The Welches' Advice for Lehman & Merrill Staffers

Jack and Suzy Welch offer advice to employees of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynchor anyone caught in an M&A or bankruptcy
Outside Lehman Brothers' New York offices, Sept. 15 Joshua Lott/Reuters

Given this week's events, what advice would you give to the employees of Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers? —Courtney Ellison, Amherst, Mass.

First, we'd like to say that we're really sorry for their sense of loss. Being acquired and getting laid off are experiences that can hit you like a death in the family. The shock, sadness, anger, and confusion can make you want to enter into a period of protracted mourning.

Such a response is only normal.

But career-wise, such a response can be disastrous.

Look, we're not about to blithely tell Merrill's (MER) roughly 60,000 employees and Lehman's (LEH) 22,000 to put on a happy face and get on with life. A massive earthquake just struck Wall Street; people will be reeling for a while.

But to the employees most directly affected, we are saying that you can't reel too long. At Merrill, people need to quickly adopt a No Resistance Mind Set. And at Lehman, they need to act fast to avoid the Vortex of Defeat.

Merrill first. For almost a century, it has been independent—and so proud that brokers were known to call themselves "the thundering herd." Now it's a subsidiary of the mammoth Bank of America, the result of a rescue mission.

How do you suppose Merrill's employees will react? It's true that BofA has demonstrated a competency for M&A integration. Even so, if Merrill's people are like most acquired employees, some will balk. BofA's culture, processes, leaders, and way of doing business will seem different—and wrong. Everything at BofA, basically, will seem worse than the good old days at Merrill, and many employees will say so, if not out loud then with their attitudes.

No, no, no! If you're a Merrill employee—or work for any acquired company—understand one thing. Your new owner has limited patience for pouters. They know M&A resisters slow work down and that their cynicism poisons the waters. That's why, when it comes to sorting out their new roster, the vast majority of acquirers choose buy-in over brains. Superstars may get a free pass, but if you're a "regular" type—say, a middle manager with a good track record—you may now be one of two people fighting for your job. Your margin for error, as BofA seeks to realize $7 billion in "synergies," is smaller than ever.

So to Merrill employees, we say: Honor your past, but put it away. Rescind your claim on victimhood, join the BofA team heart and soul, and work hard for its future. It's your best chance that BofA's future will include you.

Lehman employees face a harder challenge. They're looking for jobs in a shrinking industry flooded with experienced applicants, the kind of stymieing situation that can easily put people into a downward spiral of self-doubt.

The best antidote to this Vortex of Defeat is immediate action. You may want a breather to take stock of your life, but any delay on your part only allows other job seekers a head start on the opportunities available. You need to draw on your reservoir of self-confidence and start chasing leads today.

If you're thinking, "Fine, but Wall Street isn't hiring," we hear you. Which is why our next piece of advice is to broaden your search, on both the job content and geography fronts. A few years back, we encountered a group of laid-off engineers in a medium-sized Midwestern city who had spent a year in vain looking for work. Their industry had largely left the region, but they all wanted jobs like their old ones. Worse, they'd put relocation off the table.

Sometimes, of course, "downsized" people can pick up where they left off, but rarely does that happen after disruptions on this scale. To move forward, Lehman employees will need to think expansively and creatively about starting anew. That's scary, yes. But so is the option of waiting around for a "good fit" that may never come along.

Now, we don't expect Merrill or Lehman employees to readily embrace our message. Who wants to be told to let go of their understandable anger? But uncommon times call for uncommon solutions. Very reasonably, this week's tumultuous events may have you hungry for the past. We urge you to thirst for the future instead.

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