March 04, 2022

Merging Teams and Acquiring Talent: Workforce Best Practices for M&A

By Dan Phelan, Vice President, Sales, Datasite

The “Great Resignation” has thrown a spotlight on the question of how to build and retain talent. Datasite’s first quarterly corporate update focused on workforce issues in mergers and acquisitions. Abby Roberts, Datasite’s Senior Director of Product Marketing, moderated this panel discussion. 

The first poll question dealt with talent retention from the perspective of team members rather than leaders. Audience members were asked how they’d respond if a recruiter reached out with an opportunity.

More than 90% said they’d take the call even though they’re happy in their current role. This was no surprise for Joanna Riley, the founder and CEO of the talent intelligence platform Cesnia.

“Most talent is very passive,” she said “They are not necessarily actively looking to change jobs…but people are going after them, and a lot of the time, that talent is taking calls.”

 
Surveying the Playing Field

Before diving into best practices for recruitment and retention, the group looked at the M&A outlook across various sectors.

The participants highlighted an increased focus on the talent side of business, as well as lots of promising developments in AI. Those trends are combining to drive a huge boom in Riley’s field. 

“Even in just the last 6 months, more unicorns have been created in HR tech than in most if not all other industries,” she pointed out.

Jennifer Fondrevay, the creator of the M&A consultancy firm Day1 Ready, pointed out that these shifts are opening up a bigger role for Human Resources in the planning stages of mergers. 

Too often, she said, “HR has been left out of that early discussion because they didn’t have the data…it was felt that ‘these are soft skills, it’s people, we’ll deal with it once the deal is done.’” But new data-driven tools are offering ways to quantify those “intangibles”. 

 

Finding M&A Talent

Roberts asked the panel what changes they’ve observed in the corporate M&A role over the course of their careers. 

Devang Bhuva, the Senior VP of Corporate Development at the biotech firm Gilead Sciences, responded that the job has become more multifaceted. Development teams aren’t just handling mergers and buyouts. They’re dealing with things like early-stage investing, research collaborations, and divestments as well as traditional M&A.

“As we recruit for the corporate development team at Gilead, we look for what I call ‘well-rounded athletes’,” he said. “People who can use their skill sets and apply them to different situations. A team that isn’t just all former bankers like myself, but comes from various walks of life.”

The other panelists echoed Bhuva’s emphasis on diversity and flexibility. Riley pointed out that with the lighting pace of change in today’s business world, it’s not enough to find the people you need right now - you have to look to the future.

“Hire today for what you’re going to have to accomplish in two years,” she advised. She also mentioned that recruiters will almost always find better hires by looking for performance indicators rather than specific job skills. Someone who’s done well with key responsibilities in the past is likely to succeed in the future, even if that means learning something new.

 

Fostering and Retaining Talent

Roberts pivoted to discuss how leaders can retain key employees. In Fondrevay’s view, the most important factors are a sense of agency and the opportunity to grow. 

Based on the poll results, the audience agreed. More than 40% listed lack of a clear career path as the most pressing reason for departures, while 27% cited lack of influence over strategy.

The participants also agreed that companies need to do better at planning ahead for integration following a merger. They noted that it’s very common for top performers to feel a loss of ownership over their role after they’re acquired by a larger outfit. 

Riley also pointed out that small organizations tend to be aligned around a strong shared vision. Their employees may be concerned about where that mission fits in with their new parent company’s goals.

Bhuva suggested that acquirers can reinforce a sense of agency by pointing to the greater scope for action that a larger company offers. 

“Working at a startup is great,” he said, “But think about the scale at which you can operate…the impact you can have for patients at a company that’s providing medicines to millions of patients across the world,” he said.

 

The Case For a People-Centered Approach

One clear theme of the discussion was the need to think about each employee as a whole person. The panelists emphasized the importance of looking at a candidate’s entire background instead of a few keywords on a resume. 

“Passion and attitude and enthusiasm are hugely important,” Bhuva said. “You don’t need to have X or Y technical degree to do [this job]. You do have to have the willingness to roll up your sleeves and learn.”

Paradoxically, the rise of data-driven solutions may help to humanize recruitment and retention, by helping M&A leaders draw talent from a wider range of candidates. We’ll be paying close attention to these trends as they develop. We hope you’ll continue to look to Datasite for insights into the changing face of dealmaking. 

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