Your bank merger is on hold…now what?

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We spoke with M&A expert and consultant Jennifer J. Fondrevay on the added complication of what marketers should do when they find themselves in limbo as governmental restrictions keep their bank’s merger or acquisition from moving forward. Chris and Jennifer discuss typical M&A timelines, the “stages of grief” for employees, how to future proof your bank marketing career during an M&A and more. The full interview transcript can be found below as well as an audio-only version.

Jennifer Fondrevay is the author of Now What? A Survivor’s Guide for Thriving through Mergers & Acquisitions. She is the founder of Day1 Ready, a consultancy that advises businesses on how to prepare for the human capital challenges of M&A. You can find the articles referenced in the interview on HBR.org and FastCompany.com.

Interview transcript:

Chris McGuire: Hi, I’m Chris McGuire. I’m head of business development at McGuffin Creative Group and we are thrilled to host today’s conversation, which is a continuation of our series on bank mergers and acquisitions for The Teller. The Teller is a content hub for all things bank marketing. If you enjoy this conversation, please make sure to check out our first two articles is in the series and sign up for email updates at mcguffincg.com/the-teller. I’m excited to talk with an M&A expert today. Jennifer Fondrevay is the author of Now What? A Survivor’s Guide for Thriving Through Mergers and Acquisitions. She’s the founder of Day1 Ready a consultancy that advises businesses on how to prepare for the human capital challenges of M&A. Thanks for chatting with me today, Jennifer.

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. Look at us marketers talking about banking. Who knew we could do that?

Everyone ends up being in limbo for a period of time regardless of size.
- Jennifer Fondrevay, Author, "Now What? A Survivor’s Guide for Thriving through Mergers & Acquisitions"

Chris McGuire: As part of our ongoing series on bank mergers and acquisitions, we brought Jennifer to discuss a situation that’s becoming more and more common. Mergers of banks like M&T Bank and People’s Bank, as well as US Bank and MUFG have been stalled as the FDIC and White House tighten restrictions on bank mergers. Jennifer is going to offer some advice on what you should do if your merger or acquisition is suddenly put on hold. So Jennifer, I know you have a lot of experience with this. In your experience, how long would it to typical merger acquisition take given that most of these businesses or banks are fairly large in size?

Jennifer Fondrevay: Right. And I would say, I don’t want to even answer typical because as you pointed out, right, this is the administration intentionally slowing things down to hold back on M&A deals, and really it varies. Multi-billion dollar deals can take longer. The one I went through with NAVTEQ when we were acquired by Nokia went through fairly quickly, but the actual integration took much longer. So the bigger the deal, the longer it tends to take, because it’s got to go through governance and compliance and certainly legislative scrutiny. So I don’t want to say typical, but I would say everyone ends up being in limbo for a period of time regardless of size and that’s what we’re going to talk about, is how to handle the limbo.

Chris McGuire: Yeah and just be patient because things happen. So as these timelines…because no matter what the situation is, there’s always delays and no matter what no one ever puts a real stake in the ground like ‘it’s going to happen by this date’ because things just happen. So when there’s just this big question mark about when, what advice do you have for how employees-

Jennifer Fondrevay: How to navigate, how to survive it?

Chris McGuire: Yeah.

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. So the one, and this is advice, even if you weren’t in banking, it’s just right now that industry in particular, there are a lot of people suffering as they wait. I always say focus on what you can control. There’s so much energy that’s wasted when people are theorizing and thinking, well, if this goes through, I don’t know if my job’s going to be there. You can drive yourself to distraction theorizing about all the potential scenarios that could play out. I’m always, and it’s both executives and frontline leaders, counseling them to focus on what you can control and show your value consistently every day. Demonstrate not only how you do your job well, but how you can adapt to different situations. And you can do that by staying focused on the things you can control and not wasting mental energy on the variety of things you can’t.

Chris McGuire: Yeah. I always think of it as how can I keep pushing that rock up the hill? You’re trying to help the company continue to progress in the direction that it’s trying to go in and how can you be a contributor in that and not just sit on the sidelines and see what’s going to happen next.

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. For my book, one of the people, she was a CMO. If you remember Office Max and Office Depot, that merger was taking forever. It was under scrutiny and the consultants kept creating work for her team. And she finally said, “Stop. Cease. We have no idea how this is going to play out, but you’re making work that is adding to my team’s stress and pressure.” So the other thing that I would say is, because that can happen too where people start to do projects that potentially could put them ahead but if it’s adding to already your workload, there’s advanced planning and being able to be ahead of the curve, should the merger or acquisition play out. But at the same time, you don’t want to overburden your team with additional make work that may or may not be valuable, right. You have to see how things will move forward.

Chris McGuire: Yeah, I think during this limbo time, you still have the day to day business for each company, whether you’re being acquired or you’re the acquirer and you still need to continue to get new clients and sell more products and everything. And sometimes it can be hard to keep that focus when you’re like, am I really, is my work really going towards the good, right? Cause you’re still stuck.

Jennifer Fondrevay: But as you pointed out, Chris, the key thing is showing your value, demonstrating… we’re a great team. The things that we contribute, the work that we do is important to the value of this company and to the brand that we’re creating, or let’s say you’re more about the marketing strategy and you’re supporting in the sales continually demonstrating the value that you bring through the work that you do. My greatest piece of advice is don’t waste the mental energy of thinking, well, what happens if this does go through, will I still have a job? Do the job that you have well, keep a positive attitude. More than even the actual work, keeping a positive attitude, should the deal go through people will want to work with you because you just kept a level head.

Chris McGuire: Yeah. In your book, you talk about the stages of grief and when you’re at a bank that’s being acquired and maybe you have a really strong attachment to the brand and what you have helped build and grow. How does this timeline impact that, those stages of grief and can you talk a little bit more about what are these people going through as they’re in limbo? What emotional challenges are they going through as they are breaking up with maybe their last brand? The brand that they’ve been working on so hard with.

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. My local bank, so I won’t name names, but my local bank just recently got acquired and you could, it was palpable walking into the bank. All of them were going through the stages of grief. I gave out my book to a number of the, because they’ve been at that bank for years.

Chris McGuire: Yeah.

Jennifer Fondrevay: Right. It’s been the local bank. It’s the bank that’s sponsored parades and the 4th of July fireworks and you can, the benefit of that is the people identify with their company, right, with their bank. And so, that’s what makes the company wonderful, right because so many people have devoted their lives to it. So now suddenly they, that’s why I call it the stages of grief. You feel like you’ve lost something, right. You’ve lost the certainty of what you’ve had. You’ve lost the familiarity of the people who you work with because some people will leave.

And you’ve lost, for me what is the most important component I would say of the stages of grief, which is you’ve lost that expected future. When people envision their career and a lot of the men and women at my local bank right, they’ve been there for a while and they’ve envisioned continuing to play a role and contribute. So when that gets called into question, it’s very difficult. A grief counselor actually is the one who identified it for me. She said it’s called ambiguous loss or secondary loss, right. You didn’t, you haven’t lost a person, but you’ve lost the future you had envisioned. And so, I wrote intentionally about the stages of grief from my M&A experience because I felt that too much of the time, it was more an academic approach, right.

Jennifer Fondrevay: I had consultants that came in, in the three multi-billion dollar M&A deals I was a part of, and they talked about the change curve or the S curve and they made it almost feel linear, right. Well, you go through these stages but then you get to acceptance. And that was not my experience, nor was it the experience of my colleagues. So the stages of grief, what I would say to anyone who might be experiencing that, you’re not alone. It is expected, particularly if you’ve identified with your company for a while. But also what I’ve found interesting is even people who are new to the bank, right. Maybe they’ve just joined, but they joined, they were excited, they went through a rigorous hiring process and now suddenly they aren’t clear on what the future hold. So there’s a component of grief there too, because the future is unclear. And the main point I would say Chris, is just know that they are stages. It takes a while to get to acceptance. It’s not a linear path, but work to get towards acceptance should the deal go through.

Chris McGuire: Yeah. Kind of related, we’ve talked a lot in the articles on The Teller about building trust with employees or within an organization and you outlined in your book an “us versus them” mindset. And regardless of which side of the acquisition you’re on, there’s trust issues about where the organization is headed and what you’ve been told and how you feel about the organization, but also trusting the other side. The goal is to come together as one, but this is the way we’ve always done it versus this the way we’ve always done it. And can you talk a little bit about how to navigate some of those things and any advice that you have for people going through this?

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. So that article that I wrote for Harvard business review, it came from the research that I was doing for my book and in interviewing CEOs and CFOs, marketing executives, HR executives, and what was fascinating to me is the “us versus them” dynamic our company or our bank versus their bank, that’s the more expected one, right. So there’s baggage that comes with that, right? Can we trust them? And I always say, well, both sides needed each other, right? This, whether it’s a merger and acquisition, both sides needed each other. So you’ve got to work towards trusting each other. Because if you hold back, the whole reason for this union is never going to happen and certainly won’t have the success that you’re looking for. But the other two components of that trust factor that I identified in research was the executives versus frontline leaders.

And you may have even, Chris, I know you said you’ve gone through your own M&A experience. That was probably the more fascinating piece of it and the one that had the greatest, where trust gets broken because oftentimes frontline leaders feel like, well, I didn’t even know about this. I didn’t even know we were thinking of this merger or acquisition. And the perception is, why didn’t I know? I thought I was a valuable member of this company or organization or bank, and yet I was blindsided.

And so, that trust that you work so hard to build up can fray significantly. And then the third piece of that “us versus them” dynamic is “who stays versus who goes.” And the tough part there is oftentimes you, aren’t sure who’s going to stay or who’s going to go. So people tend to clam up, they’re wondering is this person even going to be here? Should I even talk to them? And it can really inhibit collaboration. And that’s why I talked about it in the article is how do you address that? How do you make sure that you’re continuing to build that trust moving forward.

Chris McGuire: How do you minimize the mindset of “us versus them?” Are there things that an organization can do in order to bridge some of those divides more quickly?

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. And so one, and I work with executives a lot on this topic, key to building that trust right from the get-go is how you communicate the vision. I feel unfortunately, often times and I’m going to say, I’ve seen it with bank videos, right. The two CEOs put out a video, “this is great. It’ll be a wonderful partnership,” but you haven’t painted a picture of the future, right. So people interpret that. They see that and they go, well, great. You guys are going to get a huge paycheck and who knows, one of you is going to leave and yet I’ve got twice the work and I don’t know if I still have a job. So I say to CEOs, you’ve got to communicate it in a way that your next level down understands where you’re going and how they can contribute and what’s it going to mean for their future so that they can then message that to their teams.

Jennifer Fondrevay: You can’t keep it at that 30,000 feet. So the emphasis on how critical communications is during M&A is absolutely spot on, but I say there’s also a cadence and a way that you communicate. So communicating the vision in a way that people can understand, okay, where are we going and what’s the benefit of this. But then I say to that next level down, it’s your job to then translate that vision to your team, your department, right. So maybe you’re marketing, maybe you’re sales, maybe you’re product, what does this mean? And then the other piece that I would say to that too, is both sides needed each other. There can be this belief that the acquiring company says, well, we acquired you. Well, you acquired us though, but you needed us. And the better you come to that union with respect for the other side, and an acknowledgement that, Hey, our opportunity to grow is through collaboration. The faster you get to that, the more success you’ll have.

Chris McGuire: Yeah because together you’re going to be a bigger, stronger company. At least that’s the goal, right? That’s what everyone’s-

Jennifer Fondrevay: Right. And that’s why, but it’s critical for executives to set that tone and then enable and empower their frontline leaders to be able to message that to translate it for their teams.

Chris McGuire: Because every employee, regardless of which side they, in the back of their mind is thinking ‘what does this mean for me?’

Jennifer Fondrevay: Absolutely.

Chris McGuire: Am I, do I have a job? Is my job going to get bigger? Am I going to be promoted or am I just going to be saddled with more work? There are a lot questions that are going to go and the sooner you can probably communicate what that means for each individual, the easier the “us versus them” mentality is going to be when people have a clearer vision about what it means for me.

...Executives, they’ve been dealing or thinking or working on this deal for months. So when they announce it, they’re ready to go. But I always say, well, you’ve been living with this for a while, but this is new news to the majority of your organization. You’ve got to give people time.
- Jennifer Fondrevay, Author, "Now What? A Survivor’s Guide for Thriving through Mergers & Acquisitions"

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. And you make a good point emphasizing that Chris, because too often what happens, and I talk about this in the article as well, executives, they’ve been dealing or thinking or working on this deal for months. So when they announce it, they’re ready to go. But I always say, well, this is, you’ve been living with this for a while, but this is new news to the majority of your organization. You’ve got to give people time, right. That’s why I emphasize this stages of grief because regardless of the size of the deal, people have to adjust and they have to absorb the information and it goes exactly as you said, it goes from I want to build and help work at this company and build it to greatness. It goes from being business focused to I focused. What’s this mean to me, my job, my title, everything. And so, I counsel executives in particular, you have to be aware of that and prepare for it and help your teams through not only understand these are stages of grief, but then to get through them.

Chris McGuire: And there is an inevitability of that, some people are going to leave either on their own accord because they’re given a package or it’s just not the right fit. That can be hard on both sides because with the people I work with become part of my family.

Jennifer Fondrevay: Absolutely.

Chris McGuire: And so, there’s a breakup thing that’s happening with that. But also, in some of your articles you talked about how everyone has a perception about who wins in the deal. Whether… the person that stays thinks that the person that got to go wins and the person that leaves, thought the person… Can you talk a little bit more about that? And how maybe people can see, regardless of which position they find themselves in, like what outlook should they have?

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. And that was one of the more, I’ll say amusing parts of that the research I did revealed everyone thinks the other person got off better. And I get it, right. You’re thinking, well, why did they get to stay at the company and I have to leave? And those who are stuck, because oftentimes what ends up happening, there’s a long adjustment period. So they’ve made be an elimination of a department or a whole group to eliminate redundancy. But then, what can happen is people take on three times the job that they had before, because now they have their day job, plus the integration and everything going on. So a couple of things. So one, it goes back to focus on what you can control.

Jennifer Fondrevay: One of the things I highlight though, for leaders in particular is how you treat those people who are leaving, right. You’re treating them with dignity and grace because they contributed value and I say M&A can be a little bit like musical chairs. Sometimes the music stops and you don’t have a chair and it’s not because you aren’t good, it’s not because you didn’t contribute value. It’s simply as the music stopped and you didn’t have a chair. So one of the unfortunate aspects of M&A, there’s negative baggage that comes with it and one of that is they’re just trying to get rid of people. They get their value through eliminating jobs. And so, I say first and foremost, treat those people who leave with dignity and grace, because the people who stay will be evaluating that. They will be looking at how those people are treated to say, is this a company I still want to work for? Do my values align with them?

And particularly, in our time of the great resignation, you want to be able to retain the talent that’s there. So leaders, it’s of the utmost important to demonstrate they’re leaving, but to treat them respectfully and then for those who are leaving, I say, you have equally the same opportunity to leave with grace to show dignity, right. You can control your narrative. I know that sounds cliche, but the more that you demonstrate to people, listen, Hey, the music stopped and I didn’t have a chair.

To treat it not personally, even though those can be the emotions, but to demonstrate, Hey, I’ve loved my time here. This was a great company to work for. The way that you act allows people to talk to you, to connect with you, to be more connected to you upon your departure. That’s what I did. In the three M&A scenarios, one left of my own accord and two just no longer had a position, but in each instance, I was very open about Hey, this just is no longer the right opportunity for me and it allowed people to be very open and connected with me and I think that’s critical in that dynamic.

Chris McGuire: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit more about some more marketing folks. More specifically, you talk a lot about rising stars and people who have been really impactful on an organization and they’ve done a lot of good, maybe they’ve had some great achievements or accolades with the organization, and now they find out that their brand is being acquired. And how can they keep their star on the same trajectory, even though now they’re thrown into a completely new environment where there’s a lot of uncertainty, they’re not sure where they’re going to stand. Are they going to be able to succeed in the same way that they were in the previous organization? How does someone like that navigate these waters?

Jennifer Fondrevay: So a couple things. One is continue to do your job, right. Too often, once a deal is announced, people can become paralyzed because they’re waiting to see how things are going to play out. And I am always advising, don’t stop doing you your job. In fact, continue to do your job and do it well so that people see the value you are bringing. The other piece actually, it’s a story that I talk about in my book. We can get very attached to our titles. The role that we have played. And this was a leader who, when his company was acquired, he didn’t know if his department was going to still be relevant in the new world once the deal went through. And so, his advice to his team was don’t stay attached to your title, demonstrate the value and your skillset and capabilities. So show that you are quick to learn about another industry and how that benefits the company.

Jennifer Fondrevay: So I thought that was fabulous advice because we can stay stuck on our past achievements. We can cling to those, but his advice was don’t stay stuck on that. Demonstrate how quickly you learn about other companies and this was, in this case, it was a customer marketing team. And so, I think that’s great advice for anyone. Continue to keep learning and amplifying not only the skills you have, but the skills you can see needing for the future. We should all always be doing that. Right, that’s why the article that I wrote about how to stay a star at work, you should always be amplifying and upskilling, right. Going towards any learning and development opportunity that you can, the same holds in that limbo period. Make sure you’re doing your job and amplifying your skills.

Chris McGuire: Are there other things that they can be looking to do to help propel their career and add value for the actual merger? We talk a lot about focusing on doing your job and what you’ve been doing and keeping the wheels in motion, but are there things outside of that they can be doing that could maybe raise some eyebrows or get people to notice them more?

Jennifer Fondrevay: Well, there’s a couple, right. Particularly in mergers and acquisitions, there can be a lot of gray area, right? Because the strategy’s defined, but you don’t know how things will play out until it actually gets set in motion. So one of the things I counsel is to be looking for the ways that you can bridge, right. As two companies are coming together, there’s a lot of, well, I don’t know how are we going to do this? Who makes what decision?

So the smarter you can be on anticipating that, that’s one thing. For those people who are client facing, absolutely. You’ve got to ramp up. And some of this though, I’d say is, you would do regardless of whether there’s a merger or an acquisition, but in particular there, because your clients are wondering what’s going to happen. How is this going to impact my relationship with you? So the more you amplify and really make sure that connection that you have with all of your clients and even prospects, by the way, to have them feeling comfortable and confident about their engagement with you, you want to make sure you are devoting time to that client relationship to ensure that should the deal go through your clients are seeing you as a vital part of why they do business with you.

Chris McGuire: That’s great. I have one last question and it’s going back to those banks that maybe haven’t been engaged in the merger or acquisition yet. What advice would you have for some marketers seeing how fertile the ground is for these mergers and acquisitions to future proof their careers for when this might happen? Do you have any advice for people who may be working at a bank that could be a good target for an acquisition or a merger?

Jennifer Fondrevay: Yeah. And here’s the reality. I mean, I think actually the banking/ financial services industry is the number one industry right now going through mergers and acquisitions. So I would say, always be prepared for it, right. This is not to create anxiety, but it’s the reality, right. Just banks are going through that period right now. There’s so much capital out there and frankly, the ability to survive on your own is just getting more difficult. So banks are going through that. So one, I would say always be prepared for it. The other thing though, and it touches on some of the things that we’ve been talking about Chris, which is you need to always be upskilling, right. Adding to not only what you, what your expertise is now, but where you see opportunities to grow and learn.

Jennifer Fondrevay: The more you continue to do that, because I think unfortunately what I’ve seen happen and I can say even with what I’ve seen happen in my local bank, right. You can stay stuck in doing the same job you’ve always done. And that can be difficult during an M&A because that job can get eliminated. So you want to be making sure that you are expanding your skillset with every opportunity. And thankfully I think companies are getting smarter particularly because they don’t want to lose talent is how do we keep talent? They’re offering more learning and development, more training opportunities. So really take advantage of those.

Jennifer Fondrevay: And then the last thing I would say, and I talk about this in the Fast Company article, have an outside board of advisors. I think there’s this perception is, well, you have to get to the CEO level to have a board of advisors. No. At every level of your career, every stage of your career, have those people who aren’t necessarily in your industry. You can have people in your industry, but you want to have an outside perspective to help you think about not just the skillset maybe that you have in your industry, but what are other skills, what are other areas of expertise that you need to be thinking about that you might not be thinking about when you’re in your finance world, but that you need to be thinking about.

Jennifer Fondrevay: So having an outside board of advisors really can help give you the perspective you need that you might not have if you’ve just always been in the same kind of role.

Chris McGuire: Well, thanks for your time, Jennifer. We really appreciate your expertise. And for those that are going through a merger acquisition, I highly recommend Jennifer’s book, Now What? A Survivor’s Guide for Thriving Through Mergers and Acquisitions. You can find it on Amazon, any other places they can find you, Jennifer, that you’d like to steer them your way if they have any other follow up questions for you?

Jennifer Fondrevay: Two places that I always recommend, I write a lot about mergers and acquisitions on LinkedIn, and I have my Fast Company and HBR articles. But I put a lot on LinkedIn because right now, 2021 was a record breaking year for M&A. And so, a lot of people are going through it right now. So I would say LinkedIn, Jennifer J Fondrevay. And then also my website, JenniferJFondrevay.com. I’ve got some fun things there, Spotify playlists to get you through the stages of grief, a personality quiz to help you identify who you might be working with if you do go through the M&A. I try and underline the human aspect of M&A. So you can find that on my website.

Chris McGuire: Thanks again, Jennifer, and have a great day.

Jennifer Fondrevay: Thank you. Bye-bye.