Graduation Story: Sometimes “Class” Can’t Be “Taught”


Attending a cousin’s high school graduation party this weekend brought to mind a “graduation” story of another sort.  It’s a story of leadership . . . and of some qualities that you just can’t “teach” — but that you always hope to find.

No Layoffs
A dozen or so years ago, the main focus of my HR position in a division of a Fortune-500 company was managing the HR side of mergers and acquisitions, which was a major part of our growth strategy.  In this particular acquisition, we were purchasing a small (50 employee), private company  that was a complement to one of our existing lines of business — meaning, among other things, that no one was in danger of being laid-off due to redundancy. (EDITORIAL NOTE: Wow, was that a classic “HR-speak” sentence, or what?!?  Why couldn’t I just have said, “No one was going to be fired”!  Anyway, back to our story.)

Cues From The Owner
During any acquisition, employees take significant cues from the selling owner  as to whether or how much to embrace the acquiring company  — i.e., if the owner demonstrates “seller’s remorse” even before the sale is consummated, out of loyalty to the (now former) owner, employees will often feel compelled to be resistant to the acquiring company’s policies, procedures, benefits, and overall way of doing business.  If, however, the owner communicates to their employees the idea that “these folks  (the acquiring company) are “good guys” and “I’m confident that you’ll be well taken-care of,” the acquiring company’s path toward maintaining positive employee relations and morale will be eased greatly — which is exactly what happened in this particular case.

I’ve never before (or since) seen the “handoff” done so well as this particular owner did it.

Champagne and Cookies
The day before the acquisition was going to be announced publicly, the owner called a meeting of her troops.  Amidst streamers, champagne, and cookies, the owner’s “toast” to her employees was thus: “I’m so proud of the work we’ve done together these many years — and I so deeply appreciate and value each and every one of you and the contributions of blood, sweat, and tears that you’ve made to our joint success.  As a small token of my appreciation, I have a gift for each of you.”  At that point, she handed out envelopes with “bonus” checks based on the employee’s length of service — all were significant, with many extending into the tens of thousands of dollars. (Suffice to say that as the sole owner, she was under no obligation to share her good fortune with her employees — this was strictly of her own accord).

Not The Same

Changing of the guard

After the rejoicing and tears, she continued. “I know that many of you are concerned about my selling the company. ‘It’s not going to be the same,’ and “We don’t know those guys — how do we know that they’ll treat us right, or even keep us all?” are some of the questions I’ve been hearing in the past few days.  You’re right — it’s not going to be the same . . . I really do believe that it’s going to be better.  Here’s how I see it: You’ve done terrific work and helped us get as far as we have as a small company.  But we have our limitations as a small company, and I wanted to see us progress even further.  Now, with the new company coming in, the sky’s the limit.  Please don’t feel that it is the “death” of the old company but rather, you’ve worked so hard, and now you’ve earned your “graduation” to the new company — in much the same way that your hard work in high school entitled you to graduate and move on to the even bigger and better things that college held in store for you.  So I thank you from the bottom of my heart . . . and I wish you, ‘Happy Graduation.'”  And with that, among more champagne, cookies, and embraces, she presented them all with a graduation scroll, symbolizing both her words and their transition to the next phase as an organization.

Setting Up for Success
To no one’s surprise, with that “send off,” this office transitioned into our company in one of the smoothest fashions of any of the dozens of acquisitions we conducted during that period and soon were a high-performing unit of the larger whole.  Of course, this wasn’t solely due to the former owner’s “Graduation Toast” — but the toast was indicative of a mindset that created the environment for successful change, thus laying the groundwork for their ongoing success.

Some things you just can’t teach . . . and this executive certainly had that special gift.

3 responses to “Graduation Story: Sometimes “Class” Can’t Be “Taught”

  1. You’re right, Michael, some things you just can’t teach-which is why in some companies HR seems to be synonymous with “leadership” damage control. How wonderful it would be if we could all work for a real leader, like this one!

  2. Michael:

    Wonderful (and relevant) story……….


  3. Great example of a true leader. Wish it could always be like this! Thank you for sharing.

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