Roger and Karl surprised

The merger (in reality an acquisition) took place a year ago. A handful of departments were in the middle of merging. Others were still operating separately. Integrating two large companies does not happen overnight.

It’s a step by step process. It was time, however, for the product development departments to come together. They were given about four months to integrate. A very ambitious goal for a little over a thousand engineers.

The head would be German. An American would be his Statthalter (governor) in the U.S.. The six leads on the next level below them were split up 50-50: three German, three American. The makeup of their teams had not been determined.

The two heads recommended a structured event for folks to get to know each other. The eight were to meet for three days off-site and present their thoughts and approaches on five topics: product lines, processes and tools, organizational structure, collaboration with internal and external customers, and finances.

Messages clear and concise

Two weeks after that first meeting the leadership team of eight was to go off-site again with the heads of the ten technical departments. The goal was to discuss in detail how they would collaborate in the five areas.

But the immediate task – the first off-site workshop – was to take several hours per the five topics and allow each side to lay out how they work.

Roger, an American, thought carefully about who his audience was and how he would communicate his message. He would break down his two hours into seventy-five minutes of presentation and forty-five minutes for questions and answers.

Roger wanted the focus on interactivity, on an exchange of views. The colleagues in the room should get to know each other. Naturally, he also wanted to make a positive impression.

Roger prepared a lively and wide-ranging presentation, but he limited himself to fifteen slides plus five backup per topic. He wanted his messages to be brief, compact, and clear, knowing that his colleagues would be taking in a lot of information over the three days.

Cold War among colleagues

He asked for feedback from trusted American colleagues. The atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic was tense. Roger wanted to avoid his team over- or underselling itself. The Americans were particularly nervous about how the two companies would be integrated.

Only a very few colleagues were willing among themselves to discuss the fact that officially integrated departments in reality were in total disarray. And although there were several instances where integration was going fairly smoothly in most of the other areas the atmosphere was moving towards a kind of Cold War between the two cultures.

The American engineers were speculating about what the combined product portfolio would look like. They wondered (actually were worried) about what that would mean for their internal work processes, including what engineering tools they would be asked to use.

And most importantly they were preoccupied with the question who would get what resources (meaning bodies, employees) for which projects. Budgets are always a source of internal debate. The Americans were concerned about which side, or which teams, would get what financial backing.

In other words, Roger wanted to present the situation to his bosses and his colleagues just as he and his team see it: honest, competent, and results-oriented. He believed in his people, in their ability, and in a good future. The Germans and their engineering world, however, he was not familiar with.

No questions. Poker faces

As he did before every important presentation, Roger prepared himself mentally. His key messages were clear in his mind. He then imagined how his German colleagues might react to them. He imagined the key critical questions they might raise and how he would respond to them in the Q&A session.

Most importantly he practiced, and imagined, his closing arguments, those messages which simply had to come across clearly.

None of his efforts were much help, unfortunately. It all went rather strangely. Except for a few clarifying questions, he was not asked one single question during his seventy-five minute presentation.

All he could see were emotionless poker faces staring at him. At first he was just thrown off balance. Then he became very nervous and tense. No feedback during the entire presentation!

He didn’t have a clue as to whether the Germans were even listening, much less if they understood him, agreed or disagreed or were neutral about his statements. The entire time he had to maintain his composure, yet try to draw out some kind of response from his German listeners. His mind was racing during the entire presentation. It was exhausting for him.

Awakened from a deep sleep

The moment Roger finished his presentation it was if the Germans had suddenly awakened from a deep sleep. They fired from all of their guns at once. One critical and penetrating question after the other. And at no instance did they hint that what Roger had presented was in any way positive.

A few of the questions communicated clearly that the Germans were very skeptical. When American colleagues tried to come to Roger’s rescue the discussion (at least from the American perspective) turned into a open verbal fight. The German colleagues continued to pick apart Roger’s presentation.

Time for a break. Relieve the tension. The teams went in groups, separate from each other. The Americans were in agreement with each other: the Germans were unfriendly, uncooperative, Q&A was like an interrogation. Roger was contradicted time and again, and in an almost insulting way.

But the German colleagues were no less irritated. They found Roger’s presentation totally superficial. Too little information. Everything far too positive. Could it all be true? That’s why they listened politely and held their questions for the discussion part. They found the Americans to be overly-sensitive, quickly insulted.

And they were poorly prepared to answer questions. The backup slides were also weak in content. In the end both sides were disappointed and aggravated. When they all returned to the conference room the tension was still high. Roger’s German colleague got up to present.

Karl’s presentation carefully prepared

Karl speaks fluent English, but is aware of his inability to decode the nuances communicated in American English. Like his colleague, Roger, he prepared his presentation carefully.

Karl wanted to get right the sequence of topics and their structure. And he focused on striking the right balance between depth and breadth. Karl aimed at ninety minutes of presentation and twenty of Q&A on clarification questions.

Karl asked his colleagues (direct reports) for input on their areas of specialty: product management, process harmonization, personnel, the marketing-manufacturing interface, and sales. In addition he spoke to a colleague in finance. Ten to fifteen slides per topic should be enough.

His intention was to provide a detailed and comprehensive picture of the facts and their correlations. Wanting to cover as much territory as possible, Karl saw no need in preparing all too many backup slides. After two reviews from colleagues, as well as from his manager, his presentation was good to go.

On the German side of the organization there was just as much apprehension. Whose product line would get the lead? Which set of standards would be chosen? Would German engineers have to work for an American boss? And what about quality? How would that be maintained?

The rumor mill on the German side also spoke of mixed results of the integration thus far. Some merger initiatives were progressing positively. Most of the others not so well.

Not a small amount of Germans thought the merger was utterly unnecessary, a pipe dream thought up by their managing board and their over-priced strategy consultants. The term “synergy” made them particularly nervous, which for them signaled headcount reduction.

Comprehensive. Busy slides. Solid theory.

Karl’s presentation started out good. He had no problem responding convincingly to the handful of questions the Americans asked. Every now and then his American listeners nodded (seemingly) in approval, commenting: “very comprehensive,” “busy slides,” “solid theory,” “well, that’s certainly crystal clear.”

Fifteen minutes into his presentation, though, Karl had noticed something about their body language. The Americans seemed a bit fidgety, uneasy. A few glanced at their watches. Were they not paying attention?

Questions were asked about substance he had already addressed. Some slides he had to explain two or three times. When they got to Q&A, however, Karl felt rather confident about his presentation. None of the questions posed a problem for him.

The group broke for lunch. Again not together. Germans with Germans. Americans with Americans. During lunch the Germans thought the Americans looked a bit depressed. They spoke very quietly, avoided eye contact with their German colleagues, kept their heads down. Yes, they were polite, as always. And yes, the slightest interactions were met with a smile.

Trust was gone

It was clear to the Germans, nonetheless, that the Americans had distanced themselves from them. What was the problem? The Germans were unsettled. They switched into German despite the presence of their American colleagues and continued to discuss the pros and cons of Roger’s presentation.

The atmosphere was plain lousy. And everyone knew it. But no one knew what to do about it. The trust which both sides had granted to the other early on was gone.


Have you experienced this? What went wrong for Roger and Karl? Where were the disconnects?

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