Business leaders must ensure they sustain the excitement of professional unions when things get ‘real’ after the event.
In 1987, aged 15, I had a Saturday job in Papa’s ice cream parlour in Gravesend and was paid £1 an hour for my toil. One day, I asked the Papa for a pay rise, which he refused. As I sloped out of his office, he offered me a piece of advice: “Always marry for money. If you find love along the way, it’s a bonus.” I was horrified – and yet, when I raised this with my history teacher, she reminded me it was only around the mid- 19th century that people started marrying for love. Until that point, marriage was, for the upper classes, about a preservation of wealth and procreation; for the lower classes, it provided a way to avoid poverty, gain shelter and even protect from violence.
The past two years seem to have followed a bit of Papa’s advice, with mergers, marriages and modernisations that may not have been wholly about love, but certainly about money, influence and power. With super-unions forming a distinct strategic anchor to many businesses grappling with how to navigate transformation, a clear pattern of momentum seeks to bring together differing craft skills, cultures and clans. With the formation of Wavemaker, Global Outdoor, Wunderman Thompson, Oath (now Verizon) and VMLY&R, and the multi-marriages of Accenture Interactive with Droga5, Karmarama and Fjord, it seems the ancient drive to form partnerships to protect and grow the family system, finances and even faiths persists in the business world.
So if we are to realise the full potential of these new alliances, I know, as a headhunter and a psychotherapist, that while the strategy document and the spreadsheets look inviting, the truth is that any merger can be messy and precarious. There is a great need for those who lead these professional nuptials to invest in ensuring the excitement lasts beyond the honeymoon. But how?
A staggering 55% of all marriages in our world are arranged and they have a surprisingly low divorce rate. Pressures of families, religions and historic behaviours may all be in play, but let’s face it, that is not wildly different to many corporate undercurrents.
So what can the leaders of the new entities learn from those who achieve harmony despite love not being the initial attraction? How do we keep the faith and allow the partnership to flourish?
1. HOLDING THE VISION. As the chief executive, continually make clear the reasons for the marriage to all parties – the benefits of being a power couple, be it additional crafts, clients, contacts, talent or joint abilities. Celebrate the additive effect they all bring to each other, and therefore the positive power in the entities aligning and going to market as a united force.
2. APPRECIATING EACH OTHER. Honouring, respecting, remaining open-minded and showing patience for the fables, methods and patterns of the past individual entities and allowing the members to readjust and respond to suggested changes and progress. Any sense of a power play, a takeover, or a need to dominate or obliterate each other’s past will result in splitting and acting out by the other half.
3. ACTIVE LISTENING. Businesses are in a hurry – the shareholders want to see a return on the audacious move, yet you need to spend time exploring each other’s businesses, beliefs and approaches to ensure that you are taking forward the very best from each party. Assuming, defining or directing before listening will only ever end in one of the parties feeling unheard and misunderstood. This leads to isolation and inward-facing behaviours.
4. PLAY TOGETHER TO STAY TOGETHER. Any good business leader knows that the more time we take to tune in to each other as humans, the better we understand each other. Despite our disparate beliefs, when we actually spend time together – online or offline – we form attachment bonds that can be seen and felt by each other and indeed our clients. Take the time.
5. A SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGE IS A LIFETIME’S WORK. By the time most marriages get to the point of the partners seeking relationship therapy, the trouble has already settled in. If you spot yourself metaphorically leaving wet towels on the floor, it might be time to get the business out on a date night. Just maybe not to Papa’s ice cream parlour.