Shifting your post-merger mindset"Most merger failures are caused not by bad financial projections, but by a mismatch between organizational or managerial cultures."
This blunt assessment comes from La Piana Associates, consultants who specialize in nonprofit mergers. And they're not alone in emphasizing the challenges of cultural integration. A study from MAP for Nonprofits and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, for example, lists cultural conflict as a significant post-merger challenge — and one that often comes as a surprise.
Similarly, the Good Merger Guide by Eastside Primetimers and Prospectus calls out cultural differences as a primary reason for unsuccessful mergers, usually because of a failure to recognize or anticipate — and then address — differences.
Fortunately, there's much you can do to anticipate and defuse cultural conflicts.
"Mergers are about people, people and people," says Richard Litchfield, chief executive of UK nonprofit management consultancy, Eastside Primetimers. "You need to think about the cultural fit and how you will develop the leadership, management and organizational culture during the pre-merger process. Really good communication is at the heart of it. You need to be open and communicative with your stakeholders, and bring staff and managers along on the journey with you."
Use the following strategies to shift your post-merger mindset from "us" and "them" to "we."
Understand the nature of organizational culture
For members of any organization, culture is a shared set of beliefs about "the way we do things around here." Those beliefs shape behaviors both big and small — from where people sit at a conference table and how they dress to who gets hired and how services are delivered.
Despite their power, cultural norms are often unspoken, unwritten and unexamined. This means that cultural conflicts can easily be misdiagnosed as incidents of ill will or incompetence. In reality, however, the problems usually result from different ways of seeing the world.
Be aware that cultural conflict can surface in any aspect of your daily operations. Disagreements about seemingly mundane matters — such as how software is purchased or how office space is assigned — can tap into strong emotions. Your staff might feel confusion about new policies and procedures, anger about being forced to change and grief over the loss of a familiar work environment.
There's a simple — though not always easy — way to respond: See such reactions as normal events rather than signs of emotional instability or a failed merger. As a leader in your organization, be careful to model an attitude of acceptance that makes it easier for everyone to admit and resolve cultural conflicts.
Do a culture audit
Before trying to integrate different cultures, first make them explicit. David La Piana urges nonprofits to do a culture audit for this purpose, both before and after a merger. A culture audit involves asking questions such as:
- Who are our heroes — the people who played a key role in founding our organization and creating its success?
- What inspirational stories do we tell during special events, such as retirement parties and staff events?
- What "words of wisdom" or pithy quotes do we commonly cite while solving tough problems or making major decisions?
- What major events or issues have polarized our staff over the years? How did we go on to survive and thrive as an organization?
- What victories do we celebrate as an organization? What losses do we still mourn?
- What are our workplace customs and rituals, and what values do they demonstrate?
- When we're asked to describe our organization and explain what we stand for, how do we respond?
You can use a variety of strategies — including conversations, focus groups and confidential surveys — to find out how your staff and board members answer these questions. Hiring a consultant with experience in nonprofit mergers to lead a meeting or retreat on organizational culture can also help.
Define the culture you want to create
Once you've brought differing cultures into conscious awareness, you have the basis for creating a new body of shared beliefs and behaviors. To do this, you might:
- Choose new stories. Focus on incidents that involve as many people as possible in your newly merged organization. There's likely to be plenty of raw material to draw from based on your experience with negotiating and implementing the merger and then moving into a shared workplace.
- Remember what you hold in common. Discussions about organizational culture often center on differences. Yet many people choose to work in the nonprofit sector for similar reasons, and it's likely that your pre-merger organizations had things in common. To verify this, pull out key documents from prior years — such as mission and vision statements, annual reports and grant applications — and look for similarities. Also review the results of your culture audit for points of agreement.
- Choose new traditions. A tradition is any event that's inclusive, fun and repeatable. Examples include company lunches, parties, picnics, athletic games, recognition dinners and staff appreciation days. Take past traditions from either of your pre-merger organizations and adapt them for the future. Or, create entirely new events.
- Celebrate. Plan a special event to celebrate your recent merger. Tell stories about the high points — and low points — of the process. Let people share their joys, reflect on their frustrations and share the lessons they learned. Also take time to formally recognize individual staff and board members who worked on the merger. The very act of taking the time to celebrate can become one of your new rituals.
All of these are ways to preserve the best of the past while creating a vision of the future, which is the essence of cultural integration.
CompassPoint: The M word: A board member's guide to mergers by Alfredo Vergara-Lobo, Jan Masaoka and Sabrina L. Smith (2005)
MAP for Nonprofits and Amherst H. Wilder Foundation: Success factors in nonprofit mergers (2012)
The nonprofit mergers workbook part I: The leader's guide to considering, negotiating, and executing a merger by David La Piana and Robert Harrington (2008)
The nonprofit mergers workbook part II: Unifying the organization after a merger by La Piana Associates (2004)
Eastside Primetimers and Prospectus: The good merger guide (2014)