How to bring employees together around culture before and after a merger

The sooner ‘us’ and ‘them’ becomes ‘we’ after a merger, the better the outcomes will likely be for all parties involved.

The topic of mergers and acquisitions has been in the news quite a bit lately (thanks, Elon!). At M&T Bank, we’ve also spent quite a bit of time over the past year and half pondering a deal that would dramatically expand our footprint.

In February of 2021, we announced our intention to acquire People’s United Bank — a company with a long and storied history of community banking — a company that seemed, well, a lot like us.

Common cultures, complementary footprints

The commonalities between the two companies were a core component of the deal. These were two banks with similar roots and similar values. Indeed, it seemed People’s United was our mirror image– they represented to Bridgeport and  Boston what M&T meant to Buffalo and to Baltimore. There were even reflections that you could “cover up the nametag” and not know if you were talking to an M&T employee or someone from PUB (as we came to affectionately call them).

After a protracted period of “getting to know you,” our deal received regulatory approval in March of this year, and we finally came together as one stronger, better version of M&T Bank on April 1 (seriously…our official day one was on April Fools’ Day. You can’t make this stuff up).

At M&T, we were thrilled. But we learned that it wasn’t about us. It had to be about we.

Here’s how we got there.

Walking the fine line between internal and external

The time immediately following the announcement of a deal can be tricky. Many of our soon-to-be colleagues had enjoyed long and prosperous careers with PUB. It was their home and a core part of their identity. And we were determined to ensure that legacy was carried forward.

But of course, being the proud M&Ters we were (are!), we were also terribly excited to tell our story and introduce ourselves to our new friends. Understanding that we couldn’t rely on our traditional internal communication channels until we received regulatory approval and closed the deal, we got a bit creative in how we told our story.

Social media data strongly suggested that our soon-to-be colleagues from PUB were closely following M&T channels. So, we decided to do something unconventional, taking culture-focused content that would have largely been deployed to internal audiences and posting it to our external-facing social channels where our friends from PUB could see it and interact with it. We told stories that highlighted some of the incredible things our colleagues did with the 40 hours of volunteer time the company provides them with annually. Doing so served as an introduction to our people AND our benefits package. The results were extremely positive, showing that we provided a window into what life was like at M&T. Engagement went up, tension went down and it all gave our cultural assimilation program a head start.

Better you than me = credibility

When the deal finally did close and we were all employees of one institution, we had to fight the temptation to “talk at” our new colleagues. Rather than focus exclusively on using M&T employees to tell the M&T story to our new colleagues from PUB, we instead flipped the script and asked them for their observations on us.

That strategy proved incredibly powerful. It gave our new team members a voice — an opportunity to point out what which elements of M&T’s culture felt similar and familiar and a chance to point out what M&T might learn from the thousands of new folks joining the family. It also sent a powerful signal to the former PUB employee base that this was going to be a merger of equals — one that would celebrate and learn from the past even as we looked toward the future with optimism. It was a tactful strategy that added credibility to a scenario where unchecked cynicism can run rampant.

Conduits for culture

It’s far too early to declare victory, but the early returns on the merger between M&T Bank and PUB are promising. We’re well on our way to creating the premier community banking franchise in the country. That’s a big goal that can’t be reached without purposeful alignment. We all need to be rowing in the same direction.

At M&T Bank, no one person or team owns the culture. But on the communications team, we see it as our purpose to constantly articulate who M&T bank is and what it stands for. It’s a story we carry forward and shout from the mountaintops. And it’s a story that resonates further and wider when it’s voiced by our new team members from PUB. It’s more real. More authentic.

Us and them is fine if you’re competing. But when collaboration is key, the only answer is we.

Kevin Berchou is the head of internal communications at M&T Bank. Catch him at Ragan’s Employee Communications and Culture virtual conference on 6/15! 

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.