Merger management – a challenging prospect

Aarhus School of Business, ASB merged with Aarhus University in 2007. Aarhus University is Denmark’s second largest university with about 43,500 students and 12,500 employees. Tove Bang was in charge of a merging of ASB Library with the university’s 19 institute libraries up until September 2012, where a new merged AUL Library became a reality. The merger process lasted five years. The article is based on experiences from this process.

Mergers in the public sector in Denmark have been top of the agenda over the past few years. Ministries, universities, schools and libraries merge incessantly. Mergers between public institutions, for example between educational institutions or libraries are often sparked off by a political decision that hopes to obtain critical mass, efficiency cuts or a wish to gather together the competences in one place instead of at several addresses.

Experience also shows that successful mergers are not at all easy to achieve, some actually fail. In more than half the completed public mergers, the leader responsible is either sacked or chooses to hand in notice during or shortly after the merger.

This situation encourages the view that these mergers generate particularly difficult conditions for management, conditions that demand specific insight and some human competences as well as a special flair in terms of staff and management skills, which many leaders in the public sector might not possess.

Not change management

Some public leaders have certainly gained experience of carrying out larger or smaller change processes in organisations over a period of time, concurrently with the technological conversion. However, fewer leaders by far have tried themselves to face a process of change as radical and demanding as a merger.

By merger I understand an ‘amalgamation of two or more institutions/libraries and their different organisation cultures, where the primary aim of the merger is to create one new common organisation/library based on one new common energy’. Being in charge of a merger is a difficult, but at the same time exciting challenge, which you do not necessarily master, because you are an experienced change manager. Even if you have been in charge before, you have to find your way in a completely new context.

This may well present some restrictions in comparison to what you have been used to in previous jobs, but also many new possibilities. It is therefore a good idea to use the situation to draw up the lines on the pitch you are going to play on. You have to give yourself plenty of time to examine all the possibilities and limitations that might be inherent in the job, before making a start and meeting the staff.

Profile of the merger manager 

As a leader, you must be able to be at the forefront when initiatives are to be taken. You have to be able to develop and maintain the culture through the actions you decide to launch. Naturally, it is also important that as leader you are sufficiently equipped with professional knowledge and management tools, which will enable you to handle the entire process.

In most cases by far, the leader is simultaneously also part of the merger him/herself and therefore experiences personally – to a greater or lesser extent – the same needs and frustrations as those which the members of staff will encounter.

In my opinion, the ideal merger manager is at one and the same time a professional person, whose example the professional members of staff can follow and a professional leader with some well-developed meta competences in management, which ensure that you keep a cool head while at the same time being visionary and seeing possibilities for the department and its staff.

Nevertheless, at the same time a leader must also be able to get quite close to the staff, support them in their opinion shaping, and work on formulating and reaching the more immediate objectives of the individual member of staff and of the department as a whole.

Be open and visible

As leader of merger processes it is essential quickly to realize what kind of leadership space one is afforded; that is to say – the objectives, success criteria and framework within which the merger project should be solved. The stronger your perception of this space, the better equipped you are to inform the staff and to handle the situation, if you are met with criticism or frustrations.

It is important to establish good relations with the staff. As a leader, it is therefore a good idea to be open, both about the knowledge you actually have, and about the knowledge you do not possess.

The staff need to know the thoughts and expectations of the leader in relation to the future of the new organisation and to the contribution that each member should make. They want to share the leader’s deliberations as to what it going to happen in the future, so that they get the opportunity bto decode the values on which the leader bases his/her actions.

The more visible you are able to appear as a leader during this part of the merger process, the less room there will be for guesswork and rumours to occur among the staff.

A difficult balance

It is important that the person in charge of the merger is both visible and approachable during the whole process of change. You have to lead the way as motivator and role model, so that the staff at all times are aware of the objective of the merger.

You have to be prepared to make the necessary decisions during the process, even if they are unpopular. And you must all along the way endeavour to include the members of staff in the central parts of the process to make them feel that they have real influence on the decisions that are made.

It is quite natural that they have a great personal need to understand why the changes are necessary, what they are leading to, and when they must be completed. In the case of the members of staff, it is primarily a question of how the changes will affect each individual personally, which role they are going to play in the new organisation and what kind of competences they will have to acquire in orderto keep their job.

The leader must also be prepared continuously to handle the staff ’s personal worries and make sure to create a space where they can speak freely and say what is worrying them. When they have sorted out what has to do with the more personal worries, they quite automatically begin to concern themselves about how the implementation of the changes is going to happen: will I have to change to another department? Do I get completely new colleagues? Et cetera.

Mergers take time

During the various phases of worry, the leader has to be a spearhead and keep repeating the objectives of the merger, so that the background and purpose of the process of change remain clear to every - one.

Objectives and action plans must time and again be communicated to the staff in a form they understand and in the context of which they can see themselves. It is also essential for the leader to radiate an amount of enthusiasm and optimism that will induce the staff to believe absolutely in the objectives and results of the merger. It is not least during this phase that the leader will really have to balance between a great number of different considerations.

It often takes a long time for a merger to be completed and for a new organisation to move into a regular ‘groove’ with new routines. But it is also important to bear in mind that a merger process should not be too long.

Even if the process is not completely finished and routines not quite establis hed, I recommend that you choose a suitable time to put a full stop to the process and take stock. Tell the members of staff, that the merger is now considered completed – and then turn your mind to the future!

Former chief librarian, M.LI.Sc. Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus University