Getting “Blind Sided” with Safety Culture and Mergers and Acquisitions: Five Key Steps for Success
By Dr. Josh Williams
In 2009, Sandra Bullock played Leigh Ann Touhy in the popular film, “The Blind Side.” The movie was based on her family’s adoption of Michael Oher, an eventual Super Bowl champion who played nearly a decade in the NFL and made more than $32 million. The story begins with Touhy spotting Oher, who was shivering in the rain at night without enough clothes to stay warm or a place to sleep. She offers to let him sleep on their couch – beginning a series of events that ultimately leads to the Touhy family adopting Oher. The story focuses on how Oher’s life was improved dramatically because of this adoption, but also how the lives of Touhy family members were enriched by him joining the family.There may be a lesson learned here in the world of M&As. Companies are increasingly taking in new organizations and assimilating them into their fold. Aligning on safety culture values is an increasingly important component of this process to keep people safe and prevent SIFs. With some help from Hollywood, five key “must do’s” for effective safety culture alignment during M&As is provided below:
1. Show you care: The Touhy family shows unconditional support to Michael as he slowly becomes embedded into the family. Parent companies acquiring new companies need to ensure they demonstrate compassion and concern to new leaders and front-line employees when they come on board. Uncertainty is high during this transition period and demonstrating active caring beyond dollars and cents is critical.
2. Set clear expectations: Leigh Ann Touhy is portrayed as a strong presence (even phoning in play calls to the high school coach during games) and she sets clear expectations of how things operate in her household. This ranges from doing chores to always looking out for each other. Oher adapts to this new environment and begins to thrive. New employees also need to understand clearly how things operate with the new parent company. For safety culture, this ranges from following procedures to warning others if they’re in danger of getting hurt.
3. Show people the ropes: The diminutive CJ shows “Big Mike” the ropes in high school and even challenges college coaches trying to recruit Oher. Early mentoring and hands-on training are highly effective ways to bring people into the fold and show them how things really get done. As an example, an energy company in Tennessee created a “buddy for a week” program in which new employees were mentored for a week with more experienced employees. Bonds were formed and key hands-on knowledge was passed along because they worked together, ate together, and spent all day together during this first week.
4. Check in to see how people are doing: The Touhy family regularly checked in on Michael to see how he was adapting to his new life. Regular check-ins are critical when bringing in new people since they are adapting to new people, rules, and cultural norms. It shows you care and alerts you if people are struggling.
5. Learn from new employees: The Touhy family learns valuable lessons from Oher during the movie like the power of caring and the importance of listening. Leaders in the parent company may pick up better ways to promote safety culture and learn valuable best practices from the assimilated organization. Being open to change, innovation, and better ways of doing things is critical during the M&A process.
Call to Action
Safety is a key driver of integration because everyone wants to go home safely, and no one wants to see anyone else get hurt. Here are specific ways to reinforce these five key steps with M&As.
• Interviews with managers and employees provide insight into how workers of each organization view the prioritization of safety and leadership commitment to safety culture. This is an excellent opportunity to also share the organization’s safety values, goals, and cultural norms. It also provides an excellent forum to learn best practices from the new company that can be applied to further strengthen the organization.
• Employee surveys are used to assess attitudes, behaviors, and intentions with new companies when it comes to safety ownership, accountability, and performance. Reinforcing positive elements and identifying gaps is a good starting point for planning future integration plans.
• Meetings, small group discussions, and one-on-one conversations are used to reinforce organizational norms and expectations. This includes:
o Painting a picture of desired organizational values and culture. This includes both basic elements (such as adhering to company safety policies) and higher-level elements (e.g., discretionary effort, psychological safety). These expectations should be regularly reinforced in the early months following the transition and introduced during orientation for new hires.
o Building trust throughout the organization. Trust plays a large role in M&A success, and it impacts employee performance and commitment (including safety).1 Improving trust promotes a positive, learning environment for continuous improvement at all organizational levels.2
o Promoting participation. Employees are much more likely to buy into new systems when they have a voice in their creation. It also helps them feel like they’re part of the new organization. Plus, they often have creative new ideas to improve current processes and systems that should be leveraged for future improvement.
o Driving out fear. Fear is one of the biggest obstacles to change and working in a new system can be unsettling and uncomfortable for people accustomed to working a certain way. Smart leaders establish clear expectations for safety performance and then use positive means with employees to achieve them.
The Big Picture
Like the movie “Blind Side,” bringing in someone new may have surprising effects that benefit everyone. The upheaval that is sometimes created with M&As provides a rich environment for larger organizational improvement. This is especially true with safety culture. Bringing in a new partner triggers a focus on how things are currently being done. Holding up a mirror and honestly assessing strengths and weaknesses is an important first step to improvement. Also, new partner organizations may have creative new ideas and best practices to further strengthen the organization.
Safety is a unifying force to get people on the same page so that everyone goes home healthy to their families. Improving and aligning safety culture before, during, and after the M&A process builds on successes already attained. It also helps prevent serious injuries and fatalities in the future.
1. Stahl, G. K., & Sitkin, S. B. (2005). Trust in mergers and acquisitions. In G. K. Stahl & M. E. Mendenhall (Eds.), Mergers and Acquisitions: Managing Culture and Human Resources (pp. 82–102). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
2. Stahl, G. K., & Sitkin, S. B. (2001). Trust in mergers and acquisitions. Presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, Washington, DC.