Merger? Five ways to survive.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

George Madi had survived several mergers by the time he reached John Hancock Financial Services in Boston. The financial analyst knew the merger game. So by the time his company announced a merger with Manulife Financial in 2003, he was ready with a plan of his own:

He wanted to be let go.

"I went to my manager and asked her straightforward[ly] to be laid off," he writes in an e-mail. The reason? "I had plans to be married in Lebanon."

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Despite his supervisor's support, it took a little over a year before he and his colleagues in the budget and cost-accounting department found out who would be collecting severance packages.

With severance money in hand, Mr. Madi finally arrived in his native Lebanon a week before Valentine's Day. And though he is no longer with his original girlfriend, that hasn't deterred him from his goals to marry and find a job there.

While Madi's situation is unique, workforce experts say it illustrates the first step in surviving a corporate merger or takeover: Know your destination.

As the economy picks up and a new wave of mergers and acquisitions begins to hit American corporations, traditional models of advancement are disappearing. So employees have to do a better job of shaping their careers. Fortunately, there are several steps workers can take to survive - or even thrive - during corporate change, these experts say. The trick is to focus on where you are and where you want to go.

It isn't easy. Mergers and acquisitions were the fourth leading cause of layoffs last year, accounting for nearly 66,000 job cuts, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. They sap office morale so often, at least initially, that researchers have even coined a term for the effect: "merger- emotions syndrome." Managers often take the hardest hit. A 1998 study found that 3 of 5 top managers in acquired corporations had left within five years - far higher than normal turnover.

So, should you worry? Here are five ways to turn the downside of mergers into a positive experience:

1. Get your bearings.

"The first question is to look at where you are in your career and what you want for yourself," says Roger Herman, head of his own workplace consulting firm in Greensboro, N.C. Don't just look at career objectives, but also consider personal factors, he adds. A working spouse, school-age children, or elderly parents may preclude an employee from relocating, for example.

Be honest and objective when you evaluate your position, advises Rick Maurer, a consultant on change and management issues in Arlington, Va. "Are you a critical player? Are you sitting in a department with a lot of redundancy?" Another important consideration is to look at which side of the merger you're on. Are you working for the company being bought or the one doing the buying? If you're on the winning team, odds are you will be in a better bargaining position, he adds.

2. Ask what you're willing to risk.

Tony Phillips was running AOL's entertainment channel in New York when he began to get itchy feet. "Everyone was grossly underpaid, but we all had stock options," he recalls. "Morale went up or down depending on the stock price." When AOL headquarters questioned a cab voucher he had submitted, he quit, sold his options, and moved to Los Angeles. He eventually ended up back in New York at People magazine. "It felt so nice to finally be away from the McDonald's mindset of AOL and at a real corporation," he says. However, three weeks later, AOL bought Time Warner, the parent company of People, and Mr. Phillips found himself back at AOL. "I thought it was a cruel joke," he says.

Phillips decided to leave AOL - again - and has since taken the risky step of establishing himself as a freelance writer. It all worked out well, he says. "The only thing I miss are the cab vouchers."

One by-product of mergers is the consolidation within industries, which make the corporate world that much smaller. Moving from company to company may no longer be enough of a leap to escape future mergers.

3. Take charge quickly.

That doesn't mean changing jobs or careers, necessarily, but it does mean being proactive. Originally hired by BankBoston in 1996, Xinwei Wang kept her job after it merged with FleetBoston Financial. Then last year, Fleet merged with Bank of America, and Ms. Wang faced the prospect of a layoff or possible relocation to Dallas.

She took charge of her destiny. "I have only one sentence to say," she writes in an e-mail. "Make yourself indispensable." Wang kept her job and stayed in Boston.

If you find that a job with the merged company matches your objectives, it's up to you to pursue it and prove that you are the best qualified person for the job, says Mr. Herman. "Go to the people making the decisions and tell them what you want and why."

"Don't be naive. Really start to look around, right away," says Mr. Maurer. "It's possible to become powerless and wait for someone else to make a decision that will impact the rest of your life."

4. Use your crystal ball.

While no one can see the future, there are signs that indicate a potential merger may be in the offing. For example: If there is an overcapacity in the industry or synergies between your company and others, those are warning signs that a merger could be in your future, Maurer says. Also look to your company's past performance. "Have there been mergers in the past? Is this how the company grows?" asks Maurer.

"We live in a different world than 15 to 20 years ago," he adds. Even if a company has been loyal to employees before, it may be forced to enter into a merger in order to survive. As a result, the rules for employees have also changed.

5. Maintain your network.

Phillips advises employees to act even before a merger is announced. "Establish relationships," he says. "Loyalty is not an issue, not the way companies are behaving these days."

Maurer agrees. "Keeping options open and networks alive is an important thing to do. Competitors can come out of nowhere," he says. "People have to watch out for themselves. It sounds selfish, but you can be both - be loyal and do your best work, but you also need to keep an eye on the horizon."

Herman sees the environment favoring those who are willing to change along with it. "Look more creatively at what opportunities are available to you. Take a more positive view," he says. "Take control of your career - your life - that's the new rule."

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