Acquisition. One of only two viable exits for your startup. Being acquired is an exciting time full of hopes, dreams, dread and anxiety. Most of that anxiety falls squarely on the line level talent that got your company acquired in the first place. These professionals are the ones that worked hellish hours to polish the turd enough to entice a company to buy. They love nothing more than winning against all odds and building world class products from scratch. Most took a pay cut, title cut and life cut to come to your young startup to make a difference and it paid off. For most, the weeks and months after being acquired will be like walking in the fog of war — not really sure what’s going on but soldering on because they built some great. Once the fog wears off, the once thrilling atmosphere that motivated them will start to fade.
Don’t dilute yourself by thinking that the same amount of commitment exists among your team. Let me be crystal clear on this. The world has changed. The thrill is gone. You are no longer a startup no matter how independent you think you might be.
You have to realize this because your talent realizes this. Employee motivation will change. Even the magical earn out is not enough to retain talented people. Sure, it helps but most startup people do it for the thrill of invention, changing the world and the recognition that what they do matters. Of course, the money helps but if you look at survey after survey, employees rank money 4th or 5th on the motivational list. Even worst, once employees get money, the motivational value wears off so rapidly that soon, they become bitter because they want more (if all else stays equal).
Management Skill Now Matters
Now that your company has been acquired, those soft management skills that you put in hibernation are now the only way to motivate and retain those superstars that got you the exit. Skeptical. Think I am full of it. Why don’t you go ask one of your senior people that you trust. You know the one I am talking about. She is the one that follows you from startup to startup because you take care of her. Soon, she will do the same thing but this time, it might be for someone else. Think of it this way. Remember the reasons you left your last acquired startup gig (or big company for that matter). If your mind is a little fuzzy because you are counting your money, let me refresh your memory:
The promise of independence faded: Sure, it’s all hugs and kisses after the deal closes but pretty soon, you will get sucked into more corporate meetings, be asked to adopt more polices and leverage their experience.
Bureaucracy started to creep in: Naturally, as independence fades, bureaucracy starts to creep in. Gone are the days when you could just go off and buy what you needed or whip up a new policy without much input.
Your startup boss is an awful big company boss: Startups attract a particular breed of person. That skill set does not translate well to a big company. Your boss might have been a stellar visionary who motivated the troops but thrust her into the corporate politic and things will start to unravel.
Culture clash: Culture is an important aspect of a startup that soon gets lost within a bigger company. The esprit de corps that binds the startup team together will get seriously stressed in your new environment if the cultures don’t mess well.
Politics: Corporate politics are a blood sport that can and will eat startup mangers alive. The simple fact is that managers need to play politics and protect their team from the rain of bullets from above. Most startup managers lack this skill and it will wear on your team.
I am sure there are more but this list is the most common. Is your mind starting to become a little clearer? Is panic starting to set in just a little bit? Don’t fret. All is not lost. There are simple ways to motivate and retain your talent after acquisition.
Exceed employee exceptions: Remember all those promises that you made to motivate your team. You know the ones I am talking about. The delayed pay increase, promotion, working on something different or more resources. Those now matter. Just like your customers, you need to work as hard as you can to exceed exceptions and make those things happen.
Over communicate: The most important thing a manager can do is over communicate what is going on. Need to know might have been a requirement when you were a startup but now, everyone needs to know how the acquisition will effect them.
Understand the new culture: Indoctrinate yourself in the new companies culture even if you will still be independent. This is vital because after your honeymoon period (6 months to a year), the pressure will be on to adopt more and more corporate polices.
Rapidly acquire resources: One of the good things about an acquisition is that it usually comes with additional resources. Grab as many as you can, as fast as you can. The sooner you build your team to the proper level, the quicker you will be successful.
Get Stuff Done: I know, this seems obvious but as you start at the new company, keep up your momentum. The faster you perform and get stuff done, the more impressed your new company will be. These first impressions will pay off big in the future.
Just remember that your talent is vulnerable and the most important thing you can do is be there for them, fight for them and make sure that their anxieties are soothed.
Really, Management Now Matters
A big part of motivating and retaining your talent after acquisition is that you, as their manager, need to now be a manger. This means doing all those nasty things you really hate to do. Why? Because the big company that just hired you, has professional managers that will eat you alive. They don’t care about being team players or changing the world. All they care about is their kingdom and how to expand it. You really need to watch out for these kingdom builders because they know the system, are politically savvy and have the ear of executive management. If there is one thing that you, as a manager, can do to ensure your personal success, it’s to get a mentor at your parent company. It might be hard at first to find but find one you must because you really need to understand how this new company ticks.
Remember, It’s About the People
I know that this may seem a bit negative, given that you just cashed out and are probably buying a boat, house or new car right now, but it’s reality. Acquisition’s can be a wonderful and enriching experience if you plan and act like things have changed. You need to deal with your new situation honestly and pragmatically. Always keep in mind that your team got you this exit and in order to motivate and retain them, you really need to put them first and foremost.
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