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Virtualizing the People Experience During Integration

Kison Patel

Kison Patel is the Founder and CEO of DealRoom, a Chicago-based diligence management software that uses Agile principles to innovate and modernize the finance industry. As a former M&A advisor with over a decade of experience, Kison developed DealRoom after seeing first hand a number of deep-seated, industry-wide structural issues and inefficiencies.

CEO and Founder of DealRoom
"Video conferencing is a skill and it takes time. If you've been externally successful in your interpersonal relationships and you've relied on that for your professional career, it's going to be hard to make that change."

Maintaining company culture virtually and how COVID-19 has impacted the deal pipeline

In this recorded session from our M&A Science Virtual Summit, Laura Lane, Chief of Staff at VMware, Kimberly Baird, Corporate Development Integration Leader at Cisco, and Dawn White, Manager of M&A Integration at Corning discuss how to virtualize the people experience during integration.

They cover topics such as maintaining enthusiasm, boosting morale, and what tech tools they use during this unprecedented time.

Hear from these top industry professionals' take on how to establish a company culture of growth, collaboration, and innovation.

They give tips on change management experiences, integration, and continuously improving the people experience.

The trio also discusses how COVID-19 has impacted their deal pipelines and integration processes.

"Different leaders have different backgrounds, experiences, different levels of expertise."

Show notes:

0:00 Introduction

2:00 Speaker backgrounds

6:35 Acquisition activity during COVID-19

9:14 Onboarding during COVID-19

15:46 Lessons learned in building trust

24:03 How to develop leaders over time

29:15 Seeking change vs imposed change

35:33 Collaboration tools in M&A

46:20 Q&A

50:37 Closing remarks and end credits

integration software

Text version of interview


Today’s topic is virtualizing people experience during integration. Today’s guests are Laura Lane, Chief of Staff at VMware, Kimberly Baird, a Corporate Development Integration Leader at Cisco, and Dawn White, Manager of M&A Integration at Corning. 

Laura Lane: Right now, I am in the end-user computing for Experience Solutions Organisation leading sales strategy and Chief of Staff for the EUC Americas. I have a history in the M&A. I started at Xilinx where I was asked to lead the development of a new corporate development function. Then I moved to Oracle, led finance integrations for several years, and moved to VMware, where we were doing a number of divestitures. I helped lead the divestitures from the corporate perspective and helped them build a case for a Global go to Market M&A, which I took on and led for several years. Now I am in the Experience Solutions Organisation, so I continue to be engaged in M&A.

Today we are going to talk about virtualizing the people experience in M&A. Now that we are affected by the pandemic and we are having to do everything virtually for the foreseeable future we really need to rethink our processes. We want to still keep an eye on the most important part of the integration, which is the people experience and culture integration. 

Kimberly Baird: I have been at Cisco for almost 20 years. I joined the M&A practice about four and a half years ago and I’ve had the privilege of leading acquisitions and divestitures on behalf of corporate development in order to meet our value drivers and objectives. Before that, I had a myriad of functional roles and responsibilities and have changed roles during my time at Cisco. My passion is around building teams, so people experience is the perfect intersection of my passion.

Dawn White: I have been at Corning for about nine years, where I have been working in the M&A space for four years. I helped lead the launch of our M&A Center of Excellence, which brings together professionals from all across different functions and businesses. Our main focus when we launched was integration, but we recently made a decision to expand it to due diligence and change management, which is something I am very excited about because I specialize in change management and Sigma Process Improvement. 

Laura Lane: I am going to launch our first polling question. This is about how would you describe your level of M&A activity since the onset of COVID-19. In our case, we are still acquiring companies and have announced the acquisition of three companies since the start of 2020.  

Kimberly Baird: At Cisco, things are about the same. We had many deals in the pipeline that are still going through. We haven’t seen anything stopped as a result of COVID-19 and we are looking at more investments. 

Dawn White: For us, at Corning, the M&A activity has slowed down tremendously, especially on the front end where we target new deals and conduct due diligence. We are now even more cautious about the deals we consider because there is a lot of uncertainty out there. However, our Center of Excellence has taken this time to focus on continuous improvements within our center and across all of our functions. We are taking this time to go through the lessons learned database where we have 2000 different experiences, analyzing the importance of each. 

Laura Lane: Kimberly and Dawn, since you have some activity going on, what’s gone on with costs and the timelines? Has there been any impact?

Kimberly Baird: When the shutdown happened, we had deals in diligence, deals in announced phases, deals in onboarding and deals in TSA exit. All were impacted and we had to react accordingly and respond very quickly to the changes at hand while still trying to keep the momentum of the business going and the transactions that we had in play moving forward. We were really fortunate to have a very pervasive collaboration tool capability with Cisco WebEx. 

Laura Lane: What do you think the employee experience was? Did you get the feedback from the employee experience perspective?

Kimberly Baird: Yes, we’ve gotten some feedback. We had a deal that was announced in Italy right when Italy had shut down due to the health crisis, so it was really important to us that we showed empathy and we tried to make that connection as much as possible. We had people ready to get on a plane to personalize the onboarding in Australia, so we had to change that very quickly. Now, looking forward, we are looking to virtualize that entire process. 

Laura Lane: Thank you for sharing that. The results of our poll have shown that there is a significant decrease in the amount of M&A activity or about the same in a slight decrease. Very few have said a significant increase. 

Dawn White: That is kind of our situation at Corning, but when the COVID hit, we had only one integration going and we were working on a lot of other projects. Even with that, a lot of our employees were put on reduced workweek schedules and that has directly impacted our project timelines. We expect to see an expansion on a lot of our timelines.

Laura Lane: Kimberly, do you think that prolonged timelines or maybe the increased costs are something you would build into your plans going forward?

Kimberly Baird: Absolutely. We are still learning. As we are implementing, for example, a virtualized onboarding experience for employees, we are seeing the forecasting around more IT resources and more sessions required, and we want to create the best possible employee experience. That means we are making those sessions smaller and  we are going to be taking them step-by-step through WebEx. 

Laura Lane: When you are having an in-person meeting, you generally have a better chance of reading people. How do you read a room in this situation to know if your employees are having a negative reaction to what you are saying? What are some of the lessons learned and thoughts around building trust and connection now that you’ve had some experience with it?

Kimberly Baird: Video conferencing is a skill and it takes time, but it’s hard to know whether or not you’re connecting. Being as natural as you can be and as engaging as you can be is the best you can do. Talking to smaller audiences and using your collaboration software and to the fullest extent could help. I think there is an opportunity for more enhancements to collaboration software and for us to be a little more engaged. 

Dawn White: For us, our core team was already working remotely, so it wasn’t a big change. We have always had the WebEx, but I don’t think we use communication tools for their full capability. In our culture, we don't really use our video cameras much for meetings and I think this new direction is great and I think it will help us get to know one another better. 

Laura Lane: Every member of the sales team I support is on video and we are definitely getting to know each other better, so I think that’s definitely been the silver lining. I will now share the polling results. The question we asked is what has been the most difficult aspect of communication for you working virtually? The number one response is business as usual, the second is being connected with colleagues and the third, sharing my opinion is heard and truly considered.

Dawn White: When you are using Skype as a business tool you are usually picking people you feel comfortable with and you have a rapport with, but now I am getting opinions from strangers. People want to reach you. They can’t walk up to your desk or come to your office anymore.

Kimberly Baird: When you are doing acquisitions you need to understand the culture of the company  that you are acquiring. There are differences in the way the people interact at their comfort level with the collaboration software. As M&A professionals we need to make our first impressions with the target during diligence as well as with the employees. 

At Cisco, we had really had a much closer relationship with our leadership over this time. I feel like I know our executive leadership much more intimately than I did before. In my own team now we have a chat room that we never had before, we have weekly sessions and we even had a fun event, which was great. I just think we need to think outside the box in how we connect and then we can bring that into our M&A practice as well. 

Laura Lane: Let’s say your company is new to acquisitions or you have new leaders getting involved in acquisitions. Share with me a little bit about how your company goes about developing them. How do you develop leaders over time to become more effective in leading M&A integrations? 

Dawn White: Our Workforce Development and Learning Group, which is a part of our HR function, has spent a lot of time trying to develop an M&A leadership portal. Different leaders have different backgrounds, experiences and different levels of expertise. We developed a set of materials specifically focused on things that need to be on their radar and actions they could take to be more effective. 

We also wrote down a lot of things that leaders of the acquired company should have on their radar as well and then we thought about the frontline supervisor who is at the acquirer. We tried to build into our learning assignments elements which we think leaders should embrace and talk to employees about important aspects of the acquisition, regardless of everything being virtual. 

Kimberly Baird: I completely agree with Dawn. My job as an integration lead is to help to ensure that the leaders of the target company are helping to bring along the team with the strategies. That way you are managing the people experience, utilizing the leadership that’s in place and the trust that they implicitly have in their leaders. Coupled with that, we set forward value drivers for our deals around retention and key employees, who are technical luminaries who we want to make sure are set up for success inside of Cisco. 

We are trying to formulate what kind of training and help those people need, connect them with mentors and the founders community that we foster inside of Cisco, which is called the Founders Forum. We work closely with them and that gives us really clear feedback from them on how Cisco can improve. 

Laura Lane: The next topic is around culture integration and change management. When people see change it's one thing, but when they have change imposed on them, it's completely different. Additionally, we are going through the pandemic and a lot of changes globally. Dawn, how do you handle this at Corning?

Dawn White: Everyone from the top down is realizing that we need to have a formal change management framework in place, not a formal M&A change management because M&A focus is much different. What’s important there is to have a framework that any of the due diligence leaders or integration leaders can follow or execute and not have a change management leader at the helm. 

We not only need to have our focus on the acquired employees that are coming on board, but we also have to monitor the current employees because, although they are not going through a transition, they are part of the experience of bringing these new employees to the company and they are dealing with changes in the world. There are virtual tools out there that we absolutely need to start using for our due diligence. There are sites and social media like Glassdorr, Twitter or Instagram where you can get real-time feedback so we have to be more comfortable and open to technology in that way. 

Laura Lane: Here is another polling question. How do you get people to turn their video on? How do we get them to use the full capability?

Kimberly Baird: I think people generally follow the lead of the leaders. Leading by example is probably the primary way of sharing. However, everybody comes from a different place so we have to be flexible in a lot of ways. It's an opportunity, especially from an inclusion perspective, of hearing everyone's voices. We need to look at the culture of the company that is coming in, as well as their perspective, and then really be thoughtful about the change we are asking them to go through.

Dawn White: The coming together of companies is like marriage, except that in actual marriage you get to date a bit more. In our transactions, things happen really fast and you have two companies with two different personalities coming together, and you need to find a way to make it work. And we know what the divorce rate out here is in M&A.

Laura Lane: Let's talk about day one onboarding and the employee experience in context of processes and systems or even collaboration tools. At VMware and our partners, they leverage a platform that allows the employees to have access to all their legacy apps and new apps from the new company on day one, as well as all the information from the internet. It is a touch-free process and we know that these types of things really improve employee experience. If they can be productive on day one, if they can continue the business momentum they had before the deal happened that makes everyone feel really good. VMware is more about choice and the platform that we have enables your ability to leverage whatever collaboration platform you like to use. I’d love to hear what processes, tools and collaboration platforms do you use. What does your company do?

Kimberly Baird: We primarily use WebEx, which has different abilities like chat, instant meetings and instant video calls with colleagues. The other thing we do for employees coming on board is we have a website that’s specifically created for them and based on where they are at their experience. 

Dawn White: For us at Corning we use the Citrix software to give our newly acquired employees access before day one. We have something called the Blue Line, which is like an internal Facebook platform for employees where we can post messages, photos, videos, documents and we can give them star ratings. It is made up of a lot of different communities, M&A community being one of them. We want to start using it more, posting though provoking posts, important information from external M&A organisations or advertise training and conferences. Our integration leaders are also on this private board with them so that they can ask them questions. 

Another tool that we are using which is more for project teams, integration and diligence teams is Box, which manages development and storage of communications. It’s a cloud-based solution and makes it easy to collaborate across teams, customers, partners and vendors. You can share documents externally and internally and it has security controls and version control. 

Laura Lane: When the pancemic first hit, we were in the reaction phase. Now we are in the rethinking phase. How do we rethink our process going forward? At VMware we are looking at new tools. We are rolling out something internal to do virtual reality for customer advisory boards, and we could probably use it for our workshopping and whiteboarding. There is another company that is a partner of ours  that's very focused on employee experience and they have their whole methodology of how to identify what motivates employees  that they are building into their virtual reality. What do you think you need to do from a technology perspective going forward?

Dawn White: At Corning, we are in the mindset of launching our own homegrown virtual interacting onboarding module. It is a virtual forum that brings together the key aspect of the company that we want the employees to walk away with. We allow them to pick and select materials based on their interests and needs. We had plans to add a landing page for newly acquired employees where they can send messages and get to know the integration team or go to the FAQ section.

Kimberly Baird: We have a lot of deals going through that we are learning from and we are learning through experience. We are open to new ideas such as virtual reality and we are searching for the best possible experience considering the new constraints we are put under. We are looking very hard at digitizing our internal processes.

Laura Lane: We talked about how being online is very different from being in a room with people and it kind of removes the hierarchy that you might feel when you are sitting in a room with senior leaders.  The online aspect is letting people be more open. What else would you like to share on this?

Dawn White: I haven't seen a big change at Corning. When we had collected the voice of the customer on one of our due diligence projects, we found that people were not comfortable sharing their voice especially with senior leaders. People find it challenging to share their voice face to face, so we challenged that and got great feedback. 

Kimberly Baird: People have been a bit more transparent. The barriers that we normally put up were taken down by the fact that we are all in our homes. It has made people a little bit more approachable and a little more willing to speak up.

Laura Lane: I want to share the rest of the results about the company's position on standardizing their platform. Very few said that they allow people to have their legacy. Most folks are not sure if colleagues feel more free to speak their mind and challenge assumptions, but there is an even balance between yes and no. 

Ending credits

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