As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) ground nearly to a halt. Many believed it would be impossible to build the trust and rapport needed to form successful partnerships from a distance. But as social distancing restrictions dragged on, deal making took off. Global companies struck deals worth more than $1 trillion in the third quarter of 2020, as compared to $762.67 billion in the third quarter of 2019, according to Dealogic Ltd.
Will these merging companies integrate successfully? Although there’s no substitute for in-person negotiations, the following advanced negotiation techniques can help new partners start off on the right foot.
- Make the Most of Remote Negotiations
In the past year, M&A deal makers have learned an array of new skills and workarounds to facilitate trust building in remote negotiations. The deal-making process now routinely includes Webex, Microsoft Teams, and other online tools, the Wall Street Journal reports. Rather than touring factories, they conduct site visits via video calls, or even send in drones. And they share financial records in online “digital data rooms” rather than conference rooms.
“We’d rather be in person, but we have been able to use the digital tools to get it done,” Chevron CFO Pierre Breber told the Journal, referring to the energy giant’s July 2020 acquisition of independent oil-and-gas producer Noble Energy for approximately $5 billion.
The fact that most corporate employees are working remotely during the pandemic actually makes some decisions easier. Rather than hashing out in advance which offices will be closed and who will need to relocate, such decisions can be postponed or, perhaps, avoided entirely.
- Find New Ways to Build Rapport
Overcoming unfamiliarity has been a challenge for negotiators who are “meeting” for the first time. “Building relationships and culture is very difficult over the computer or the phone,” Brian Salsberg, the head of Ernst & Young LLC’s integration practice, told the Journal.
While it’s possible to build rapport on video calls, deal makers don’t always make the time. “Zoom fatigue” can prompt negotiators to skip the small talk. But that would be a mistake.
Strong relationships depend on good rapport, which Northwestern University professor of law Janice Nadler defines as a state of positive mutual attention marked by harmony and affinity. “Rapport determines whether negotiators develop the trust needed to understand each other’s interests and reach a strong agreement,” writes Nadler in Negotiation Briefings.
When negotiating face-to-face, we naturally build rapport through our body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. We also create rapport by getting to know each other. That might mean taking time to chat about our families or shared interests before getting down to business or, in the pre-Covid-19 world, sharing a meal.
It may be unsafe to break bread together, but our deal-making techniques can and should involve building rapport when meeting via video. You might set up an online lunch to schmooze with new counterparts, or tack an extra 10 minutes onto a meeting to make time to chat.
- Build a Shared Culture from the Start
When negotiating partnerships, leaders often neglect to discuss their cultural compatibility, writes University of Maryland psychologist Michele Gelfand in her book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World (Scribner, 2018).
An organization’s home country is just one culture to which it belongs. Organizational cultures also can vary by industry, longevity, size, hierarchy, and many other factors. A Silicon Valley startup may have a much looser culture than a huge, well-established tech firm like Microsoft, for example. When firms merge without understanding and accounting for their different cultures, clashes are likely.
Organizational culture can be particularly difficult to assess when employees are working remotely. It might help to talk to employees at all levels about their company’s culture, particularly regarding social norms, traditions, and expectations. You might also be able to glean insights into other side’s culture from employees’ behavior: whether they show up to meetings on time, whether high-level executives are directly involved in talks or instead delegate, and how well coworkers seem to know one another.
If companies do decide to partner, their deal-making skills should include taking steps to bring employees together. After acquiring information-technology support business Curvature Inc., Park Place Technologies began producing a weekly podcast and hosting virtual town-hall meetings to keep employees informed about the integration process, Park Place CEO Chris Adams told the Journal. And when it acquired work-management platform Workfront in December 2020, Adobe invited its employees to sign up to be “buddies” with their new colleagues from Workfront. Through such moves, an organization can create a new, shared culture while respecting past practices and traditions.
What other advanced negotiation techniques have you found useful when deal-making during the Covid-19 pandemic?