July 2017 | Point of View

Building a unified team in a merger or acquisition

Introduction

Inclusion and diversity are vital to our firm’s ability to deliver differentiated services and solutions—and are embedded in our core values. As we’ve grown to more than 800 people in 11 offices across the United States, fostering an inclusive environment becomes more challenging. 

Understanding that you cannot have diversity of thought, experience, and approach without inclusion, we began a journey in 2016 to strengthen our culture of inclusion. This article is the second of a four-part series on what we hope to be an open conversation about inclusion and diversity. Our first letter, A conversation about inclusion and diversity, part 1: The tipping point, published in March 2017, discusses observations that led us to begin this journey.

When consultants immediately feel like part of their new organization, they are more likely to stay, and when consultants stay, the clients they brought with them are more likely to remain with the firm. That feeds a growing, profitable business.

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As a firm, we are tackling inclusion and diversity from many angles. To be most impactful, any policy or process change we make must be rooted in a strong focus on people and culture. This truth is most apparent during times of change, and there is no instance of greater change than during a merger or acquisition, when we must combine two organizations, two ways of operating, and two cultures. 

Merger and acquisition activity continues steadily across many industries—many of our consultants are entrenched in clients’ M&A activity every day, and our organization is no different. In fact, acquisitions are an important part of our business and growth strategy. In addition to serving clients, we are in the market every day looking at opportunities to add great organizations with talent and skills that complement our own. As a result of our team’s work, West Monroe has made four significant acquisitions in the past several years. As a member of our executive team, it’s my job, along with other partners across the firm, to help guide each acquisition to produce positive value for our firm. In addition, I have firsthand experience as one of the newly acquired: My firm Madrona Solutions group was acquired by West Monroe in 2014. This experience gave me some insight into how we can better include new team members in the future. 

Making the acquired team feel included—as rapidly as possible—is key to realizing that value. When employees immediately feel like part of their new organization, they are more likely to stay, and when consultants stay, the clients they brought with them are more likely to remain with the firm. That feeds a growing, profitable business. 

Ignoring inclusion can lead to the development of an “us versus them” mentality that prevents true team integration and erodes trust over time. Another pitfall may be poor adoption of operational practices.

We need to listen and learn from each other: be open, seek to understand others before making statements, and ask a lot of questions. When we practice those things, the world—and not just our workplace— can be a better place ”

Typically, we acquire firms that are much smaller than West Monroe and the change to a more process-oriented, larger firm can be overwhelming. These issues can lead to loss of productivity, poor morale, lack of engagement and eventually, attrition and slower growth. 

At West Monroe, we take our culture very seriously. It is our single biggest differentiator in the market, both as an employer and as a service provider. When we consider an acquisition, cultural fit is one of our most important areas of due diligence. Some potential transactions in the past may have brought valued skills to our organization, but we chose to walk away due to challenges in terms of cultural integration. 

What does a cultural diligence entail? We look at the people, roles, and types of jobs at the target organization to see how well they match with our roles. We look at travel and make sure there are similar arrangement expectations in place with employees. We look at work-life balance expectations. We look at the types of projects the firm accepts to ensure they are working on strategic initiatives rather than staff augmentation- type work. 

Perhaps most importantly, we look at the expectations for spending time on practice and culture development in their organization. If most employees are spending all their time billing clients and doing nothing to support the business, it will be a tough transition to our employee-owner culture where we want and expect everyone to serve clients and contribute to building the company. Candidly, this was not fully understood by my team until after the acquisition and resulted in a difficult adjustment for some of our team, so we’ve learned to make this a key area of focus. 

Strong cultural fit is an important foundation for an inclusive environment—but it takes more to create this environment when welcoming in new colleagues in a merger or acquisition. Over the course of several acquisitions—the one that brought me to West Monroe Partners and others since—I’ve observed several key lessons to ensuring new colleagues feel included within our organization. 

Being careful with our words—most importantly, avoiding the “us” and “them.” For example, it doesn’t feel inclusive when we talk about “their” clients and “their” people, or when employees are introduced using their previous company name (e.g., “Brian from Madrona Solutions Group”). 

Integrating new colleagues rapidly as part of our existing project or pursuit teams. The faster we can move beyond “introductions” to working together in the trenches to develop new business and deliver services, the more included our new colleagues feel and the less attrition we experience. In the six weeks leading up to the Madrona Solutions Group acquisition, the West Monroe team joined us for happy hours and internal meetings, making us feel like a valued member of the team and excited for the integration. By the time we joined the firm, we were ready to get to work. 

Being thoughtful in how we prepare people for what daily life at West Monroe Partners is like—making sure they understand even the little things, like how to report time and expenses, make a tremendous difference as we look to run a fun and profitable business. 

Showing that we are open and willing to listen and do things differently. We have well-established processes here for good reason, but we haven’t cornered the market for good ideas. The firms we’ve acquired are successful for a reason, and chances are they do some things better than us—and we can benefit by listening to new ideas. For instance, our acquisition of Etherios, a Salesforce consulting firm, prompted us to replace our CRM system sooner than we planned. Their advocacy for the platform helped us build the support internally to implement the new system quickly, and we’re reaping the benefits with better reporting and insights into our pipeline. 

West Monroe has made several acquisitions since the one through which I joined in early 2014. And each time, we get a little better in terms of promoting inclusion. Chris Althoff, a director in Minneapolis, joined through West Monroe’s most recent acquisition of healthcare consultancy Invoyent in 2016. He shares his perspectives as part of this article. 

As consulting executives, we are a numbers-driven group. When we integrate a new organization into ours, we look at client retention, attrition, and profits. But, as leaders, we also need to consider and take responsibility for the “softer” side of our business. If we do that well, the numbers will follow. 

Consultants tend to have Type A personalities. We are constantly challenged to have the right answers. But that can translate to interpersonal relations that don’t always play out the way we intend—in other words, we may not always take time to understand before we form an opinion. We need to listen and learn from each other: be open, seek to understand others before making statements, and ask a lot of questions. When we practice those things, the world—and not just our workplace—can be a better place. 

Some of us have already navigated the waters of a merger or acquisition, and in the current business environment, it is likely that many more of us will, sooner or later. Going into a transaction with a healthy respect for how we can include our new colleagues can go a long way toward successful integration and ultimately allow us to achieve the goals we set forth when pursing the acquisition. 

 

M&A inclusion best practices

  • Below are some of the practices we’ve found most helpful to ensure inclusion is at the forefront when we consider an acquisition and integrate  the new team members into our firm. 
  • Conduct a “cultural diligence” to assess how well roles, travel, and practice development expectations align with your firm 
  • When a new team joins the firm, avoid “us” and “them” language, such as referencing to the prior firm name 
  • Integrate team members quickly into project teams and BD pursuits 
  • Provide transition coaches to help new team members with the more informal elements and day-to-day norms of the new firm 
  • Ensure new team members receive ongoing operational training and prioritize what they need to know first to be most successful 
  • Create an intranet transition site with helpful information and FAQs for new team members 

Rebuilding our culture of inclusion is a team effort. Each member of our leadership is passionate about inclusion and personally committed to raising our game. And each brings unique perspectives of and experiences with inclusion and diversity from his or her career. These perspectives are an important part of this conversion; so every quarter, one of our leaders will add some thoughts on this topic.

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Chris Althoff, Senior Director, Healthcare | Minneapolis 

What were the circumstances of you joining West Monroe? 

I joined West Monroe in 2016 as part of our acquisition of Invoyent LLC, a healthcare consultancy where I was one of four partners. West Monroe already had distinguished credentials in this sector but wanted to add depth, particularly in the payer sector, where we excelled. This was the first and only time in my career I’ve been part of a transaction. 

There were a lot of similarities in our firms: We were both highly entrepreneurial, fast-growing organizations working in fast-paced work environments and with similar values. But it was important to both sides that we worked well together from the outset. And we knew this going in since we had already partnered on a handful of client proposals and engagements. 

What steps in particular made you and your team feel included? 

Nearly a year later I can look back on the process and pinpoint three things that made us feel a part of West Monroe from the outset of the transaction. 

First, during the deal period, our respective leadership teams spent significant time not only ensuring that our cultures were aligned but really diving into the values that underpin those cultures. We talked openly about how and why our values guide our mission and vision, and about how they guide our workplace. And we talked about how culture manifests itself in HR practices and about things like how we collaborate, how we evaluate people, how we hire, and how we lead company meetings. 

We also had detailed discussions about each person who was part of the transaction, with the intent of easing their transitions. One of the reasons West Monroe was excited to welcome Invoyent was because of the people, and we wanted to make sure they had a positive experience with the integration. In any acquisition, you get diversity in many respects, including diversity of experience and professional acumen. To that end, we know that every person experiences this kind of transition differently. Anticipating this helped us take the right steps for helping people feel part of their new firm. 

West Monroe also took time to understand how Invoyent worked and the practices that made us successful. It was important for us to see that the firm was open to adopting some of our practices into its culture. 

All of these discussions took time, but it was an important exercise that added a lot of value. It was encouraging to be part of a merger process that reflected this level of conscious effort. 

The second was rapid operational integration. There wasn’t much, if any, “us” and “them” time. In fact, before we completed the transaction, our organizations worked together to bid on a project for a large client. That got us working together right off the bat and provided a strong precedent for integrating client service teams. And although it would have been easy to maintain our respective existing client service teams and integrate those slowly over time, we began to blend client service teams immediately. This way, we got to know each other faster, and that made everyone feel part of one team. 

Third, we quickly established a leadership and team structure and communication that has made this feel like one team from the beginning. This included holding a few off-site meetings  that enabled  us to get to know one another, which is important in a national practice that is dispersed around the country, and to involve everyone in setting the direction forward for our Healthcare & Life Sciences practice. 

What impact do you see in the workplace today? 

First and foremost, it is apparent in the work we are all doing in the market and the confidence that our clients place in us to help them transform operations for a new era in healthcare and life sciences. 

Second, it is apparent in the words I hear in the workplace. Someone recently mentioned a “legacy approach,” to which another colleague responded, “I don’t want to hear about legacy this and legacy that. That’s old language. We are West Monroe now.” That speaks to the success of the effort given to inclusion from the earliest stages of the transaction— we are living the “one team” promise. 

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