M&As Go on ‘Hiatus’

Some $4.1 trillion in deals were supposed to be ironed out in 2020. Then the virus struck.

Last year, there were 35,000 mergers announced worldwide, worth nearly $4.1 trillion in all. Unfortunately, corporate executives who thought 2020 was going to be when they figured out how to make all those mergers and other big corporate transformations work are now distracted by coronavirus-related concerns.

No one can know how many deals may fall through or be reexamined closely. But for the deals that remain in progress, the top priority is to keep senior executives aligned on the business strategy and set up governance procedures, says Mark Arian, CEO of Korn Ferry’s Advisory business. “It’s a wake-up call for organizations to stress-test their firm’s ability to handle tectonic types of change,” he says, adding that calling town halls and or holding virtual conferences to communicate corporation-wide will help. “People want to see leaders.”

The track record on mergers isn’t ideal, of course, even when there’s no global pandemic. Up to 70% of mergers don’t achieve their expected results or they fail outright, according to some estimates. If there were a silver lining to the outbreak, it could be that it gives executives some time to rethink what their big plans can realistically achieve. Executives could lower growth and synergy expectations to more attainable levels and even use the coronavirus as an excuse, says Arian, even if the outbreak has nothing to do with it.

For his part, Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of the Korn Ferry Institute, points out the searing impact that a world of less business travel can have in mergers, since creating alignment can be so tricky for leaders who aren’t in the same room. Amid such a digital divide, physical signals can get lost, he says, and leaders can have a tougher time building the trust that comes through face-to-face meetings. The skills of agility, clarity, active listening, and collaboration become more valuable. “The implicit communication is still there, you just can’t see it,” he says.

Of course, despite the business stakes involved, CEOs must also show that the transactions are not the only thing on their mind. “While the merger is important, as are the financial outcomes associated with it, they have to balance it with caring for the employees,” says Mary Cianni, global lead of integrated solutions for Korn Ferry’s Advisory business. Indeed, today’s times may highlight a fundamental factor that’s often lost in the hype around merger making: keeping the focus on employees so they are more effective, appreciated, and engaged.

“You can have a great strategy and integration plans, but if the employees don’t work well after the merger, it won’t matter,” says Alex Jakobson, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry who leads Korn Ferry's Corporate Transactions & Transformation global solution.