Navigating a merger during a crisis:

an interview with Chris Freeland, Executive Chairman, UK, RAPP Worldwide

This year has proven to be an enormous challenge for businesses and business leaders globally. The COVID pandemic has significantly altered many workers’ daily experience of work. In this new remote workplace, every employee is facing their own unique challenges, whether that be the delicate balance of childcare, limited space, or isolation.

As a result, business leaders have had to be extremely adaptable and rise to the challenge of navigating a future full of unknowns. We wanted to know what leaders around the world were doing to make informed decisions, build trust, manage employee well-being, and embrace change. Below is an excerpt from our recent global eguide, Redefining the Future Business Leader, where we interviewed Chris Freeland, Executive Chairman, UK at RAPP Worldwide, to discuss how he and his team navigated a merger amidst a global pandemic.

The merger was announced in the middle of May, just as lockdown restrictions in the UK were gradually being lifted. How was it planning for a merger amidst a global pandemic?

Unprecedented, I would say. I knew about the merger just prior to lockdown, and the original plan was to work towards one unified UK business by January 2021 with a formal announcement in the Autumn. The premise of creating an expanded, if not the leading UK Precision Marketing Powerhouse, was incredibly exciting. However, with the uncertainties brought about by the pandemic, the powers that be expedited the plan, and so we worked towards formally announcing the merger much earlier in May.

The announcement was only the beginning – the next and arguably much harder part was executing the plan. The first stage was working out how we were going to structure the business, given we had some inevitable duplication in senior roles across both businesses. The priority was ensuring we had the right talent to take this forward, and to sort our leadership construct. We had to go through the necessary process of people applying for their old or new jobs, and I have to admit the experience was incredibly challenging and stressful for all concerned, not least as both businesses already had exceptional existing talent.

This process had to be done properly, empathetically, and respectfully. We had to ensure we were making the right decisions for the future of the business, whilst also being considerate to those involved. When we publicly announced the merger with a plan that was still being formulated, we knew people would inevitably be thinking, “What does this mean for me? Do I still have a job? And particularly in this exceptional pandemic climate and incredibly unsettling time.

How were the internal communications on this managed since you had to announce it when everyone is working from home?

I’m not going to pretend that it was easy. Even now, looking back, I know we haven’t always got it right. We put a great deal of effort into the announcement to ensure we covered all the salient points, that it was coherent, and that it provided a very clear narrative about what, why, and when it was happening. One thing that I kept in mind throughout this entire time was something that resonated with me whilst on a webinar on the topic of leading in crisis. The speaker, Nancy Koehn, a published author and Omnicom University Professor, said, right now in these unprecedented times, one of the things you have to hold on to as a leader is the notion of being brutally honest and yet providing credible hope – you can’t pretend everything is or will be okay, but at the same time, you can’t live in a vacuum of zero communication irrespective of the on-going state of flux. Your teams need you to be honest and genuine about what is happening and why, but at the same time, they need to know that as we face the various challenges that come our way, we will navigate as best we can and make the decisions needed to help protect the future viability of the business.

During these times, it’s been more important than ever to over-communicate – to the point where there may not be anything new to share, but even sharing that is preferable to not sharing any news, where unsettled teams will typically start to fill the void with their own views about what may be happening. In the early days where we would have weekly/biweekly all hands updates, I was initially quite anxious that I had no new news to share, but I’ve now learnt to understand that even just sharing that makes a difference, and when there are meaningful updates, they count for even more.

You mentioned you had to build a new leadership team – how are you forming and nurturing these relationships during a period where we’re all interacting via our screens?

I’d say we cheated a bit. The timing of the announcement of our leadership team came around the time where lockdown measures eased a bit in the UK, so we were able to get all 16 of us in the leadership group together into a physical environment that was also conducive to social distancing guidelines. This allowed us to have our first face-to-face facilitated meeting, where some of the team had never even met, let alone worked together before. I was very appreciative of that, as despite giving the team the option to opt out of a physical meeting, everyone jumped at the opportunity, and that undoubtedly helped to kickstart the forging of new working relationships.

The challenge now is how do we follow up? How do we meaningfully come together in a way such that we don’t always have to be all physically together to have a productive team meeting? We’re actively exploring different options, including potentially grouping people who don’t know each other that well into threes or fours, and getting them to work collaboratively whilst regularly checking in with one another.

These smaller, more intimate groups could provide a forum where they can better build their relationships in the short to mid-term. I do think it’s important for us to continue to find ways to build these new relationships, even if some of the things we try along the way don’t necessarily work out quite as planned. I have no issue with making mistakes, as long as we learn from them along the way and quickly move on.

What do you think the future brings, and what are the skills that leaders of the future will need?

Huge amount of adaptability, open-mindedness, and empathy. It’s been an incredibly challenging year, but it’s also important to continually challenge yourself and be challenged by those around you. The world has changed so much. We can no longer take anything for granted, and I know now more than ever that I can’t do everything on my own. It’s become even clearer that I need a strong team who can provide the consistency, reassurance and expertise to keep the business moving. This will in turn allow me to make more time to think about how we can continually pivot as an organization in an industry and world that is never going to be quite the same again.

If you found Chris’ perspective valuable, you can read more interviews full of practical tips that you can implement into your own evolving organization. We interviewed leaders from Schaeffler, Henkel Malaysia, HEINEKEN, McDonald’s, Nestle, Citric, & Stanley Black & Decker in the comprehensive eguide, Redefining The Future Business Leader. Download your copy now.

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