Insider's guide to integrating acquired teams

A well-drilled team, acting in disciplined harmony and each performing their individual tasks within the greater strategy, will outperform any grouping of individuals. Here are three crucial factors to integrate acquired teams successfully.

By Robbie Taylor, M&A expert and former CFO*

I love water polo. It was once rated as one of the toughest sports in the world (probably by an ex-player) for its multiple demands on fitness, strength, speed, courage, teamwork, physicality and mental acuity. The sport has been dominated by the eastern Europeans for many years and when you watch them play, it seems that they are in telepathic communication with one another - each player is moving independently but within the greater team tactic and they always have someone in the right place at the right time. Make no mistake, individually they are as fit, strong, courageous and intelligent as the best, but what makes them so formidable is that they are all of that as a team as well.

As leaders in business we often talk about our staff being our greatest asset. We pay lip service to all the clichés and yet if we are honest with ourselves, we may actually be leading an under-performing team and it may be our own fault.

In a previous position, we had to integrate the staff from over 40 different businesses into one high-performance team. Naturally, we had some successes and some failures. I will share what I learnt below.

There are two broad categories of attributes that are an essential requirement within each member of your team, I will look into each of these below before discussing the "glue" for the team - you, the leader.

1: Individual Attributes
I got confused by all the books I read about identifying talent, interview techniques, "the five Rs", "the seven Cs" etc., and instead developed a simple, all-encompassing two-part question: does the person have character and intelligence?

Character refers to the indefinable, non-measurable attributes. Their integrity, what they do when no one is watching, what they do when no one is asking, their attitude towards instruction, superiors, subordinates, workload, adversity, and the like.

Example: During an interview, I asked the candidate about an interesting thing on his CV - the fact that he had sailed extensively on a yacht all around the world. He had an outstanding reference from the Captain of the boat, who described him as being very calm under pressure, able to take on and learn new tasks, and having an attitude that nothing was beneath him. The candidate was also a Chartered Accountant so he ticked my two boxes of character (his sailing reference) and intelligence (his qualification) and he got the job. He remains one of the best employees and team players I've ever worked with.

To a large extent, character is formed during the childhood and adolescent years by parents, friends, teachers and coaches. This is why certain educational establishments have a reputation for producing great leaders. But character is not set in stone; it can be corrupted and it can be developed. You, as leader of your team, thus have a very important role.

Character is important in the team dynamic because it either enhances or destroys the team. During times of adversity, you need people who remain calm and focussed on a solution; who remain positive and encouraging, and pitch in to help others while still doing their own work.

People with character see dishonesty and report it, readily give credit to their teammates and take responsibility for their mistakes. They have a "learning" rather than a "blame" culture.

The second individual attribute is intelligence. This is normally demonstrated by the achievement of an academic result. In South Africa, we need to think laterally to ensure that we don't disqualify intelligent people who have not been given opportunities.

Example: We were once hiring for a personal assistant position and one of the candidates was a 20-year-old woman from Limpopo. She had matriculated with outstanding results as a 16-year-old but had no further qualifications. It transpired that she was the daughter of humble parents, both teachers at the village school. Her spectacular intellect had resulted in her skipping through two years of school (she did Grade 4 and 5 together, and later Grade 8 and 9 together). We hired her for her intelligence, she picked up all the skills that she needed for her job within a few weeks and then we helped enrol her for an undergraduate programme to obtain her degree. I think she will be a board member one day…

Intelligence pre-supposes the ability to learn something. The academic process is the quintessential method of discovering whether someone can learn something, and in our field of accounting we are lucky that the subjects and qualifications are tried and tested. I rely on them. I am very confident that I am dealing with an intelligent person when I talk to a Chartered Accountant, I know what they went through to obtain that qualification and I know that there are no shortcuts. An intelligent person can learn your organisation's policies and procedures, the tasks for their function, and can problem solve within their role.

Intelligent people need to be challenged, feel involved, and be developed to their full ability. They can become frustrated when under-utilised. If you don't manage them well your intelligent assets can become smart bombs.

2: Team Attributes
Team players have attributes that individualists don't and vice versa. Neither is right and neither is wrong, but they are incompatible in certain circumstances. In the context of a finance department you're running a team, so team characteristics are sought.

Essential team attributes are:

  • The ability to communicate well. Team players communicate comprehensively and energetically, the team knows what needs to be done and they look forward to doing it.
  • A culture of learning and not blaming. Mistakes are a by-product of being human, within reason we need to accept that, learn from it, take responsibility and move forward.
  • Praising in public and disapproving in private. Team players know that people give their best when they feel validated and supported, and especially if this happens in public. There are times when team members fail but team players address this openly and honestly with the individual in a face-saving way, preferably in private.
  • Knowing your role. Team players do their role well, and allow others to concentrate on their roles.

3: The Team Leader
You will have noticed that, while this article is about integrating teams in an acquisition environment, the subject has not been discussed until this point, when we look at the team leader, because this is where the magic happens. You need to assess your team: do they have the individual attributes to make the team, do they have the team attributes to contribute positively to its success? If the answer is "yes" to both questions, then you can proceed and work with them to build your integrated championship team, but if the answer is "no" you need to plan for casualties and succession within the team.

Once you get the right team together your role is to:

  • Empower them - give them appropriate tasks and duties for their level and qualification and let them get on with it. Check their work.
  • Envision them - give them the vision of where the team is going within the vision for the organisation. Constantly refer to the vision and your progress against that.
  • Support them - verbally, practically, financially and with resources. Set them up for success.

If you get this right with the right people, then integrating teams becomes an exciting and rewarding part of your job with a high chance of success.

Finally, everyone working for you is someone's daughter, or son, or brother, or sister, or husband, wife, father, or mother. They are people, and are special to other people. Treat them like the most valuable resource you have because they are.

*Robbie Taylor is a CA, has listed two companies on the JSE, has been involved in over 65 acquisitions, and was nominated for the 2015 CFO Awards for his role at Ascendis Health. He now runs Business Transaction Services, a boutique business transaction advisory company providing services to businesses wanting to buy, sell, merge or fund for growth.