Renee Brown, an assistant vice president of marketing at Wachovia, thought she was the victim of a cruel joke when she got the 6 a.m. call on a Monday. First Union, her corporate archrival, would soon be her employer. She was shocked. "I understood why we were doing the merger, but my heart definitely wasn't there," she says. Even as Brown helped shape the new merged culture, she remained seriously—if secretly—ambivalent about it. In fact, she carried her old ID badge behind her new one for a year and a half to remind herself where her heart really was. "I had meetings with people where I felt outnumbered. I couldn't understand their old product language. I couldn't get five people in a room and make a decision. It was terrible."
Corporations try to sell their customers and employees on what sets them apart from the competition—but that strategy can backfire once two rivals are forced to come together. "Walk into some of these offices and they have the name of their competition on the wall with a big red slash through it," says workplace psychologist Brandon Lee, who has worked on more than a dozen Fortune 500 integrations. And now you have to put on a happy face and sing "Kumbaya"? With merger-and-acquisition activity picking up, more people will have to shift from hating an "evil empire" to embracing one. This can be done with grace, but often not without struggle. Here's how to learn to love thine enemy—or at least get along with it.
"It's done," said the voice on the other line. "We're Oracle." After a protracted battle, PeopleSoft had been acquired by Oracle, its rival in back-office software. "It was pretty emotional," says one PeopleSoft manager now working for Oracle who requested anonymity. "All the executives started crying. And a lot of people said, 'Over my dead body will I work for Larry Ellison.' " According to this employee, many PeopleSoft folks still feel divided from their new parent company. And the parent? "They don't know. They don't care," he says of Oracle.
Coping in such circumstances often means transcending the competing cultures. "You do things a certain way because of who you are and what you believe," says the PeopleSoft manager, "and you can't tie that to any company. There are certain things that don't change and shouldn't change."
That attitude can keep you focused on what's truly important, rather than getting bogged down in us-versus-them. When Neil Powell, executive creative director and founder of the Powell ad agency in New York, merged his 16-person creative team with a larger agency, MargeotesFertitta, he and his team had to make some adjustments, starting with their physical environment. While waiting for new offices to be built, they went from a cool loft space to working on picnic tables with wires running wild in a barren area separate from the rest of the creative team.
Mutiny could have won the day, but Powell convinced everyone to put his head down and get to work. "It was an absolute mess for a little while," he says. "But it was also kind of cool because we were all in it together. We didn't let anything get in the way of our goal of doing something great."
Culture issues will arise, of course. When they do, a corporate sherpa can help you navigate. "I moved into a new job with a manager from the 'green' side of the house," says Brown, referring to First Union's corporate colors versus Wachovia's blue. "And he was really good at telling me when I was moving out of bounds. He'd say, 'In that meeting, you didn't ask for active agreement.' In the old Wachovia, active agreement was assumed. You just assume stuff—and you can't. You need someone to pull you aside and say, 'Here are some things that folks might react to negatively, and here are the reasons why.' "
Mergers "potentially create conflicts from a technology standpoint. As in, 'I built X. You built Y. I like my baby better than your baby.'"
But patching cultural differences won't fix more fundamental conflicts over strategy. When Brett Galloway sold his wireless-networking company Airespace to Cisco Systems last March, he knew there'd be issues. "It potentially created conflicts from a technology standpoint," he says. "As in, 'I built X. You built Y. I like my baby better than your baby.' "
The good news: Cisco, an experienced hand at integrating acquisitions, has "no technology religion" as one of its core values. Still, Galloway had been through an acquisition before, and he knew that technology decisions can create insecurity for engineers who identify closely with their product. So he tried to reorient the conversation with his techies. "You have to tell people it's not personal," he says. "Rather than debating the technical elegance of the competing products, I turned it into a conversation about moving forward with the best business strategy."
As two companies undergo the growing pains of coming together, there are moments when individuals first sense they're part of a greater whole rather than of one side. For Galloway at Cisco, it happened when he got a new product out the door with his newly integrated team. For Wachovia's Brown, who's now senior vice president, director of brand management, a hostile takeover bid from SunTrust Bank forced everyone to work together against a common foe. That's the thing about evil empires: A new one always pops up to unite people, one way or another.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.