Matt Atkinson is Joint Managing Director of FE Associates

The 1st of August 2017 was a momentous day for the college sector due to the number of mergers that took place. As well as those mergers that have taken place over the past year there have been a number that never got off the starting blocks and in this article I reflect on some of the reasons why mergers may not occur.

Far too often the focus is on the end game rather than the iterative steps and milestones that need to occur in order for a successful merger to be executed. It is not uncommon to come across cases where there has been insufficient focus at the very early stages on the development of a compelling vision for the merger. It is really important that time is given at the outset to the formulation of a vision that all partners and stakeholders can subscribe to. Without this focus at the first stage there is always a risk that because of a lack of collective vision a potential merger could fail.

In merger situations it is often the case that one of the parties will be in a more dominant position and with this comes a range of human emotions, anxieties and insecurities. One observation I make about mergers that didn’t occur is that the key players have often failed to develop meaningful and trusting professional relationships with each other. Let’s face it, in a merger situation Chairs and Principals will be spending a lot of time with each other and therefore it is really important that they develop good rapport with each other. Related to this point is the need to remind leaders and governors not to spend too long flexing their muscles and wasting time trying to establish their dominant positions. All this does is bring a sense of resentment and does nothing to build trust. Accept each other’s weaknesses yes, but also bring each other’s strengths to the fore.

Like any relationship, the ability to be honest with each other and to handle conflict constructively is essential. Of significant importance is the need to get any ‘red lines’ out on the table at the start. These are often the potential deal breakers that can be sources of conflict and therefore it is essential to be open and honest about these at the outset. Don’t formulate deal breakers too late in the process as this will put the whole project in jeopardy.

My approach to delivering and implementing mergers is based on the development of a robust project plan that is organised by work-stream. For me governance is one of the most important work-streams. After all, it is these groups of individuals that will ultimately make the merger happen or not. It is vital that a great deal of attention is paid to the governance aspects of the project and I recommend that decisions about future Board leadership and composition are dealt with very early on in the process.

When planning mergers there is often a tendency to try and get everything done in the pre-merger phase as we all want a perfect organisation from day one. However in taking this approach an impossible task is being set and the chances of conflict occurring are increased. So in this first phase it helps to be pragmatic and realistic about what can actually be achieved in the pre-merger phase.

And finally, at the heart of any successful merger is the act of compromise, and without it the chances of failure may increase. When delivering a merger it should be remembered that whilst this is one of the most significant things a Board or leadership team can become involved with, they are stewards and the organisations will go on long beyond their period of office, albeit in a different form. With this in mind leaders and governors should think very clearly about what is best for communities, students, staff, employers and strategic partners.

Matt Atkinson is Joint Managing Director of FE Associates, the sector’s leading provider of expert insight and specialist support.

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