Lessons Learned from Leadership Onboarding

An effective M&A onboarding process post-close can dictate employee retention. But what's even more important is retaining the acquired company's leadership. Leadership has massive influence inside the business, and helping them transition properly will positively impact the overall transaction. This interview will discuss lessons learned from leadership onboarding with Kim Jones, HR Director M&A at Microsoft.

Lessons Learned from Leadership Onboarding

22 Sep
Kim Jones
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Lessons Learned from Leadership Onboarding

Lessons Learned from Leadership Onboarding

"What makes M&A onboarding difficult is that uncertainty and change typically decrease productivity, but the expectations remain the same." - Kim Jones

Onboarding leaders comes with a unique set of challenges compared to onboarding regular employees. In this interview, Kim Jones, HR Director M&A at Microsoft, discusses lessons learned from leadership onboarding.

special guests

Kim Jones
SR. HR M&A Manager and SR. HR Manager XBOX at Microsoft

Hosted by

Kison Patel

Episode Transcript

M&A onboarding versus traditional onboarding? 

The journey to onboarding is through a different lens about how people come on through acquisition. They're not always choosing to be acquired, but then they're part of the process. 

It's not their decision to join, plus they come with work in ways that they're getting work done versus like applying for a job and coming into a team and learning what that team is all about.

So when I think of that combination, like how you ensure you're meeting employees where they're at, it's super important and it's a different journey for them. So there are some definitely some unique parts that way to think through.

Both are complex, but new employees typically get at least six months to onboard. If you think about going to a foreign country and you don't speak the language, but all of a sudden you're expected to operate and do all that.

That's some of the complexities that acquisitions and how their leaders make decisions, what their budgets are, how they hire, of that change for them. 

Whereas a new employer coming into a system that you're choosing, that's already set up versus blending it. How you're integrating over time? 

And that can change too. That can vary based on the integration approach. 

Productivity, uncertainty, like lack of clarity, doing something new typically decreases productivity, but the expectations or that productivity will remain the same or that's the hope, and that's just hard. 

It's very important to get it right. We have an acquired employee orientation and an acquired manager orientation which is similar to new employee orientation.

You learn about the company, you learn about benefits, and you may learn about our systems, but there are so many complexities in helping them learn that new language. 

So understanding how decisions are made, who they actually need to engage now to release a product or to get something out, or who they talk to? All of that is so different than what they've been used to potentially that it's harder to figure out while you're still trying, to like build the plane, jump on the moving train, things like that.

One thing I've heard that I love that an acquired leader said is always asking if it's recommended or required. 

Because I think leaders coming into a new environment, especially, being acquired by Microsoft, being paid to come into the company to scale your product is exciting, but you get told something and you think it's required where it's just really recommended. But then you might have to talk to 10 people, they get something done versus just going to get it done.

So there's that ebb and flow that people just really have to get used to that style and what really works to continue to get a product continue to deliver to a customer. 

When you have one person that's used to running a company and then you break off like G&A functions to go report directly like you've broken a little bit of their decision making. That also is just a journey of learning than a new manager style, then how you bring that back together. So it also can create more either meetings or time spent to get to the same decision.

We've purchased recently new businesses into Microsoft to really help us grow and meet our customers where they're at.

Bringing in that is great, but it's also learning how they get stuff done so that we can enhance Microsoft. Train people at Microsoft on new ways of doing things and approaching, and that's also changed for them, so that can be difficult too.

Some of the bigger acquisitions we've done, take time to integrate with our systems, and with our people to make sure we're doing it right, and that we do no harm to the current business and customers. 

We may have people in different systems of a manager at Microsoft and then we might have still people on what they came with. That's really challenging to constantly flip back between two systems. It makes it just really challenging for business processes to flow.

Pre versus post-pandemic onboarding

We've relied heavily, especially in M&A on in-person interactions to build trust quickly to really immerse ourselves in the company's culture, building that trust, then you're really able to have that sometimes really hard, difficult conversations that are personal. And that changed drastically. 

The biggest thing is that we started adding a lot of our acquired employee orientations into our new employee orientations, which is so good because it's a lot of the same content, but they're in with people that don't know where they're coming from, or like the stress of like, why I have to take time out of my day to attend this orientation where I was supposed to be in these product meetings or this design meeting or all of those things of that it slows down their work.

So it was just a different lens of how we switch to completely virtual, still engage with people, still make it personal, and still create trust.

How do we just take those lessons and remember that human nature gravitates towards connections? Putting faces with all of just that makes more sense when you can meet a person.

We had to really pivot and even test our own assumptions on that. And then how do we go back in with different listening systems to see what worked, what information are they still needing? And I think what came out of that is the communication piece was so critical. 

Now we're back to where we can do some in person. And how do we pivot to still make that even hybrid experience where some people are virtual and somewhere in person that it's still engaging and people feel like they're welcome getting information?

And it doesn't matter if they're in person or virtual. I think that's harder than all virtual or all in-person. 

Lessons learned about M&A onboarding

Meeting the target where they are, being flexible to pivot to what their environment is, and looking at any gaps in the leadership where the messaging needs to reach employees and what we can do to fix that.

Continuing that communication of why it's important to learn about Microsoft, why it's important to learn about them and be transparent about decision making. 

We also have to let them know that it's okay to not know. A lot of these people are used to getting stuff done. And in a new language and environment, that can be really challenging at first. All of those things create uncertainty. And that's where drops and productivity happen, and that's where the deal value starts to erode.

You need to learn how to balance selling your company and meeting them where they’re at. It’s the art and science part of it. This is where those in-person meetings come in handy. When you're at a dinner or happy hour or lunch, you pick up on those things, and then you just figure out what you're going to do to act on them. 


There are pieces where we identify the culture, as we're identifying talent. Like meetings, being involved in like the strategy approval to the LOI, to getting to where we're getting approval to go through the signing process and Due Diligence. 

All of that I think about within those pieces of it, you're learning, you're gleaning pieces of information to be able to use with not only about the Microsoft team you're working with but also about the target.

And then we have different ways that we put it together. We put together a talent plan that includes 

  • how aligned is the deal to the integration strategy
  • how are we bringing these employees on
  • what are those key milestones that we need to really focus on as we bring the leaders along on the journey. 

And then when we are able to bring employees in, what does their path look like? And so, there are a lot of key meetings that we have to make sure:

  • That we're prepared for 
  • that we're engaging in the right way
  • that we're thinking through the employee experience on that 
  • how we're communicating 
  • how we use those tools to do that, to bring people along on that.

And along the way, there's sometimes a gap in the steps, and there are challenges because M&A is personal and there is a lot of change. 

So the cadence and timeline that we have and the meetings that we set up to work through it methodically help us deal with the things that come up. We have to build trust quickly with leaders so that we can bring these things up and deal with them.

Conversations with CEO

When we can engage with the target, the first meeting we have with them is to prep them. We have this organizational deep dive where we try to understand their culture and we give something about our teams at Microsoft. 

And then they walk us through their org, how they think about things, how decisions are made, and then break down how their function runs and who the key talent is behind it. This allows us to understand who they are.

And then from there, we can meet with the target leaders weekly to figure out what we need to do to move through our HR milestones and key deliverables to transact the deal and make sure that we're thinking through employee experience and the culture as part of that. 

All of these happen before LOI, because once we sign the LOI, we start to engage with the target because then they're committed to the exclusivity. 

I would say every deal has its cadence, but if we can get to an organizational deep dive, that's where we start our talent planning. We have to understand the organization and that has to be aligned with our strategy. 

Organizational Deep Dive

We prep our leaders for it. We prep the target for the target leaders for it, so that they can come prepared to really have a dialogue. And we have the engineering leaders, if we're talking about the sales and marketing team, we have those people that want to hear that. And if we're talking about G&A, we have people that come in to understand what those roles are and how they operate.

If it's virtual, we try to keep it under three hours or break it up depending on the size of the acquisition and the size of the team. So that it's easier for people to attend and understand that information. And that just gives a very high-level framework for us to work on moving forward.

There are times when we will talk about engineering processes or how the teams work together. If it's a sales and marketing team, their sales process, or G&A. Sometimes people run multiple hats. So just within that, how their structure works and how they operate together. 

But ultimately, different people are looking for different things in that meeting. We do have our total rewards team that leads a key part of that. 

I always like it because when we spend time talking about their culture and the Microsoft culture and team that they're going into, it starts to give people insights into what they're getting into and they start to see similarities. 

Maybe they start to see some things that aren't aligned, that they may want to dig a little deeper on or vice versa for us too. So the nice thing is when there's a lot of similarities, it really starts to build trust. 

It starts our diligence process too. If you get a leader in there that can't talk about their team or how they talk about their team, that's where we know what to follow up on. 

We want to know their practices, if they have principles around it, we look at attrition stuff that comes in that's in the data room. How do you handle an exit? And We need that information and we need to know does that match on how we do it. 

Cultural assessment

We do research on our own too, but we will ask questions. We don't necessarily do surveys until we get to where employees have exited. We do it more once we bring employees in. So we do it that way. 

We've evaluated a ton of different cultural approaches. But we do make sure people know especially, like what the Microsoft culture is, which I think the journey that Microsoft's been on has been a big attractor, so I think that's helpful. 

We do have listening systems. We obviously analyze all that feedback and address any gaps, I think for M&A specifically, once we get to onboarding and they're on our systems, we can set up team sites for questions, and onboarding, like check-ins that way. Those are some of the tools that we've done. 

Onboarding a leader 

We do look at their experience and what their role is going forward. We had one acquisition where the person never had a boss. The board of directors was his dad. 

So that's going to be a very different type of onboarding from even a manager level of what our deal lead is going to think about. We now have to create time and help this person understand what it means to have a boss, and work at Microsoft.

We also have an acquired manager orientation that is a more personal conversation with the deal leads and HR about how we do rewards and how we engage employees

And then of course, we have all of our standard Microsoft training for managers and leaders. And so, we want them to fall into that cadence just because there's so much time, attention, and work that's been done there and matches what everybody else does.

But I think it's that bridge to get them there that we try to at least identify and figure out what else we can do to help. 

Microsoft does a great job of thinking about the employee experience and making it personal for you. We try to replicate that and how we engage with the acquired talent too, but it can be hard because it's changed and they didn't always choose it. They may benefit from it, but they didn't always initially choose it. So it's more that journey. 

We also run an annual program called Inside Microsoft. It's led to another acquired leader, starting this culture plus community with acquired leaders. 

You have a network of people that have had a shared experience. What's your lived experience? What's worked for you? So there are speakers, there are breakout sessions. When we did it in person, there was more networking.

And so, I think it goes around just creating a community of people that have come on through acquisition that even though there are communities at Microsoft that kind of work for leaders and that's universal. 

There's something unique about coming in as an acquired leader of your experience coming with work, leading through that, that I think just being able to have others that have that little lived experience, can share success stories, but also where they hit the wall, where they normalize that too. I think that's helpful too. 

Post LOI

Diligence leads us to typically sign. But what I look at between sign and close just from a people perspective, because there's tech and other things that are happening, but we're looking at how to inform employees and align their roles.

We are making offers, we need 80% of the people to accept because talent's a deal value driver. So we want to make sure we have the talent on there. 

Part of that is just going through that process, which is very interactive and collaborative with the target leadership, our deal leaderships and HR.

So thinking about how we deliver that message, prepare people for that, then bring them into our systems, to be able to have them in our systems, do onboarding, their offers are effective. All of those different key leads are part of it, creating that day-one experience, excitement, the challenge. 

Managing expectations 

It does vary per person. It is important for them to understand that the scale is going to change, how they're going to do their work is going to change , but they can still impact the business to achieve their goals. 

The title might not be the same but the pay might be better. And then if it's not for them, maybe it's not for them. I think we just have to have those honest conversations. We also don't want them to stay if they will not do anything or cause trouble.

Do’s and Don’t of onboarding a leader

Staying connected, helping them understand what's coming, what's needed of them, and what's needed of them to their employees. It's about giving constant communication with the leaders sold they won't be overwhelmed because the face of things is crazy and we still have to run their business in the meantime. 

I think acquired leaders go through this pace, and then they get here and the pace increases, so really talking to them about pacing things. People often think they can handle it until with turn on the Microsoft switch, and they are overwhelmed with more information and different ways of doing things.

There are expectations for people to perform, but if people are tired, you're not getting people at their best either. 

The hardest thing about onboarding a leader 

The pace and the transparency of the decision are super hard. And honestly, even sometimes they come into Microsoft, they have a dedicated team that works with them, and now they're part of a larger team, and they get lost. These are the only things we do to try to get ahead of it, but it's all hard. 

Even the transparency, and how decisions get made. Like I used to have a budget, now I have to go through who to get a budget or how I hire, all of those things are just hard.

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