Why mergers and acquisitions FAIL: They were set up to do just that from the very start!

For many not-for-profit boards, stewardship of the organization’s longstanding mission is job one. They take the enhancement and preservation of the mission quite seriously and frequently that means keeping the structure, operational character, brand, and historical context intact to the greatest extent possible. Anything else would be deemed an abandonment of post, a breakdown, a total and complete failure.

Whenever I discuss future strategic options with such organizations, especially within the health care industry – which continues to consolidate at a healthy clip – this bias is often not very subtle. For organizations sailing along with a good tailwind, that’s usually fine. But for those struggling, there is a “merger and acquisition as last resort” mentality that can permeate and dominate the board’s thinking. I don’t dismiss that at all; staying the course is frequently the very best course to pursue. However, this mindset can create blindspots and so it’s worth exploring whether to challenge that kind of thinking.

One strategy is to affirm the meaning behind the mission. For example, one organization where I worked saw its mission as providing high quality and exceptional access for home health services to residents within inner city communities, ones often facing difficult racial disparities and lack of service availability. It was a great mission. As that organization pondered its next phase, one issue became clearer and clearer to me: some board members were focused on ensuring that that community continue to receive high quality and exceptional access care by that same organization while others took a less parochial view and thought more so about the community’s fundamental needs and how best to help meet them. The board ultimately confronted this internal friction and determined that the latter perspective was the one they wanted to collectively embrace. This decision changed the outcome of their deliberations and altered the course of that organization.

But sometimes, the organization-centric (I could say “insular”) point of view prevails. When those types of organizations run into financial, operational, or regulatory difficulty and then eventually feel forced to pursue a merger or be acquired, the failure mindset becomes cemented into that organization’s thinking. Even though no one typically states “we only did this because we had to”, many will read the tea leaves and properly detect the undertones quite accurately – they don’t say this explicitly, but they might as well.

Eventually, when the merger or acquisition takes place, there are board members, executives, managers, and staff who walk into the front door of that new relationship with the attitude that they have failed. This is not at all helpful to the other entity involved (though there is a corollary scenario, i.e., everyone on that side of it may walk in the front door feeling as though they have won) and can set the stage for difficult implementation and integration challenges.

The antidote is to ensure, on both sides, that there is a focus on what is best for the community as part of the formation process and that this basic winner-loser dynamic is never established in the first place. Going further back in time, I would recommend that leaders and board members consider mergers and acquisitions from a position of possible strength – not as a last resort Hail Mary – for their organizations.

When these types of decisions are established from the very beginning as a desperation move, it’s no wonder that the resulting merger or acquisition ends up failing desperately somewhere down the line.

One response to “Why mergers and acquisitions FAIL: They were set up to do just that from the very start!”

  1. Great insight!


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