“Believe people when they tell you who they are. They know themselves better than you.” Words to live by from the late, great, Maya Angelou. And Oprah Winfrey’s adjunct, “believe them the first time,” serves as a valuable annex for those of us in the business of people.
I remember leading change on a very challenging merger. A gargantuan could-based software company acquired a smaller—yet highly successful in its own right—software and services company, with the intent of integrating and expanding its base product offering. On paper the acquisition made a lot of sense. The interlocking of products and services would open up terrific expansion opportunities. There was only one problem—culture. The acquired company was extremely proud of their culture and never wasted an opportunity to proclaim who they were, how they worked, and how special they were as a result. This blatant display of unbridled pride engendered a visceral reaction within the camps of the acquiring company who had a very different working style.
It was no secret—before, during, and after the acquisition—that these mavericks would eventually need to be assimilated into the mechanistic operating model of the mothership. However, they went forward with the acquisition anyway, turning a blind eye to the obvious culture clash, and seemingly assumed the gunslingers would organically calm down and come around to a more sensible way of doing business. Fast forward three or four years later and the guns were still blazing—faster and louder than ever! So, patience exhausted, the mothership forced the integration. Enter John Weathington to manage the change. Lucky me.
Culture is nothing to marginalize, especially when organizational success relies on shifting it. However, leaders tend to make things more difficult than they need to be when they move forward like culture doesn’t matter. But they’re not blind, it’s just that they won’t see. The easy part about culture, is that it is obvious. Just listen to people when they tell you who they are and then believe them—the first time.