Building bridges after a company acquisition

When past history clouds a new corporate partnership, you have to take extra steps to protect your position

Dear Bob ...

I work in a company that was recently acquired. As background, the acquiring company was much bigger; ours was more profitable and growing more quickly.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: What's the best way to serve up a reality check? Bob tells you how to kill employees' bad ideas -- but not their desire to innovate. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis's Advice Line newsletter. ]

The CEO is trying to integrate the two companies. Instead of just imposing the acquiring company's way of doing things on us, he has recognized we must be doing some things better. His first step was to ask those in charge of parallel responsibilities to pool their knowledge to define "company best practices" in each area.

It is, by the way, something of a back-burner assignment -- to his credit, the CEO understands we're all stretched pretty thin already, and this is just one more thing to do.

I'm supposed to work on this. One problem: A few years ago, in another company, I had to terminate my mothership counterpart (call her "Shirley") for incurable incompetence. To say she bears a grudge is something of an understatement. The last thing on her mind is collaboration.

Our typical interaction goes something like this: I'll suggest something. She'll respond by explaining that this isn't how they do things. I'll remind her we're supposed to figure out better ways of doing things. She'll explain her way is best (without explaining why her way is best) -- so we make no progress.

I've informed my manager of the situation. He has tried to engage his counterpart across the organizational divide, but without success. Apparently, the corporate style over there is "leave us alone."

My manager has also told me that Shirley isn't the only example of the mothership having hired substandard performers. It appears the style there is to shop for bargains when it comes to hiring. While my situation is more extreme than most, I'm not the only person having trouble carrying out the assignment.

Any thoughts on how to handle this?

- Haunted by the past

Dear Haunted ...

If it was just you and Shirley, I'd say your manager should join you for several working sessions to facilitate things, inviting Shirley's manager to participate as well -- but not insisting on it if he/she declines. I also might suggest you try a heart-to-heart conversation with Shirley. This combination can sometimes work to start creating the habit of collaboration.

Yours isn't an isolated situation, though, I think a different approach is in order: Understand you're playing a game, and play to not lose. That's right, not to win, which could come back to haunt you, and you're already dealing with one ghost from your past.

When you and Shirley meet, document the results (or non-results) of the meeting as neutrally and accurately as you can, send the documentation to Shirley for review with the instruction, "Please respond by mm/dd/yy or we'll consider this version to be final," and note whatever comments and suggestions she provides in the official project folder for posterity. It's doubtful she'll publish anything that would put her in a negative light, and your providing a reasonable deadline doesn't give her the "I never agreed to this" escape hatch, so this approach boxes her in a bit.

To the extent you can, couple this tactic with a game of ping-pong, by which I mean doing what you can to keep the ball on her side of the table.

You might, for example, establish that the two of you will alternate scheduling and hosting your working sessions. When it's your turn, get the session scheduled a quickly as you can, make sure there's a formal agenda, and document the results (see above) promptly.

Now the ball is on her side of the table, and from what you describe, it will stay there quite a while. If too much time goes by, you might send a gentle reminder, but don't push very hard.

The point of all this? Your assignment is hopeless. It isn't going to happen, no matter what you do, because while you're ready to tango, Shirley has no interest in dancing, and she's embedded in a business culture that supports her in this.

What you're going to do is make sure your hands are clean, while periodically showing your manager the documentation that clearly demonstrates you aren't the cause of the delay so that he can back you up when the time comes. You're then free to spend the bulk of your time and energy excelling at your real job, because that's what you'll be evaluated on at the end of the year.

- Bob

This story, "Building bridges after a company acquisition," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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