing with this was to have a joint “culture integration” meeting with change agents from both companies. At this type of meeting, have employees from each company list out the good and bad attributes of the culture at each company and share with the other team. Then have a culture-creation session where you agree as a large team on what attributes you want to keep and which you want to get rid of. Define how this new and improved culture will better serve customers. Sketch out a shared culture vision and create a plan on how to achieve the vision. You can probably guess what happens next: create a work plan, provide clear actions, and communicate progress on driving toward the joint culture.
I can honestly state that working as an integration manager have been some of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in my career. Although these roles can be very difficult, they are incredible preparation for being an executive. Follow the steps outlined in this post and you will not only avoid common integration mistakes but will succeed and turbocharge your career.
So comes the end of the first in a series of posts outlining how to succeed high risk, high reward career accelerator opportunities. As always, questions and comments are encouraged.