In a blog post (“The Human Side of Due Diligence”) of October 2011, Michael Bittle talks about the challenge of sizing up a company’s culture in the midst of a private equity transaction. Even if your team is savvy in its financial analysis, interviews customers and executives, and puts together airtight LOIs, he argues, you can miss the important undercurrents that are culture. Too many companies are dressed up for a suitor, only to prove to look to good to be true.
A recurring drama plays out wherein performance swoons, key managers leave, and morale sinks as well. The investors scratch their heads and wonder what has happened. Enter the concept of the informal culture–what values, unspoken agreements, collaborative tendencies, etc existed prior to the transaction. Bittle argues that, in the heat of getting a deal done, that the quant jockeys often have neither the time nor the training to be extra discerning about these nuances than can be a company’s undoing.
In the Research Triangle Park, we are developing a national reputation for angel or venture-backed technology and life science start-ups that all aspire to make their commercialized product/service a household name. Along the way, they receive outside investment and some matriculate to a successful revenue path that ultimately leads to a liquidity event. Very few take an approach wherein the founders want to stay with the company as it matures. This can be good and bad. In the cases where the founder brought an academic mindset to enterprise, it is often better that professional management run the company longer term. On the positive side, emotional bonds are built between employees 1, 2, 3 …and #50, #100, etc. These bonds create stability, a sense of community that can be disrupted by the introduction of outside ownership/management.
George Bradt, in an article in Forbes on February 8, “Corporate Culture: The Only Truly Sustainable Competitive Advantage,” takes the position that competitors, given time and money, can duplicate almost anything except culture. “In sustainable, winning cultures, behaviors (the way we do things here) are inextricably linked to relationships, informed by attitudes, built on a rock-solid base of values, and completely appropriate for the environment in which the organization chooses to operate.”
Organizational development principles can be brought to bear in the due diligence process if the consultant focuses on soft issues rather than concrete, easily measured ones. Whether an EQ assessment is administered to managers, or some type of DISC or MBTI with their direct reports, it can be helpful to understand who is the backbone of the company and how they may behave/make decisions. Transparency can drive smooth transitions if the former owners/executive team is willing to give the private equity/acquiring company access to employees earlier in the process. If people are made aware of the potential transaction and given an opportunity to design their own future, they are more likely to be/remain engaged in positive behaviors and outcomes.
Eventually, the first generation leadership will have to give way to new leaders, even if there is no transaction. The succession is more likely to be successful if the culture is aligned with the company direction through thoughtful interaction with employees and casting vision for how their contributions will continue to be needed. Such best practices are more likely to reinforce trust and a desire to build something great together.