Cat Lewis, Tenzing’s Subject Specialist for Employee Engagement and Internal Comms has supported many acquisitions in her ten-year career. Here, Cat reveals how you can ensure a smooth transition by adopting a responsive employee communications strategy.
If you’ve ever stumbled when trying to plan an acquisition communications plan, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Because acquisitions come in so many different flavours, the path from initial announcement to embedded change can’t be predicted.
This means there’s no one-size-fits-all acquisition communication plan. Instead, you’ll need to take a responsive approach to embed the change that can transform your business.
Introducing the two main acquisition use cases
While no two acquisitions are exactly the same, they mainly fall into two categories.
- The first type of acquisition is when one company buys a smaller business for its client portfolio.
- The second type of acquisition is when a business buys a company for its talent, knowledge and technology. The acquired employees become part of the acquiring business, often alongside technology, clients and processes.
The two may be different, but one thing is true for both. Using internal communications to take your employees through the change process is critical to the success of each type of acquisition.
Major benefits of getting it right
Communicating effectively with employees about an acquisition involves taking everybody through the change process – in both companies – and ensuring they feel safe, informed and prepared throughout.
Getting this right has a lot of benefits for your business:
- Better product integration – informed employees embed new technology and processes more effectively. You need to make sure your teams can put their best foot forward by giving them the information they need to be successful. There will often be teething problems, so empowering your people to talk about the tech, how it works and how it will be a better product is key to keeping clients happy.
- Deeper client confidence – informed employees who can explain what’s happening and why and the benefits will support all your clients through this period of change. This is particularly important for unique or high-value customers.
- You’ll create advocates – acquisitions aren’t just about the people who stay with you but the people who leave. Treat them in the best way possible, and they’ll only have good things to say about your business. Making them brand advocates and potential future recruits.
So, what do you need to do to deliver these benefits for your business?
Adopt an agile approach
Successful employee acquisition communications take around three months to come together. They’re active, hands-on projects, and you need to be prepared to learn on the job. This can make them uncomfortable pieces of work. But it’s essential you remain responsive to new opportunities, so your internal communications are based on what’s actually happening.
I find it’s helpful to think about your employee communications in five phases:
Phase 1 – prepare your team for the formal internal acquisition announcement
Employees often have several concerns about an acquisition. Firstly, is their job going to be secure? Redundancies might not be on the cards. But you need to listen to employees’ concerns and communicate as much and as soon as possible. This prevents employees from filling in the blanks and worrying about potentially non-existent issues.
Having gone through several acquisitions in my career, I know now that it’s important to communicate with both your existing and any new employees. A full update is better than providing information in dribs and drabs, which is more unsettling.
Phase 2 – the initial team announcement
Timing is key. At Reward Gateway, we provide open and honest communication. But that doesn’t mean we tell everyone everything as soon as we know about it. We communicate as openly as we can as early as possible. Meaning we tell our teams as soon as we know enough to give a good level of detail and context to answer employees’ most pressing questions. This ensures we offer a degree of certainty to prevent unnecessary worry and employees imagining the worst. Providing detail supports employees’ mental health and reduces the impact on business operations.
At Reward Gateway, our employees receive the news before it’s published externally. It’s important for us that they hear it from us first. This way, we can reassure them of the positive impact this will have on the business and let them know who may be affected by the changes.
If you choose to do the same, you’ll need to remind people about confidentiality and advise that leaks could have legal implications. We’ve always trusted our employees with our upcoming acquisition news while reminding them not to post on social media until the formal external announcement.
Phase 3 – align, listen and support
With your internal announcement out, it’s time to gauge the response from your employees. I always recommend that business leaders align themselves with the internal communications team as they will be able to help you identify knowledge gaps and concerns.
For instance, a common worry is about new leadership, shifting power dynamics and changes in company culture and ways of working. This applies to both your existing and acquired employees. We’ve used a few tactics to address these concerns, including:
- Face-to-face meetings between acquired employees and their new departmental leader. This empowers people to ask questions and become change champions.
- Putting on a company induction for the people you’re acquiring to embed them into your business.
- Using a buddy system to build bridges between Reward Gateway and the acquired business. This can be really powerful because it:
- Builds empathy and understanding.
- Creates relationships that might not otherwise happen – particularly if you buddy up someone more senior with someone junior.
- Speeds up knowledge transfer.
Phase 4 – react
As the acquisition unfolds more information will come to light. And some of it will be unexpected. This is where responsive communications play an important role.
At Reward Gateway, we use a section of our CEO’s all-staff updates to discuss how the acquisition is going and provide our employees with reassurance that we’re still listening and focused on the project’s success. This includes covering aspects that might not have gone as expected with a focus on finding solutions.
Leaders need to strike a balance between showing that they’re in control while being prepared to admit flaws. Effective messaging often focuses on:
- How situational an acquisition is.
- That everyone involved needs to learn on-the-job and be ready to adapt.
- Updates on what’s been learned that month and how challenges are being addressed.
Phase 5 – repeat
As with all good communications, you won’t just deliver the message once and hope everybody’s listened, heard and understood. You need to establish your why, what and how and keep repeating this messaging through regular communications.
People learn in different ways, so use:
- Different channels like webinars, blogs and videos.
- An ‘ask me anything’ channel to open up two-way communication and overcome uncertainties.
- Interviews with key clients or influencers from the acquired company to reiterate your why, what and how messages.
Ultimately, your communications should create a positive mood for the business as it adapts and changes.
Acquisitions can be high-stress periods for employees. By investing in an effective communications plan, you’ll reduce uncertainty for your customers and your people and help to build the robust, adaptable workforce that’s essential if you intend to scale through repeated acquisitions. Best of all, by smoothing the transition, you’ll ensure the acquisition’s transformational effects are felt sooner.