Leadership Alignment and GTM Strategy for Successful Deals

Leadership is often overlooked but extremely important in M&A. Getting alignment early from all leaders will help increase deal success. In this interview, Cole Breidenbach, VP, M&A Integration & Strategic Initiatives at Okta, discusses leadership alignment and GTM strategy for successful deals.

Leadership Alignment and GTM Strategy for Successful Deals

12 Sep
Cole Breidenbach
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Leadership Alignment and GTM Strategy for Successful Deals

Leadership Alignment and GTM Strategy for Successful Deals

"Establishing the north stars at the beginning of the integration is critical. So even if things are going to change, everybody has something they can anchor off of." - Cole Breidenbach

Leadership is often overlooked but extremely important in M&A. Getting alignment early from all leaders will help increase deal success. In this interview, Cole Breidenbach, VP, M&A Integration & Strategic Initiatives at Okta, discusses leadership alignment and GTM strategy for successful deals.

special guests

Cole Breidenbach
Head of M&A Integration, Corporate Development and Director, Business Value Consulting at Okta

Hosted by

Kison Patel

Episode Transcript

What does leadership alignment mean

As it pertains to M&A, leadership alignment just means making sure that the folks from both CEOs on down are all aligned in the context of M&A. 

  • Why we're doing the acquisition? 
  • What it generally means? 
  • What we're trying to achieve? 
  • And then what's our product strategy?
  • What's our go-to-market strategy? 
  • What's the people strategy? 
  • How are we going to talk about this more broadly to the rest of the company? 

It starts at the top with both CEOs when you're starting to consummate the deal. Depending on the type of deal and who's going to come with the deal and who's not, getting both leadership teams aligned on that messaging, aligned on the strategy, and then how we're going to go execute from that. 

It's critical, because the message, the communications, and the change management component, then tends to need to trickle down from those leaders. And everybody needs to be speaking from the same playbill as it were. 

The most important part is to get excited about the strategic vision. What can you can go achieve especially when you do a large-scale business acquisition? 

How to align the leadership team

As you're bringing these two companies together, it's very easy to get very excited about that and only want to talk about the potential for the two companies coming together and what you can go achieve. That's great. 

But what people want to understand is the nuances, the pieces around, how are you actually going to operationalize this? What does the integration look like? What does success look like? 

As quickly as you can start thinking and formulating plans on how you plan to lay out the integration:

  • What those key milestones are? 
  • Having very key messages on what you plan to do with the product, how you plan to go-to-market with it? 
  • Who's going to be selling it? Who are you going to be selling it to? 
  • How much are you going to be selling it for
  • What to do with the people and what does the organizational strategy look like? 

Even if you don't have those things figured out right off the bat being transparent about that, is critical. Meet people where they are understanding that all of your employees are going to be going through a lot of change as a result of the integration. 

And even if you can give the high-level bullets of what you're trying to achieve, what you think you're going to go do, what decisions you’re still thinking through and stuff you need time to decide, is fair too. 

But as long as you have a regular cadence rolling communications around that and preparing people for change that's a critical piece to getting any integration. 

Getting in the integration folks involved in a deal very early is critical. So that the infrastructure around the planning, getting the integration team, the functional leads all together and starting to spin up those conversations very early is very important. 

You can have all the playbooks in the world, but at least having a document about those critical top 20 decisions you need to make prior to actually consummating the deal and having clear answers to those and having whoever the deal sponsor help you answer those things.

When you can kick off integration and get the integration team together, the more clarity you have the better you're going to be set up for success, and the closer you are to building out a plan on record. 

Now there are going to be things obviously that you're just going to find out along the way as more of those conversations evolve, but you just have to be agile in your approach to those things as well. 

The more you can have those key questions answered, and have all of the leaders aligned with a one-pager the more effective and the more seamlessly things are going to occur throughout the integration because these things are extremely disruptive.

Change Management

Change management means a lot of different things to a lot of different people at a lot of different elevations in different contexts. 

So in the context of M&A, it can be one of the most areas of underinvestment that some companies make because they underestimate the amount of change and how much of a lift it's going to be to enact change elegantly for people.

The best you could do is try to build as many plans, try to communicate effectively, put enablement sessions together, and hold ask me anything sessions or town halls to allow for live Q&A.

Misaligned Leadership

What are the first things that happen when there are misaligned leadership is confusion around what you are as an acquirer versus what you aren’t integrating. 

That then leads to I'd say inconsistent messaging internally. If there's no consistent narrative in the acquisition, people create their own narrative because there are a lot of uneasiness and people aren't sure what's going to happen. 

You need to clearly communicate with them and bring people along the journey. If you don't have the leaders backing up and regularly enforcing that consistent message, it just creates mass confusion and unease. 

It then leads to some of the people issues, retention issues, and things downstream that end up happening. They might not happen immediately, but they may happen six, or nine months later. 

How to create consistent messaging

At Okta, we did a recent acquisition of Auth0, a developer-focused identity, and access management company. We had very similar products but approached problems in different ways for different types of buyers and users. 

When we close the deal we only saw 2% of customer overlap. And in those cases, business units were using us for different reasons. One of the things that we did a good job of is bringing people along the journey.  

We needed to get both CEOs together in regular monthly town halls to talk about 

  • what the integration plan was, 
  • the decisions we had made, 
  • what wasn't changing
  • what were changing. 

And then allow for open discussion, allow for live M&A to both CEOs to answer questions. And that would then inform some of the things that we would follow up on during the next town hall. 

And oftentimes, it wasn't just both CEOs. It was both CEOs plus some of the functional leaders who may be impacted by a lot of change. 

What could have done better? 

Where we could have done a bit better was being clear internally about what our plans were around integration, which we didn’t know right off the bat. 

And digging into the comms strategy, even if we didn't have those things figured out and being a little bit more thoughtful about how we communicate that out at the beginning, would've taken some noise out of the machine. A lot of those town halls that I referred to were a result because there was so much noise among the working teams. 

Nobody was clear on what we were going to integrate, people, processes, and systems right off the bat. There were rumors, there were different leaders talking about different things. 

And then back to the leadership alignment, I the we were fortunate at Okta to have some phenomenal executive leaders on board who had a lot of experience in their past with mergers and acquisitions. 

But again, we could have done more alignment upfront instead of post-close, we would've just been better positioned to execute right out of the gate.

Every day that you don't integrate and every day that you don't move that process of that machine forward, you:

  • Risk losing deal value.
  • Risk losing people. 
  • Risk business outcomes. 

The longer it takes, the more anxiety grows across the entire process. 

Who are the key people there?

Both CEOs. Let's first facilitate helping both CEOs get aligned on the key questions that we need to be answered. And then it's getting the C-suite folks from both companies, assuming it's a scaled business acquisition.

It changes if it's going to tech tuck and you're only bringing the R&D talent and maybe leaving the go-to-market talent or the rest of the company behind. 

Then the directs to the VPs so that they can then filter down a lot of that messaging. And everybody's speaking the same language. And everybody's reading off the same page. 

  • Here's what we're doing
  • These are decisions we've made. 
  • This is going to be the product strategy.
  • Here's the near-term go-to-market strategy. 
  • Here are the other milestones. 
  • Here's the people strategy 
  • Here are the groups 
  • Here's how we're going to design the organization to facilitate achieving our business outcomes.
  • Here's how we're going to structure ourselves and what that means. 
  • Then the timelines. Here's what you can expect by this date.

The specifics weren't shared externally because there were a lot of sensitive items in there. But in general, we tried to be as transparent as possible with people as we were bringing them along. 

Because we got a lot of feedback early via surveys and other executives that I think we talked to that we needed to bring more to people, they needed to know more.

And that was one thing that our leaders did a very good job of - making sure both CEOs understood was this is why we need to go have these sessions with the whole company.

Because if we didn't, we would've continued having so much churn because people weren't hearing directly from leadership on what was going to be happening. 

Go-to-market challenges

There were challenges with go-to-market. What was the model going to look like in the near term, and how were we going to co-sell together in the field?

Because we were competitors, how do you now make it a collaborative environment versus a continued competitive environment in the field and give our field enough guidance so you still look like you understand the plan in front of your customers? 

I think we did a good job at that but there's always room for improvement there. That was a big challenge. 

We could also have done better on the clarity on some of the tech integration. We didn't fully understand what the org was going to look like - what we were and weren't going to integrate. 

We were going to have to integrate front-back office systems and all of that stuff, but at the outset, that wasn't very clear. 

Having a more clear roadmap or POV on what that looked like as well as what the Auth0 product unit looked like would've been good. And this goes back to having your integration plan set beforehand, even if we didn't know fully that it was going to be a product unit yet.

I think it took us a while to get there. We eventually got there. I think we made the right business decisions over a pretty accelerated period. 

Agility during Integration

I think establishing the north stars at the beginning of the integration is critical to helping drive integration. So even if you think things are going to change in certain areas, having those key things that everybody can anchor off of. 

For instance, we don't want to do anything that alienates our customers. Customers come first in any decision we make. Making sure that people are at the forefront of our decision-making, we're going to do right by people, right by employees, right by the company.

There are a few key tenets or mission statements for how you can then drive the integration and you can map everything back to those things. 

The other thing is around culture. Even if you put both mission statements by both companies, write it down on paper, you write those things down. And on paper, they look like they're the same. In practice, they're going to manifest themselves in very different ways. 

And so, that's something I think that all M&A practitioners need to be aware of the cultural component. Try to get ahead if you can, because then as you start integrating, you start getting noise in specific areas where frankly you don't need to. Be transparent and honest. 

Decision Making

We stick to the plan, execute against it, and make high-level decisions by mapping it back to those key tenets.  

And with a framework like that, it helps take some of the emotional energy out of it. Because if you've all aligned on what the key tenets or stakeholders in dimensions are, you can use that as your frame or lensing for your decision-making. 

And so that, I think tends to allow people to be a bit more objective and make decisions that are beneficial for the overall business and those different stakeholder groups. 

Once you make some of those decisions, determine how you communicate those things internally, and externally, and how do you execute on that plan.

And that then let those decisions then flow down into the next level of detail for execution plans across the different functions because they have different implications. 

The challenge is, that everybody always wants to know everything at every point in the deal. And some of the things, some of the decisions made are fairly sensitive and have timing implications.

So you have to be cognizant of timing and think through what is the right time, the right medium, and the right audience, and be intentional about those plans.

Like again, the change management communications component of these things is critical, and it's something that I see that often gets overlooked. 

Working with the business unit leader

It’s good to have a relationship with the BU leader or whoever the deal sponsor is and then also whoever the acquired leader is coming over. You're going to have some key leaders that is an at least an integration leader that you want to go build those relationships with right off the bat.

One thing that I found that was very effective as well is, that it's not only just about the BU leaders, it's about the next level of people down who gets things done in the acquired company. 

They're the culture carriers. They are the people who know the ins and outs of the company. And they're the people who are trusted by leadership.

They could be functional leads. They could be somebody like the chief of staff on the executive team. They could be somebody whose job it is to do communications. They could be specific go-to-market line managers, sales managers, who just tend to be, have a lot of gravitas behind them, they are highly respected.

Best Advice for Leadership Alignment

It starts at the CEOs, and it's tough to get their time, but at least if you can elevate it to the level where they can make a few key decisions, and then you can have a very tactical leadership alignment. 

But before that, have their leaders filter down that message to the functional leads to their C-suite first, and then get everybody together in a session to say, here are north stars. 

It's a change management play, and it's going to be tough to get everybody to do something like that. But it's something, if I could go back and do it again, I wish we would've done upfront.

Advice to CEOs

Build a relationship with the other CEO. And start thinking about the integration right off the bat. Start thinking about what the deal means. Think about the details. Appreciate the details and appreciate the need for people to understand the details. 

Not just the strategy, not just the market opportunity, and everything else. A lot of it is having a very thoughtful and right-off-the-bat view and conversation with the other leader about what the integration looks like. 

And then working with your Corp Dev leaders, the IMO, et cetera, to bring that down and flow that throughout the rest of the organization and facilitate that messaging. I think that's critical. That's a critical piece of it. 

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