How to protect your career during a merger

February 18, 2011: 12:13 PM ET

New bosses, different rules, uncertain expectations -- when your company is acquired, the only sure thing  is that your job is on the line. Here's how to come out on top.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

Okay, so you probably don't work for Genzyme, which was snapped up by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis yesterday, or for NYSE Euronext, which is set to merge with its German counterpart Deutsche Börse. Still, with the pace of global mergers and acquisitions accelerating, chances are your company could be next -- and that the people calling the shots in the new combined organization will hail from a culture you know nothing about. Can you survive?

Probably, if you take a few essential steps quickly. "Americans in general are horrible at adapting to other countries' cultures," notes Lois Frankel, CEO of Pasadena-based Corporate Coaching International, who has counseled executives at Fortune 500 companies around the globe. "In a merger, it's survival of the fittest. Step forward right away and ask what you can do to help ensure the merger's success. Your first question should be, 'How can we make this work?'"

Frankel observes that "often people see this as 'kissing up' and resist it. But it's just practical, because you get the information you need. Even if higher-ups tell you, 'Just keep doing what you're doing', you'll get points for having asked. The perception will be that you're going to be an asset, rather than an obstacle."

Another way to shine, says Jason Levin: Be curious about the acquiring company's culture. Levin is a district manager at career site Vault.com in Washington, D.C., but he has worked for a couple of French companies in Paris, for PepsiCo (PEP) in Viet Nam, and for Unilever (UL) in Sri Lanka.

He points out that every major U.S. city has embassies or consulates from many countries, as well as chambers of commerce that are dedicated to foreign companies. They all host cultural events, seminars, and networking parties.

"Get on their email lists and go," Levin advises. "It's a great way to get to know people and learn their social customs. Getting involved will mark you out as someone who has not only professional skills, but cultural savvy too. Besides, it's fun."

Note to NYSE Euronext (NYX) staffers: New York has a German-American Chamber of Commerce with 750 member companies. Upcoming get-togethers include a social media seminar on March 23 and, on May 26, an asparagus festival.

A simple web search using a phrase like "cultural differences in business" can yield a wealth of information about how your new bosses might operate. One example: worldbusinessculture.com, which offers insights on meeting protocol, teamwork, communication styles, dress codes, and many other workplace topics for 39 countries.

"If you show an interest in how your new colleagues do things, they will return the favor," says Levin, who, when someone sneezes, can say Gesundheit in six languages. "Always find out how to say 'please,' 'thank you,' and 'excuse me' in their native language. It's a small thing, but it shows a willingness to connect."

Of course, some mergers come with culture clashes that are unrelated to differing nationalities, and it pays to keep a sharp eye on those, too. About a decade ago, when BP (BP) acquired Arco, Lois Frankel coached managers from both companies.

"The two corporate cultures were vastly different," she recalls. "Arco was very paternalistic and philanthropic, while BP's focus was strictly on the bottom line."

It's a cautionary tale for anyone whose company is now in the throes of a merger. "The people from the Arco side who paid attention and got it, and who adapted, are still there," says Frankel. "The people who didn't…aren't."

Enough said.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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