Field Notes

Getting the Order Right When Bringing Teams Together

Over the past decade, merger and acquisition activities have skyrocketed across the global economy. No industry has been exempt. Sectors as diverse as healthcare, travel, technology, and more have been getting in on the action, resulting in larger, more complex organizations nearly everywhere. While this activity has created tremendous opportunity for many organizations, it also puts pressure on leaders to bring two teams together as one. Most critically, it means bringing together two distinct cultures and finding common ground between them.

When faced with this challenge, leaders share a common instinct—the first things they do is bring together the most senior and longest tenured members of the team. They try to select those who best represent their respective cultures and have a deep understanding of their teams’ values. Leaders assume that because these individuals have such deep ties to the cultures they represent, they are best suited to lay the groundwork for working together.

This is a mistake.

When you start by bringing together the most experienced, longest-tenured individuals from two different organizations, you bring together people who live it, breathe it, and eat it for breakfast. They understand the nuances of what makes their organizational culture unique and, in their minds, successful. When confronted with a culture that is different from their own, their first instinct won’t be to find the common ground—it will be to point out the differences. They will retrench to what they hold most dear and are far less likely to have the patience for doing things differently. You will miss an early opportunity and set your team back as you undo the skepticism borne from those early interactions.

If we want to find and build that common ground between two sets of people from different organizations, we need a different start to these conversations. The first people we bring together should be those who are less tenured, less entrenched in their ways. They will be more flexible in their beliefs and more willing to consider new ways of working together. These individuals will not form a cohesive team overnight, but they can lay the groundwork for other members of the team to join in the work of building a new team together.

Your most tenured, most committed individuals will be critical to the long-term success of the merged team, and you need them to come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to engage. This willingness doesn’t exist if it’s not supported by an underlying confidence that the two teams will be successful together. It is easier for them to buy into the notion that what we have in common and our shared potential is more important than our differences when others have already begun the work. They will see other members of the team already forging connections without concern for the differences they may see between the two teams. They will be more likely to look past these differences themselves and put in the work of building a united team.

Even if you do everything right as a leader, bringing two teams together takes time and takes patience. There’s going to be a tendency to look for shortcuts and to lean on your best people to solve the problem as quickly as possible. Resist your instincts. We don’t need to rush this process. We need to engage the right people at the right time.