HR must be honest and acknowledge it doesn’t have all the answers during periods of significant change, according to group HRD at Selfridges Group Lynne Weedall.
Speaking at the CIPD’s annual conference, Weedall shared her experiences as group people and strategy director for Carphone Warehouse, where she worked on one of the largest retail integrations in Europe when it merged with Dixons Retail. She said that while the temptation might be to say “nothing really is going to change", it’s important for HR prepare to people for the fact that things are always very different following M&As.
“There is no such thing as ‘let’s bring the best of both together',” she added. “There’s always a dominant partner and things will always change. Helping people to acknowledge that is a lot better… The reality is everything’s going to change. If you can help people into that it’s much easier to speed them into the letting go process.”
Weedall said HR must recognise the huge emotional upheaval a M&A always entails, and the fact it’s hard to predict what changes will affect which people most. “My analogy is asking someone to come to your home, and they then want you to redecorate, or even move, or they don’t like your children…” she said. “It’s all about emotion. I’ve seen people feel betrayal, anger, sadness… I’ve seen very senior directors frankly depressed as a result of it.
“You don’t know what that thing is [that will upset you] until you trip up against it. It could be the brand, the job title, the boss you loved."
Those managing the merger must acknowledge they’ll always be speaking from one side or the other, Weedall added. “It’s exceptionally hard for you to be heard as an independent voice, you’ll always come from one side,” she said. "Acknowledging that and giving context to everything you say will help. And bringing in independent people with experience who don’t come with the baggage of either side is really powerful.”
Weedall added the advice of communicating the change in a way that will actually connect with people, and getting staff to get on with implementing change rather than sending them to lots of workshops. “You never let go of something unless what you have been asked to grab hold of is significantly better and more exciting,” she said. “Very rarely is that saying we’re going to be a FTSE 100 company or we’re going to save ‘x’ in taxes. You have to connect with people on an emotional level."
“The best thing we did at Dixons Carphone was to get them to jointly open a store,” she added. “They learned about each others' culture and changed together. That was far more powerful than all the change and resilience workshops we ran.”
Also speaking in the same conference session was Valerie Hughes D’Aeth, HR director at the BBC. She talked of rising to the challenge of implementing change at the BBC to ultimately save £700 million. Key strategies have included delayering so there are never more than seven layers between director Tony Hall and the most junior member of staff, relocating people to be less London-centric, and reducing senior management head counts, including cutting the number on the executive committee from 16 to 10.
Hughes D’Aeth talked on the crucial importance of equipping HR to implement change. “The most important thing was they had to keep understanding the context and believing in why we were doing it so they could go out and be ambassadors for change,” she said, adding that clarity on accountability was also important: “It’s very easy for a lot of people to get involved and for things to get confused.”
Weedall urged the HR professionals in the audience to seize the opportunity of managing a M&A where it presents itself. “These are incredibly powerful experiences,” she said. “If you get the opportunity to be involved I strongly urge you to seize it.”