Advice to Follow When Choosing Your Leader

Mark Herndon headshot
By Mark Herndon
Chairman, M&A Leadership Council
Mar 29, 2017

Now that your organization has embraced the best practice of utilizing a full-time, dedicated integration leader, the key question becomes “who?” To start with, let me share the priceless wisdom of my friend and colleague Jim Jeffries, Founder and Chairman of the M&A Leadership Council. “Availability is not a criterion for the integration leader!”

He’s absolutely right. You have to find the “most sought-after” executive to lead this task and this person is NEVER available. So what now?

"People either run like the wind, or the full force of organizational politics, maneuvering, back-stabbing and bad-behaviors are unleashed upon you.”

We’ve assembled a few typical characteristics of the ideal integration leader in “Who Should the Integration Leader Be?” It goes without saying that this person must wear A LOT of hats, so it is imperative that you get this decision right or the whole integration could be in peril. To help you with your next integration leader selection decision, let’s focus on three perplexing dilemmas:

1. What functional background makes the best integration leader?

Theoretically, any functional background could work if the person has the right skill sets and experience base. In practice, we’ve had the privilege of working with extremely successful and talented integration leaders across the spectrum, including engineering, finance, operations, IT, human resources, legal, sales & marketing and organization development (“OD”), among others. Certain functional skill sets more naturally develop and hone integration leader skills, and depending on your particular industry or market segment, your integration leaders may be predisposed to come from your deepest bench of talent, whatever function that may be. The most successful integration leader I have worked with? There are actually two, and for much the same reasons discussed below. Their functional backgrounds? Engineering and OD.

2. What are the two most essential skill sets or capabilities an Integration Leader MUST have in order to succeed?

As one recent workshop participant so eloquently mused, “A high tolerance for alcohol?” (Yes, you know who you are!) And yes, there’s an element of truth to that. More typical answers run along these lines: credibility, decisiveness, clear communication, ability to multi-task, high energy level and collaboration, among others. To which I say “yes, yes and yes, these are very important characteristics, but still not the essential capabilities you should principally look for.” There are many ways to express the same concepts here, but I’d encourage you to consider these two essential capabilities.

First, an expert-level knowledge of the business and your business processes; and second, proven change-leadership experience. In other words, this is not the integration leader’s first rodeo. This is not a “JIT” kind of role. Many of the best integration leaders have come up through the ranks of multiple M&A’s, system integration projects and other major change initiatives. After all, it’s an experience-driven skill set. That’s another reason why capturing and building institutional knowledge and enterprise M&A competencies are so important.

A third and final word of caution. Once the word is out that you are in the process of selecting an integration leader, people either run like the wind, or the full force of organizational politics, maneuvering, back-stabbing and bad-behaviors are unleashed upon you. We’ve lived through both and have a firm conviction that you have to go through a robust selection and vetting process just like you would for any important, senior-level, new-hire role. Otherwise, the stakes are just too high and the failure factors are just too many and too easy to fall into to leave in the hands of an inexperienced, poorly selected or poorly suited integration leader.  Aim for the person whom everyone knows as the organization’s “up-and-comer.” By the selection of this person, you will properly set the tone that successful integration is paramount to the business.

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