Being Acquired

I've been part of companies that were acquired a couple of times now. Every acquisition is different, but for those who are chosen to continue the journey with the new company, there are common pitfalls – ones I wish I'd known to avoid.

After my first acquistion, I had, honestly, a pretty rough first year at the new company. I thought pretty hard about leaving (once my retention bonuses were paid out, of course :p). Some of my struggles were due to management decisions, and some were due to the unavoidable turbulence of being acquired, but if I'm honest, a fair bit of my struggles were my own fault.

At first, things weren't so bad, as we tried to keep the existing teams focused and running as they had been. Much of the existing management stayed on at first, and initial messaging from the new management was that they wanted us to keep delivering as we had been. It felt like the transition would be easy -- keep doing what we're doing, just with a different name at the top of my paycheck. But as things changed, as all things do with time, I found myself increasingly spending my time fighting that change. I didn't understand why we needed to change tools or technologies or processes, especially when what we had currently was working well, and may have indeed been superior in some cases.

The thing I wish I'd really known at the outset – like, drilled into my head – was that upon acquisition, despite working at the same desk, with the same co-workers, on mostly the same stuff, I now had a different job, working for a different company, with different goals and values. It took me about a year to really, deeply understand this, and it was a rough year for me professionally. It wasn't until I started to throw away my notions of preserving what had made our software development organization great -- what made it a great place to work -- and start to embrace what the new company was all about, that I really started to succeed there. Only when I understood what the new company was trying to accomplish, and what brought value to them, was I able to deliver real value myself.

With some acquisitions, the changes start coming as soon as the deal is closed. With others, there may be a reprieve. My second time going though an acquisition, the acquiring company (mostly) left us alone for the first 2+ years. Existing management stayed entirely in place, operating largely unchanged, just with a new corporate overlord that was basically invisible to the rest of us. At that point, we hadn't really started new jobs at the new company, and after a while, it seemed as though we might escape the pain of acquisition. It wasn't until the acquiring company management started to interfere, putting their own people in place, that you could say that our new jobs had truly begun.

Changes, though, are inevitable. Some changes will be good, others less so, but if my experience has taught me anything, it's that fighting the change is akin to tilting at windmills. Unless and until you understand what the new company is trying to accomplish, and how you can deliver value towards those goals, your efforts are likely to be frustrating and futile.

You'll get nowhere just telling new management that their ideas are bad. First, you must understand what they want, and more importantly, why they think their ideas are good. Even then, you can't just contradict them; your only option at this point (until you gain their trust, much later) is to enlighten them with new information, and hope that they reconsider their own ideas in this new light. And in going through this exercise, seeing things from the new management's perspective, you may discover that some of their ideas aren't so bad after all.

Every acquisition will eventually bring some pain, and some wistfulness for how things used to be. Sometimes it may seem like too much. You may find yourself misaligned with the new company's goals or values, and decide it's best to walk away. It's important to consider this, and I think the decision to stay or go is one every acquired employee should make deliberately, rather than just continuing on via inertia. But while you're there, you'll have a much better time if you embrace the change, rather than fighting it -- even if, from the perspective of your old company, the changes seem pretty awful.

This is the challenge the employees of all acquired companies face -- in the end, all you can do is face it with eyes wide open.

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