Acquiring the skills of acquisition

I've been sold. More precisely, the majority of the assets of my company have been sold to a competitor.

The products, infrastructure and intellectual property that my team and I built for four years will belong, by the time you read this, to someone else. This is my fifth acquisition as a buyer or a seller. Being sold feels different from being the buyer, but the preparations are the same in four key areas.

1. People. Arrogance, rudeness and contempt can't be tolerated. Mary in networking may be a reliable administrator, but if she doesn't work well with people today, it's unlikely that she'll work better with an integration team next month that's likely to question her work. If you've been sheltering an IT misfit, monitor her interactions or consider releasing her.

If you've never systematically reviewed your staff, now is the time to candidly do so. Are their skills current? Can an outsider confirm this?

Certifications can be helpful. Consider encouraging your best to test. In the preacquisition period, few large new projects are begun. Use this time to offer staff training. Longer-term classes can be part of your overall retention program.

Understand your staff's strengths, weaknesses and preferences. Harry may be terrific, but if he would prefer to work at a smaller company, it might be better for him to do that.

Review your incentive programs. Buyers need staffers to take on additional work to integrate operations. Sellers need staffers to run operations until the integration is complete. In the short term, money can motivate.

2. Process management. Does your staff clearly understand how work is to be done? You can't be in on every discussion. Your staffers will need to make decisions more quickly than they did before.

Do they understand why their procedures include certain steps? In an acquisition, specialists will soon be suggesting or making changes. If your staff can't speak up and explain why something shouldn't be done, the resulting mess may be yours.

3. Assets. If you haven't done a physical inventory recently, now is the time to complete one. If you're not sure about your intellectual property and how Accounting and Legal have managed it, now is the time to ask. Make sure that you have complete, accurate records that make sense to your CFO. If you're acquiring, you'll need to make sure you can easily add the acquisition's asset records to yours. If you're being acquired, some technology assets will be part of the purchase price.

4. Opportunity. Good people with up-to-date skills who work well together create opportunities. Clearly documented procedures and records demonstrate management skills. Make sure you know what opportunities may become available.

Your greatest opportunity will be in how you choose to lead. Lead poorly, and you may be one of the first to go -- regardless of whether you're acquiring or being acquired. Lead well, and you may find yourself with greater opportunities. Have your message well crafted and aligned with your company's objectives. If you don't know something, say so. If you can't say so, say that. Don't guess, and whatever you do, don't overpromise. If the news is bad, explain it fairly.

Finally, tie your actions to your message. You will know if you've been successful. Bill Owens, the governor of Colorado, put it best when he said, "Actions, not words, are the ultimate results of leadership."

Virginia Robbins is the former chief information and operations officer and managing director at Chela Education Financing in San Francisco. Contact her at

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