You’ve Bought It, Don’t Break It

Posted 08.23.2012

In the run up to the Iraq war, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell was quoted as invoking the “Pottery Barn rule” – You break it, you own it – in assessing the risks of an invasion.  I thought about Powell and the Pottery Barn rule during a recent lunch with an executive friend of mine.

He’s a business unit leader who has integrated an acquired company into his organization over the past year.  His company has grown a lot through acquisitions and his CEO always says to his execs “Don’t break it,” when they’re folding the acquired company into their operations.  Unfortunately, as the Harvard Business Review reports,  the failure rate of mergers and acquisitions is somewhere between 70% and 90%.

So, when he was charged with integrating an acquired company, he was determined to flip the Pottery Barn rule on its head.  He had bought it so he didn’t want to break it.  Almost a year later everything is going great.  He’s done three things to beat the odds.  Here they are:

Do Your Homework:  When he learned that he was going to be in charge of the integration, my friend set aside a few weeks to talk with the senior managers of every unit his company has bought over the past few years.  He asked two big questions in those conversations – “What did we do right when we bought you?” and “What did we do wrong when we bought you?” He built his integration strategy on what he learned in those conversations.

Provide Air Cover:   My friend decided early on that his most important job was to provide air cover for the group he was integrating.  He had learned through observation and conversations that the historical pattern was for the corporate staff to start making requests and changes that quickly stripped acquired companies of their competitive advantages.  He’s kept his new unit competitive by positioning himself as the go-between so he can head off counter productive demands at the pass.

Stay Close to the Customer:  When his company bought the new unit, my friend made visiting with their key customers one of his top priorities.  He learned what they appreciated most about the team he was acquiring and got some very clear messages that they didn’t expect things to go south when the acquisition was complete.  That knowledge has given him a ton of ammunition that he’s been able to use to protect his new team from counter-productive requests and distractions.

What’s been your experience with integrating a new company or team into an existing organization?  What went right?  What went wrong?  What advice do you have for other leaders facing that challenge?