Thriving Through Change: The Power Of People In Mergers And Acquisitions With Jennifer Fondrevay

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Embrace change: it's the key to not just surviving mergers and acquisitions but thriving and showing true leadership. In this episode, we have Jennifer Fondrevay to discuss her book, Now What?: A Survivor's Guide for Thriving Through Mergers & Acquisitions. Discover the unexpected journey of this accidental entrepreneur, who transforms the daunting topic of M&A into a relatable, engaging conversation. Jennifer shares the human side of mergers and acquisitions, explaining how embracing change becomes the key to not just surviving but thriving in times of transition. She also touches on change management, courageous writing, and more. Tune in now!


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Thriving Through Change: The Power Of People In Mergers And Acquisitions With Jennifer Fondrevay

In this episode, it is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Jennifer Fondrevay. Jennifer is the Founder and Chief Humanity Officer of Day1 Ready, a consultancy that advises and guides CEOs, business owners, entrepreneurs, and their executives through the to-be-expected people challenges of growth, strategy, and pursuit, whether it be business transformations, mergers, or acquisitions.

As a C-Suite executive, Jennifer led teams through three separate multibillion-dollar acquisitions, turning her experience into a best-selling satirical business book, Now What? A Survivor's Guide for Thriving through Mergers & Acquisitions. Drawing on nearly 3 years of research and 60-plus executive interviews, the book serves as an M&A playbook for executives and a handbook for frontline leaders.

She was awarded the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year by North Shore Women in Business. Jennifer is routinely tapped by CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox News for perspective on change leadership. She's the author of the business column with Forbes. She has published in Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc.

Her TED Talk, Embrace Uncertainty to Create Opportunity, has been one of TEDxWilmette’s most popular talks. One of her proudest achievements beyond raising two college-age kids is restoring a 1965 Sky Blue Ford Mustang, which she and her family drove on Route 66. I’m going to make sure we talk about that during the show. I'm so honored to welcome you to the show and looking forward to our conversation, Jennifer.

Thank you. It's a pleasure being here.

It's a long bio but there are so many parts of it that I wanted to mention because, first of all, your book is amazing. The work you've done is truly groundbreaking. I don't think anyone has taken this real approach to exploring the challenges of M&A. We talk about change management but we don't often talk about the specific angle of looking at it from this particular part of change. The work you’re doing with people who are going through these issues and helping them to think differently about the work is amazing. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

It’s nice that you've invited me on. It's not everyone who wants to talk about mergers and acquisitions.

I'll start by saying the way we navigate on the show here is we talk about flashpoints. I'm anxious to see how you got to be doing all this work and making such a big impact in all these amazing venues. I want to uncover your story, the journey to getting to where you are through what's called flashpoints. In a moment, I'll turn it over to you. Share what you’re called to share. Along the way, we'll pause and see what shows up. If you're ready, I can't wait to hear what you're going to share about your journey. Are you ready?

I am. I enjoy sharing it but at the beginning, I’d confess, I was like, “Who cares about my journey?” Having had the benefit of sharing my story multiple times, and it was the core of my TEDx Talk, how many people are inspired by it gives me hope and courage to keep doing it. Frankly, I did not expect to be doing what I am doing in a million years. The job that I do, frankly, didn't even exist. When they talk about carving out a niche, I carved out a big niche.

The biggest irony of my story is that I aspired to be the ambassador to France when I went to graduate school. My father is French. On another show, I joked that my dad thinks I'm taking a circuitous path to ambassadorship. I went to Thunderbird Graduate School, an international business school. Going in, that was my plan. I speak French fluently and wanted that graduate degree with the hope and expectation of becoming an ambassador.

Thankfully, for me, I had a good and thoughtful professor who asked me one day, “What are you planning to do upon graduation?”I said, “An ambassador to France.” Thankfully, for me, he said in the nicest way possible, “You may want to have a backup plan.” Bless his heart. He was my marketing research professor. The first 25 years of my career were advertising, marketing, and communications. The first 15 were in advertising and the last 10 were in marketing.

It was in the last 10 years during that marketing role that I played that I experienced those 3 separate multibillion-dollar acquisition deals that you referenced in my bio. I was the head of B2B marketing at a company called Navtec, a digital mapping company. Maps are ubiquitous. I'm confident you've probably used a map on your phone or in your car.

Once or twice.

They weren't ubiquitous before. The best analogy is do you remember when TVs used to have remote control clickers? You can clap when the TV goes on practically but way back, you had to walk over to the TV and change the channels. Digital mapping was the same thing. You can't imagine what you would do without a digital map but before, you had the huge paper map in the car. It was a wonderful company to be with and groundbreaking. I loved it. We went through an acquisition and things changed for the company.

There were two more acquisitions I went through, and I won't bore you with the details of each. By the third one, I had enough interest from other people, either leaders who I had worked with at the companies when we were going through the acquisition. I'd been on all sides. I'd been acquired. I was part of an acquirer team and then acquired by private equity, which is a unique event as well. It was during those conversations with other leaders, particularly by the third one, where they said, “You seem to be managing this well. You are keeping your team on track.” I said, “It’s because I know the playbook. I know how this goes and how things will play out.”

It was at that point that I thought it would be good to write a book. I didn't know it was going to be satirical. I didn't have that in my head at the time. After 3 years of research and those 60-plus interviews, I realized, first, who in their right mind would read a book about mergers and acquisitions? When you're in the middle of it, you're trying to survive it. I thought, “How do I approach this in a way that people will want to read it and find value in it?”

I talked about the stuff that doesn't get talked about because that's what was driving me to write the book. It’s the fact that you could go through stages of grief. The company you’ve identified with that frankly is part of your identity goes away in whatever shape or form. Either it gets sucked up into the other company, the meaning of the name changes, or the name goes away itself. There's a whole litany of emotions that you can experience and I wanted to address that.

I talked about the stages of grief. I’ve got a Spotify playlist full of songs that reflect each of the stages and how to get through it. For me, when someone asks me, “What's the equivalent feeling?” I say, “It's like going through a bad breakup. You deny that you're breaking up and you go through those stages.” That flashpoint, frankly, while I was writing the book and thinking, “How can I help people and make this a book that people will read,” was where my marketing and advertising experience came to bear.

I love that you call these flashpoints because I don't know if I would've thought of it that way. For me, it was, “How do I take my experience, not just the M&A but what I've learned?” That's why the book has done as well as it's done because it's illustrated. I have the ten characters that emerge in times of change. I've got a Spotify playlist that you can download and listen to. You’ve got a manual about how to figure out what your value is and how to navigate the uncertainty. I feel like the last couple of years have been the next part of my chapter. That was the big flashpoint for me.

It's amazing but I'll even take it a little further back. I love what you shared about this idea that you had said very clearly that you attach your identity to wanting to be the ambassador to France. That conviction you had about that is interesting but also, it has you driven to attach yourself to something amazing and big.

The thing that's interesting is that as you navigated your career and got into other things, you found yourself doing other activities that eventually led up to, “This is where I can plant my flag. This is my ambassadorship.” Maybe there is another ambassadorship but your ambassadorship is to be the ambassador of M&A and be able to use all the skills and things that you've learned along the way. You use things that you then create an identity around to create something that would add value in your unique way.

Your identity is this person who can share what you've learned and how you've been able to navigate in a fun and inviting way for others. It's very interesting. There are two flashpoints. There is this idea of the realization that you're not always going to get what you want and you have to detach from your identity that you originally had but also the refining of your true identity of being the queen of M&A.

It's fascinating though. That's why I appreciate you calling it a flashpoint because I know I would not have been as successful in what I'm doing had I not had all of that other stuff beforehand. I had the desire to be Ambassador to France. For my first job with NavTech, I was located in Paris, France. I moved abroad for that. That's why, frankly, the first acquisition experience I had was so rough. I had identified, “I'm half French. My father is proud. I'm in Paris, France with my husband and two children,” and it all evaporated.

For me, going back to your point about identity, it made it more difficult. The benefit that I see is the marketing and advertising side of me helped me come up with a creative book that people do read thankfully so. It has turned into so much more. In my speaking engagements, those ten characters, I bring them to life with the audience.

We talk about, “How do you identify these different personality types when you’re going through change? How do you help them? How do you not become one? How do you not become an ostrich with your head stuck in the sand, denying that things are changing?” It's been a fascinating journey for me because it takes my skillset from before. It amplified it and had me value the first part of my journey.

I love that you brought in one of the characters because I was like, “I hope you bring in one of the characters so people can see what that looks like.” One of the things that's great about this is the sense of letting go to grow. If you let go of the things that you're holding onto tightly in terms of your identity and all that, then it allows you to be open to whatever might show up after and what might be possible. That is the next chapter you start to lean into. What I would love to hear is if there is another flashpoint that you've experienced. Once you got into the world of doing this, was there something else that showed up once the book was launched that had you feeling like, “There's something more here?”

I feel like I've had so many. That's what keeps you going. You have so many flashpoint moments. I'm happy to report I have 100 reviews, which, for a first-time author, particularly on the topic of mergers and acquisitions, I did a little happy dance. The first many reviews that came in were a mix of people who'd gone through a merger and acquisition but also people who hadn't.

I had healthcare nurses who hadn't necessarily gone through merger and acquisition but had a whole new boss or doctor. The people piece repeatedly would say, “This person's a black widow. This person is the know-all.” Reading my book helped them identify those personality types and then how to work with them. It was a joy for me to see that my book could be not only attractive to people who hadn't gone through an M&A but also useful. It would have relevant information that they could use in their current situation, whatever that was.

This leads me to exactly where I was thinking about this. It’s a sense that it's not just about M&A. It's about navigating transitions. You realize change management is at the core of all that you're doing. That is the real thing that attracts people. You've also made it approachable. It seems like that is where you can make a bigger impact. Even though you come from a smaller window of M&A, change management is at the core of everything that you're talking about.

I did have a lot of advice at the beginning. You're a solopreneur as well. Everyone has got an idea about, “Here's what you should do and lean in on.” For my M&A work, I had a number of people say, “That is narrow. Don't you want to  do corporate change or corporate transition?” It was a fair point. Frankly, it helped me become even more crystal clear in why I was doing M&A.

First, I wanted to own that niche because that was my experience. My book is about my experience, my journey, and what I went through. The consulting that I do is focused on M&A. While I help people with business transitions overall and I love that, my sweet spot is M&A because it's a unique event. There's a lot of stuff that's happening.The Virtual Campfire | Jennifer Fondrevay | Mergers And Acquisitions

I'm thrilled that my book is found in an audience outside of M&A. I was very intentional in choosing M&A as my lane first to become the subject matter expert on the people challenges. How do you deal with that? As a leader, how do you help your team navigate this and get smart about how to move forward? How do you ultimately achieve the valuation that is the reason you went into the deal in the first place? That's the name of the game.

What you described is powerful because for people thinking, “How do I figure out what I am supposed to be doing in my life? What is my next chapter going to look like,” you go deep into the thing that you know that you have a connection to. When you go deep into that and you find the confidence and the ability to speak about it all day long, it's going to vibrate out from there.

Change management is the outlier of what you do but at the core, it's like, “I can talk about this all day long,” which is M&A. It’s because you lived it. It was your lived experience. Oftentimes, we tend to forget. The things we live in are what we're most skilled to be able to teach others. We’re blind to it and then we realize, “This is the gift. If I spend time here, people will hear me. I'll get confidence doing this.” Whatever happens after that is pure magic.

Honestly, it has been a gift. I feel like an accidental entrepreneur. I was very successful in my corporate career but while I was researching the book, I had so many CEOs ask me, “What are you doing besides the book?” This is going to sound so naive but at that point, my first reaction was, “Do you know how hard it is to write a book?” This was a side hustle. I was interviewing for my next CMO role. I was like, “While I'm interviewing, I'm going to start writing my book.” The whole plan was going to get the book out there. I wanted to help more people understand, “Here's what happens during an M&A and how you can be successful going through it.”

When you have CEOs keep asking you that, I realized, “They're right.” As I joked about, no one's going to run to Barnes & Noble to buy a book on M&A. They're trying to survive it. I thought, “To their point, I need to help companies. This is what the CEOs were saying.” Leadership needs the help that you are providing not only with this book but the insights that you have. Why is it that people behave the way they do? How can you help them through the change and uncertainties to still keep contributing at their best? That’s what consistently leadership felt was undermining the success of the deal.

Sometimes, there’s a variety of factors that are claimed. There is overvaluation. Efficiencies that aren't gained. There are overcomplicated synergies that don't materialize that look good on paper but don't come to life. The theme or thread through all of that is people. It is people who drive success or failure. That's what I wanted to get at. As annoyed as I was when they kept asking me that, that was what made me pivot. We'll consider that the next flashpoint. While interviewing and researching for the book, that question kept coming up.

It's people who drive the success or failure of the M&A.

The things that create friction are sometimes the best things for us to realize. When we write a book, that's not the end. It's the beginning. It's the beginning of, “What do we do with this?” That's profound because when you think about it, that's where the real work begins in terms of impact on people. I love that. I usually ask people about what are the things that have been the biggest challenges along the way in terms of business building and all that. Have there been any hiccups along the way that have had you questioning yourself? Have there been issues like that that you want to speak to?

The first challenge, which surprised me, is in working with private equity. You have to have an audience in mind. Who will most benefit from this work? First and foremost, as you ticked off in my bio, it is forward-thinking CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business owners who recognize the people part of the company. That's what drives their business.

I had anticipated that private equity, given the role that they play in mergers and acquisitions, would be clamoring to work with me to help improve the 70% to 90% failure rate that was quoted by Clayton Christensen back in 2011. Even at that point, he was looking at ten years’ worth of data. We haven't improved. For me, private equity, I thought, would be an obvious audience but what I have found is that we speak a different language. I try to speak their language as well. I've been an executive. I've had $20 million in budget to manage so I get the businesses about revenue. My philosophy of you need to address the people piece, I still haven't cracked the code on that.

Private equity had me come in and speak at different events and deal-making events but getting them to embrace and adopt that philosophy and make it part of their standard operating procedure, I've not done that successfully yet. I'm still even trying to remind different event organizers when they do, “Here's who you should be on your M&A advisory team.” They always have an accountant, a lawyer, and a wealth manager. I'll say, “If you're a business owner and you're looking for a team outside of your leadership, you need to have a human capital advisor.” I'm continuing to promote that message. In response to your question, that's been one of the unexpected challenges.

If you're a business owner and you're looking for a team outside of your own leadership, you need to have a human capital advisor.

By doing good work with the right people and having them as the ripples of impact, that's a starting point. It is also by having conversations like this where we continue to share, “If you want different results, you're going to do things differently.” We are here to help. You are here to help. That's the key thing. It is to continue to share and amplify the idea that this is how we can move forward in a different way.

People ask me, “What's been the greatest challenge?” I'd say, “It's competing against the status quo.” Those are people accepting, “That's the way it is. Maybe this will work. Maybe it won't. It looks good on paper. We've done all the due diligence, the value creation, and all of that.” I'm presenting a different theory that in our list of criteria, we've got to add to that list of criteria. It needs to include the people aspect, like how people react to change, how you help them address the change, culture assessment, and integration. It is having that part of that early upfront analysis and all of those factors. Thankfully, I'm not the only one. I'm not the sole canary in the coal mine who is touting this. Certainly, thanks again to my marketing and advertising, I've been one of the louder voices on it.

The Virtual Campfire | Jennifer Fondrevay | Mergers And Acquisitions

In a good way. I love it. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about what you have learned about yourself in this journey that you haven't shared already. It's a little vulnerable question but I'd love to hear what you have learned about your strengths, your weaknesses, and things that you feel like it would be great to bring into the space.

I never considered myself a writer. I never planned to write a book. I didn't have it as a goal. Early on, particularly when the book came out and people would say, “Author Jennifer Fondrevay,” as part of the bio,” I'd be like, “Who? Me?” It didn't stick for a while. I do a lot of writing on LinkedIn and articles. What always astonishes me is when people say, “I love how you write,” and I think, “You do?” I have to go back, read my stuff, and go, “Why? What is it that they like?” I've started to ask people, “What is it about my writing that you like?” There's also a part of me that says, “If I find out, then I'll probably get self-conscious so maybe I shouldn't ask that question.”

I found that people have said two things. It's relatable. They feel that the way that I write, it is like I'm talking to them, which is a joy. Every writer aspires to write in a way that people find you and your material approachable. That, for me, has been an unexpected delight. As a marketer, you are taught, “Headline three bullet points. You got 60 seconds,” and that's it. Everything's terse. There's no emotion or narrative so it took me a while to find my voice.

Every writer aspires to write in a way that people find you approachable.

Thankfully, the process of writing the book was transformational because I started with that marketing mentality. In my first few drafts, I thought, “I hate myself. I sound like an idiot. I sound like a lecturer.” I thought, “Start over and write it.” Thankfully, this is how people have said they’ve taken the book. I wrote the book as if I’m sitting on this stool next to you at a bar and I’ve ordered two pints. You’re a good friend of mine and I’ve learned that you’re going through a merger and acquisition.

I am in this two-hour conversation. I’m going to tell you everything I know about mergers and acquisitions, the insights, and why people act the way they do. It is the fact that you're not alone in this thinking. Thousands of people, and I know it because I've done the research, have had the same emotions that you have. How do you work through this? For me, that's probably been one of the biggest transformations. I have the ability to write in a way that people like to receive the message. That, for me, has been pure joy and has frankly motivated me to write more.

What you shared resonates with me too because sometimes, I have a lot of judgment about what I put out there. People come back and they start saying, “That's fantastic,” and then you're like, “I don't know. It's crap.” We are the worst critics of our stuff. Luckily, we get over that and start putting stuff out. Otherwise, we’d hold some of the best thinking inside of us. I'm saying collectively. There are so many great, brilliant ideas that get held back because people are afraid to put them out in the world. Luckily, some of us bold people say, “Screw it. I'm putting it out there. Hopefully, people like it.”

It's interesting too, and you touched on it. How many times people have said, “You're so courageous for doing what you're doing?” I don't consider myself a courageous person. I'm no shrinking violet. If I see an injustice happening, I will step in but courage in the context of business hadn't dawned on me until some of the posts that I've written.

I've also written posts. This is separate from M&A but I wrote about my mom's passing. She passed away in March 2020. She was a Chicago fashion model. I tell stories that I learned as a child, what a role model she was for me, and things that I didn't even realize I had taken away from her. I selfishly write those posts because it brings her back to life for me. It's astonishing to me and even to people who follow me in my M&A work.

I do make them appropriate for LinkedIn so it's not as though I'm writing tributes with no purpose like I write a business lesson, whether it was executive presence, self-respect, or how to communicate. I write about all of those things, the things that she taught me. That's equally been a transformational thing, getting courageous on LinkedIn to write about things that I never would’ve imagined I’d be sharing on a public platform. It goes back to people saying, “I like how you write.” It has made me more courageous to talk about things that maybe other people might find of interest.

It's connecting with your humanity. It's hard for people to embrace at first because it's like, “I got to stay in business mode.” Instead, we have to be human and human first. I think about your book and how you put your human out there. You made it fun and inviting for people to talk about a topic that, on the surface, most people are like, “M&A? What” You made it fun, interesting, and inviting. That's fantastic.

Thank you.

In the interest of time, I don't want to hold you up too long in this conversation because I could go on for hours with you, I do have to ask my last question. It's something I ask every guest. That is, what are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?

The first one that comes to mind is probably not too surprising. It is Le Petit Prince or The Little Prince. I'm half French. I spoke French before I spoke English, fortunately, but I have to work hard to keep up my French because it's not like I'm chatting in French every day. Le Petit Prince was a great book. It is considered also an adult business book with the journey of the prince, the characters, and the obstacles he faces. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a magnificent writer. He brings the world of the little Prince to life.

The Virtual Campfire | Jennifer Fondrevay | Mergers And AcquisitionsThere are very adult themes in there. You will face challenges. People who you think are your allies may not be. The person who you think is an enemy may be your friend. It's a great book, which I didn't appreciate as a kid. The pictures of the snake, the objects, and the prince and his plane are what I gravitated to. When I had kids and I was re-reading it with them, it struck me in a whole new way. I recommend to the adults reading this to re-read that book or read it for the first time. It's a wonderful book.

Honestly, and I've shared this before, Dorie Clark’s, The Long Game, is a book I go back to again and again. I recommend it to every solopreneur who I know. She talks very plainly and openly about how hard it can be when you feel like you’re confronted all the time by no, challenges, and the reasons why this shouldn't work. There are people who project onto you their insecurities. They almost don't want you to succeed because that means that they should be doing something different too.

You have all these different things that can weigh you down as a solopreneur who thinks you have a big idea. You know the market reflects that your idea is the big one but how do you keep going particularly when your idea is new to the market and you’ve got to get converts and have people understand how it's going to help them? I re-read certain chapters in her book often enough to remind me, “You are playing the long game. Don't give up.”

Honestly, that's such a brilliant book. You've inspired me to want to go back and read The Little Prince. With Dorie's, every time I read her books, I can see her saying them to us. She's such a brilliant presence and a giver. She gives so much in terms of insights and who she is. I'm grateful.

Thanks again for asking me. Who knew M&A could have such an audience?

It's so much more than M&A here. We are uncovering your story and journeys to getting where you are, and also the little insights along the way that reveal more of who you are, which is important. Thank you for coming to the show.

Thank you.

Before I let you go, I want to allow the audience to know where they can find out more about you. Where's the best place?

I hang out on LinkedIn. I'm pretty much non-existent on other platforms. I am Jennifer J. Fondrevay there. I hang out on my website also, which is Those are the two places. I love it when people reach out. I have it happen a lot where they'll say, “I heard you on a podcast. I love your message. I want to be connected.” Please do reach out.

That’s fantastic. Thank you again. Thanks to the audience for coming on the journey. I know you're leaving with so many great insights. Go pick up Jennifer's book. It's sure to be something that you'll have on your reference table for when you go through an M&A and to know more about change.

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