[Career Planning: Mergers & Acquisitions] What Do You Do When the Rumors Start?

Nothing’s guaranteed except change, and in business (as well as more than just a few non-profits) that means a churn of possible mergers, consolidations, and acquisitions. Across the country biotech companies, financial services firms like asset managers, hedge funds, venture capital and private equity firms, and any number of companies in other sectors are all scrambling – some to stay alive, others to grow by acquisition. And when that happens, your job may change as well.

Why is this important?

While you can’t plan on having any one job with any one firm forever, you can develop an approach (Option 1) that will up your odds of either landing on your feet in the newly merged firm, or landing on your feet if your job goes south when the deal gets done. The second option (Option 2) – sort of like the shock after a traffic accident – is to plan to hang out and hope that once the shock wears off you can recover. I don’t know about you, but option 1 looks a lot better.

So what do you do?

  1. Before you even hear the first whisper of a rumor – and too continue to pet a robust horse – building, maintaining, and nurturing a vibrant career network consisting of people you know in your sector, former colleagues and supervisors, and mentors is the best way to have a relative job search safety net. As noted by career guru Richard Nelson Bolles (who believes that every job has really turned into a temporary job ), it’s how people find jobs – and in some cases – find out that their firm is on the block or looking to acquire. Networks are there when you get suddenly fired , and when you’re in full-blown job search mode . And even if you’re not in either state, those networks exist for you to shoot the breeze, pick people’s brains about the business, and help others out when you can.
  2. Realize that generally you never know about the veracity or accuracy of rumors. Recognize you can drive yourself silly, as well as give yourself more than a few sleepless nights, if you obsess over every rumor. For example, depending on who, if anyone among several possible buyers,  buys Barclays Global Investors and/or its iShares unti, people may still have their old roles or be fired. If you’ve done what you should have done with nurturing your network, and established a rainy day fund that will take you 6 months or so without a paycheck, it will help you survive all the water cooler talk.
  3. Just because they’re strange rumors though does not mean they might not be accurate. While the bottom-line results of most acquisitions, except for someone like Cisco, looks pretty dodgy, strange things continue get bought when egos are involved. When I worked with McKesson, new President Tom Field saw the business as distribution logistics, and went on an acquisition hunt to add to the drug distribution core of the company. He bought an office supply business (desks to paperclips) and a veterinary supply business (dubbed “hog and dog’). For a variety of reasons, including the fact that the customer base, markets, and distribution mechanics were different, the businesses never worked and were subsequently divested.
  4. Talk with your network. Ask not only about any rumors (if there’s a safe place to talk rumors, your network of "career advisors" should be it) and their thoughts on what that means for you.
  5. Understand that being acquired can end your job with your firm, particularly if you’re duplicative (payroll systems, sales management, etc.) or not part of the trusted inner circle: the acquired CFO, as opposed to the acquiring CFO for example. Recognize though that it may open up new options, as you get the chance through a boot to do some things that you’d been putting off.
  6. Being acquired can be great for your career. I met a guy recently had a decent role with the former World Savings in San Francisco. When they were acquired by Wachovia Bank he made the cut, but barely. When Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia, he made the cut and then some to a more senior role as his personal temperament and cultural fit was much better with Wells than Wachovia – and also a better fit than World Savings. My Dolores Park neighbor Jonathan Schwartz saw his company bought by Sun Microsystems – a transaction that led to Jonathan eventually running Sun as its CEO. Since Sun was recently sold to Oracle, we can see if Jonathan stays on or does something else as a next step.

Moral of the story?

You don’t know how the deal, if any,  will turn out. You can prepare in advance by maintaining a great personal network, putting aside proper savings, and doing great work. After that it’s pretty much up to the hands of fate.