The business of mergers and acquisitions is an exciting, heady time for an entrepreneur, but it can also be fraught with awkward firsts, costly stumbles and tense unknowns. I've bought a few companies over the past two decades, and have been reminded more than once that the best laid corporate plans and company cultures only go so far when you're dealing with real people and different ways of approaching work.

The most recent reminder came this past January, when, after a couple whirlwind acquisitions over the holidays, my company purchased two smaller but well-respected British travel brands that had suddenly folded. With those businesses came brand legacy and human talent; people with valuable experience, families to support, and ideas to contribute.

I've learned from this experience and others in past that there are plenty of mistakes you'll be tempted to make when bringing together different companies and corporate cultures. Depending on which study you read, mergers fail to create shareholder value between 50 and 90 percent of the time.

That's because cultural integration, or the lack of it, is the one thing that can most shape (or break) your success. Getting it wrong is avoidable, if you practice these four things:

1. Do introduce yourself

When several of the new employees tweeted and emailed me with their ideas and, in some cases, anxieties, I quickly realized I couldn't just phone it in or videochat them from afar. I needed to show up and give them time to connect with me face to face.

Within a few shorts weeks of acquisition, I traveled to the U.K. to take a first-hand look at the two companies we bought and the 200 employees who came along with them. Located in a town of just 20,000 people, my company had suddenly become the largest employer. To respect this reality, we rented a ballroom and gave a presentation to all of the employees.

I've been doing business there for 25 years, so I thought I knew the British work culture pretty well. But when I started speaking, I could immediately sense that the audience was not with me. I can't say I was too surprised. Jobs within had inevitably been lost, and change is often stressful and challenging.

After spending a couple days meeting, speaking and listening to my new team, I think (I hope) I won them over. Being there in person to listen to their concerns was absolutely critical, as was the willingness to learn what they value and what they want to see next.

2. Don't move too fast

Although some local media hailed my purchase as one that saved local jobs, I've learned not to expect to be celebrated as a hero right out of the gate. It's a mistake to underestimate the tension and fear that can be created by even the best-intentioned acquisitions.

Back in 2004, after the acquisition of a totally separate Canadian travel company, I sent someone on my leadership team to talk about our employment policies. One of them seemed like a no-brainer to me: staff birthdays off to celebrate in any way they choose.

When I later met with the team, however, a staff representative came to me to take issue with this very perk. I explained that, while we love our co-workers, at our size, there are so many birthdays that celebrating each one of them in the office with mini surprise parties, cakes, cards and lunches can be totally disruptive and counterproductive to getting work done.

The representative objected, telling me, 'we don't want to take birthdays off. It just means more work for everybody else. Besides, we like having cakes and signing cards for each other'. I was shocked. I had been thinking that our progressive policy and culture of freedom were great. Why wouldn't these new employees just embrace the ideas?

On reflection, we were moving too fast and not being sensitive to the fact that, even though they had retained their jobs, a merger has a huge impact on the employees' psyche and way of working. So while you may be ready to sweep in and fix things quickly, don't try to be a hero. Take some time to learn and let things settle.

3. Don't impose your culture even if theirs doesn't make sense to you

There were also aspects of the Canadian company's culture I acquired in 2004, that to an outsider, were just baffling. For example: the former owner had been deducting five dollars a month off employees' paychecks to pay for the water coolers in the office. Staff were also prohibited from using personal email or Facebook on their work computers.

These restrictions were totally counter to my philosophy and values around freedom and happiness. So I canceled the charge and immediately promised to supply free, filtered water for everyone on the job.

But then something weird happened: the employees offered a counter-proposal to continue the five-dollar deduction but apply it to office snacks. And managers came to me to strongly oppose my decision about access to social media.

It soon became clear to me that we were clashing. I didn't understand why they wanted to keep these practices. In my mind, I was the freedom fighter -- liberating the staff from arcane policies. Instead, people started quitting, and the business eventually failed.

Looking back on this experience, I learned that when you acquire a company and its people, you're acquiring their culture and their ways of doing business. It's far from a blank slate. Don't impose your corporate policies and culture without great care and consideration for theirs.

4. Do share your values

The most important growth strategy around acquisitions and cultural mergers that I've learned through international expansion is to educate, align and focus everyone around your company's core values.

At G Adventures, we have more than 2,000 employees and offices in more than 20 countries. Yet we have one shared purpose: to use travel as a force for personal and global good. It unites and motivates us to each bring our A game.

Our core values, which were developed with input from people across the business, support that purpose. Outlined simply, they are to: love changing people's lives, to lead with service, to create happiness and community, to embrace the bizarre, and to do the right thing. These values are specific enough to be tangible, pure enough to be unifying, and simple enough for anyone, of any culture, to understand.

Corporate culture is organic. It must grow naturally. You can only plant the seeds - your core values. How they evolve in terms of each team, subsidiary, or region is, to an extent, up to them.

When you allow for that flexibility, and you create freedom for people to be themselves, you enrich not just the new parts of the business, you enrich the larger culture. That's what corporate acquisitions should be all about.

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Published on: Mar 22, 2017