It took almost six months for my former company IronPort's acquisition by Cisco to close and it seemed like forever. Although I was still the CEO by name, I was essentially running a "puppet" government with every hire, major expense and strategic shift needing explicit approval from my soon-to-be-overlords. Since Cisco was a functionally organized company, I would soon be losing half of my direct reports as sales, HR, and finance would report into their respective groups. My job was becoming smaller and it had considerably fewer degrees of freedom. So here was the big dilemma: I had signed up for 24 months of re-vesting my founder's shares that wouldn't begin until the deal was closed and it already seemed like a paint-drying eternity. I was pretty sure that I wasn't cut out for a big company but I just couldn't spend the next two years watching the clock or I'd spiral into insanity. What to do?
An analogy hit me as I watched my son at recent team practice: Water polo. Despite growing up on Florida beaches, I'm not that great of a swimmer. I've never even put on a Speedo. I didn't think that I would like anything about water polo. However, if I was locked in a sports complex every day for two years and everyone else was playing water polo – how long could I sit on the edge of the pool before I gave it a go? Should I just go through the motions? Splash water on my face and feign participation? No, I came to believe there was only one way forward: shave all the hair off my body, put on the Speedo, start throwing elbows, making shots and playing with vigor…
Seriously and specifically, after six months in, I strongly advocated to be put in charge of all Security products at Cisco (CSCO) – a business that was three times larger than IronPort. I believe if the leaders of a newly acquired company are locked up for a significant period of time (i.e. greater than 18 months), they should strongly advocate for bigger jobs within the acquiring company. This is especially true if the leader isn't planning on staying around after the vesting period. This may seem like odd advice, but here's the rationale:
It's not about you, it's about your team. If you're a disaffected leader, moping around, "doing time" and talking smack, your team will disintegrate and the acquisition will fail. On the other hand, if you land a larger role, you are in a unique position to help them out. You owe it to the people who ate Ramen noodles while you paid them in potentially worthless stock to work at your company in the beginning. In addition to promoting some of them to larger roles within your new org, you will be much more connected to the cross-company opportunities and can advocate for your top performers. When your team sees you engaging, they are more likely to pull harder, too. Most of the mid-level managers at IronPort had a significant increase in their responsibilities at Cisco and it prepared them to take on even larger roles both in and outside the company. There is a myth that employees that come from a startup aren't cut out for a large companies - in fact, many may be ready for a change. Over the eight years we built IronPort, many of our single employees got married, had kids and wanted the current income, benefits, lighter work hours, and increased stability of a larger company.