Merging Cultures: How to Retain Employees After an Acquisition

with Joey Wilkerson, Acquisition Integration Manager & EX Lead at Cisco

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Joey Wilkerson

Episode 6

“There is this trap we fall into of assuming we know what employees want and what they need. And we don’t. We can make some generalizations, but we need to ask. And we need to understand that it will evolve and change.”

Joey is an Acquisition Integration Manager and Employee Experience Lead with Cisco.  He helps create an engaging experience for employees entering Cisco via acquisition. This work includes mapping out the team’s journey into the company and ensuring they are welcomed, connected to the Cisco community, and set up for success. In this episode, he talks about starting off on the right foot, the importance of building relationships, and creating a community that supports the whole person.

“We all come to the table wanting to be helpful. But there is a fine line. Sometimes by being helpful you’re doing more harm than good. Instead of handing employees the information, teach them how to navigate the organization to find it. It’s like the old adage of giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish.”

Listen in to hear

  • Provide opportunities to engage the whole person, not just who they are as an employee.
  • Teach employees to be self-sufficient.
  • Learn employees’ names and get to know them.

“Most acquisitions fail. And one of the leading causes of that is the clashing of two organizations’ cultures. So it’s something that we pay attention to. We spend a lot of time studying the organization, understanding who they are.”


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Joey Wilkerson

Acquisition Integration Manager & EX Lead at Cisco

Joey is an Acquisition Integration Manager and Employee Experience Lead with Cisco.  He helps create an engaging experience for employees entering Cisco via acquisition. This work includes mapping out the team’s journey into the company and ensuring they are welcomed, connected to the Cisco community, and set up for success.  


Episode Transcript

Narrator:  Bringing on new employees through a merger or acquisition can feel like trying to mix two very distinct friend groups.   From values to communication styles to technology preferences, the culture of the two groups is just different.  On the surface, this may not sound like a significant problem, but in truth, most acquisitions don’t work out because of this specific challenge.  Navigating the cultural shift is an extremely important part of the acquisition process, and thankfully there are thoughtful ways to make it go smoother. And to drastically improve the chances of a successful transition. Today, we’re bringing in Joey Wilkerson to teach us how to soothe those acquisition woes.  

Joey Wilkerson: When I think about new employees coming in, you kind of think about like that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And there’s that kind of basic level, you know, first we’re worried about doing a job. We have a paycheck, benefits, all that. When I see people start to ask questions about, uh, making a gift and having Cisco’s foundation match it, or how do they take advantage of time off to volunteer or those what I would consider to be much higher level needs that may not be critical, but that are certainly important. I think when someone gets to that point where they can think about that, it’s going well. I’m going to assume that it’s going well for them. And they’re really starting to thrive. 

Narrator: Joey is like that friend who gets along with everyone.  He’s the one who picks an activity everyone likes.  And seamlessly bridges the gaps between the two.   Joey is the acquisition integration manager and employee experience lead at Cisco.  Which means he works to engage employees from newly acquired companies into the Cisco culture.  But Cisco is…huge. They have over 75,000 employees.  And one of every 10 employees at Cisco came through an acquisition.  So Joey is going to give us some tips on welcoming new passengers aboard a giant company like Cisco, while ensuring their journey goes as smoothly as possible.  Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

On Cruising Altitude, we talk about employee experience lessons from leaders at companies with over 30k employees. A lot like reaching Cruising Altitude at 30k feet, things look a little different when you’re managing 30,000 people. On this podcast, we bring you insights from the leaders who inhabit that rarefied air. Today’s episode features an interview with Joey Wilkerson.  But first, a word from our sponsor.

Joey Wilkerson: So I serve on Cisco’s corporate development integration team. And within that group, I’m part of the employee experience, uh, collection and team, if you will. And Cisco is what I would call a serial acquirer. We are approaching maybe about 230. Uh, we do about 10 to 12 a year, and the employee experience team, we follow along with the acquisition. And support both the internal team at Cisco and the acquired employees coming into Cisco. We work to map out their journey and what that’s going to look like during that integration period, which is really, once we announced publicly that this acquisition acquisition is going to happen to their first day at Cisco, it could be four weeks, it could be six months. That timeframe varies and we’ll work to make sure that the right resources at Cisco are connecting with those employees at the right time. And then really through their onboarding and into their first six months or a year at the company, when the business unit they’re going into is really ready to kind of take over. We really focus on that, that integration period and making sure that we are creating an engaging experience for them. A positive experience and setting everyone up for success on day one. 

Joey Wilkerson: And, uh, you know, again, we, between 10 and 12 acquisitions a year is where we sit and those can range in size from 25 employees that accompany, uh, maybe it’s a new startup to, you know, a thousand plus organizations that are coming, becoming part of our team.

Narrator: Joey brings a unique set of qualifications to his role because didn’t start his career in corporate  America but in higher education.  So he wasn’t working to design employee experience, but student experience.  He served as Director of Student Activities and later Assistant Dean of Students at Averett University.

Joey Wilkerson: If you think about your time on a college campus, you will remember all of those things that were student affairs. Those outside of the classroom experiences and opportunities that really focus on supporting the student’s, uh, cultural, social leadership development, engaging them and helping them learn and helping them on that path toward degree attainment. Um, creating that community and space that really supports the full person. Which is very similar to what we do in employee experience. Um, really focusing on that opportunity to engage employees, create those spaces, those opportunities for them to grow and learn and development and all of those same things. And in that I learned, you know, this is something that I love doing. I eventually transitioned, still in education, to a more external focus working with donors and corporate partners. So I was working with those industry partners. Like Cisco was one of them actually at my last university. Um, but Cisco, Google, Under Armour, they were doing research on our campus or they were recruiting our students. And that was my introduction to corporate America. And I liked what I saw. Uh, I enjoyed working with some of our startups that were coming out of the universities I was working with. And started down this path of employee experience. And ultimately that landed me here with Cisco. But this position specifically, working in the M&A community as well is such a fun environment that is constantly changing, working with those other external companies who are becoming part of our team. Uh, and getting to see that their passion. I so applaud the entrepreneurial spirit that so many of these individuals bring in.

Narrator: Now that we know about Joey’s role and how he landed there, let’s look at a map of Cisco and get to know more about the company as a whole in The Flight Plan.

Joey Wilkerson: We are a large global company. Uh, when, when you have any organization with as many employees as we have, you know, over 75,000, uh, across a hundred different countries, that creates some, some diversity on its own. And so certainly we see that play out in our employees base. I think when most people think of Cisco, they think about an old version of Cisco. They probably think about that company that was very networking focused, or you may have had a phone on your desk that was a Cisco product. And while that is still very much part of our core, we, we function in that space of networking, security and collaboration. We have evolved quite a bit. And the Cisco I was introduced to is very different. Uh, just within the last few months we learned closing out our fiscal year, if you look at revenue across the company, we’re actually now one of the top five software companies. But I don’t think a lot of people see that and realize that, but it impacts the employees we have inside the organization. And, you know, as I see these engineering teams, There’s certainly, not to put anyone into a box, but certainly helps to, to think about, in kind of some broad strokes. But engineering teams versus a sales team or a team inside HR. We have some really robust, young preferred new professional, uh, programs, um, college internship type programs. That also creates another dynamic, another type of individual. I think, within the acquisition space, um, what I see is a lot of young talent coming in and they’ve helped build some of these organizations and it’s very personal to them and that’s its own kind of separate persona, if you will. That passion and love for what they created. Uh, and hitting for many of them this milestone of coming into an organization like ours. So there’s certainly a lot of different pockets. I think what I would say to anyone coming into the organization, while we are 75,000 plus, we are a community made up of smaller chunks, smaller communities spread throughout and smaller teams. And I think that’s where people find their home, are within those small communities, rather than the large corporate full organization.

Joey Wilkerson: When an organization comes into Cisco, where everyone ends up is going to depend. We are one of the largest that I’m aware of functionally aligned organization. So whether you’re working with collaboration tools or network, sales sits in sales. HR, which we call people in communities, sits within people in communities company-wide. You may support another team, but the reporting structure is going to be through that functional area. And so oftentimes what we’ll find is engineering teams and product teams will sit in those areas that they are supporting. Again, collaboration or networking or security. Um, and some of the customer support sales, general administrative positions, those may be, they may continue to support that team, but they may report in through a different structure, uh, as they move into the organization.

Narrator: There’s not really one person in charge of orchestrating the employee experience at Cisco.  And we see this with a lot of big companies – the responsibility is spread out over several roles.  Especially since employee experience is a pretty new facet of the corporate world.

Joey Wilkerson: Everyone company-wide, I think has a responsibility to at least be aware of employee experience. Because we all impact that. We impacted in some way, probably every day. We have employee experience professionals scattered throughout the organization, some supporting benefits. Um, I would consider some even working in our workplace resources, thinking about our physical spaces. That is certainly a large part of employee experience. Within the acquisition community, corporate development integration sits alongside corporate development under the CFO. We are a function of finance, although within my team, very few of us, uh, have a finance background. Uh, I, our supervisor, my boss, she does, uh, and I have to go to her during some of the quarterly calls. But, um, while we sit within finance, within the units across the country, whether it be people in communities, HR, legal, IT, tax, there is an M&A community inside those, those spaces that focuses on the integration of acquisitions. And I think all of them impact employee experience, uh, in, in their own way. The ownership of employee experience, I think different pieces sit with different individuals. There are times that I am the owner and our team is the owner of mapping that out. We may not be the content expert. At that point, the ownership of delivery and being the subject matter expert sits with the IT team or benefits or, you know, the list can go on and on. So I think we, we all own a little chunk of it. And coming together and putting that puzzle together is part of where we with the employee experience team focus our, our energy on. How can we put all of these pieces together to create this broad journey for these employees coming into the company?

Narrator:  So once Cisco acquires a company, there’s a process of onboarding employees.  Joey calls it journey mapping. And they have a lot of systems in place to help employees get situated and feel connected within the company.

Joey Wilkerson: The interesting thing about acquisitions, and thinking about employee experience, is an employee who applies to a company and gets hired, you know, I went through this and I think anyone else, if you think about, if you have a question, who do you go to? Well, maybe your boss or manager. With an acquisition, that’s not the case because for many of them, that person’s also coming in new. And it creates an interesting dynamic where everyone is coming in fresh and brand new. So we do spend a lot of time mapping out what that journey is going to look like and what are the elements within that. And that may vary group to group, depending on what they need to be successful and to start. An engineering team is going to need different compliance training than a finance team. A marketing team is going to need different tools than a sales team. They may all be coming in together. And there will be elements that they all will need. Benefits, payroll, those kinds of things. So we try to structure the, the journey for the employees as a, as an entire unit for those pieces that do apply to all of them. Um, we spend a lot of time teaching about benefits and who we are as an organization, how we compare to their organization. And then once they start to get inside the company, that’s when they really start to work more closely with their functional units and their functional teams, learning how they, how they do business and how they work day to day, the tools they use. Um, policies that may impact them and some things like that. It’s very training heavy, um, and content heavy, period, as an employee starts through an acquisition. We have a lot of programs in place, uh, assigning buddies to people so that you have someone who’s already connected to the company that you can go to for help. Uh, some really robust training programs that we put into place, um, as well as some dedicated, uh, online and virtual spaces, just for those cohorts to help them out with those things. So they always have direct access to someone who can answer a question. Uh, but it is going to vary a lot for them. And I think we find at Cisco generally an agreement. We’ve done this a lot and we do it well, but we know we’re not perfect. And we’re always open to evolving and learning as we go to make sure that we’re meeting everyone’s needs.

Narrator:  That idea of evolving – that flexibility –  is so important when managing acquisitions.  Because no two companies are going to be alike, and every employee is different.  So Joey is going to share his best practices with us in our next segment, First Class

Joey Wilkerson: We all got thrust into the environment where employee experience as a whole, had to really focus on the digital and virtual world out of necessity. We have been fortunate at Cisco because we have for a long time, well, before my time, embraced the idea of working from anywhere and having a partially hybrid and remote workforce. That has helped us tremendously, as we’ve had to think about how to engage acquired employees digitally. We have some great robust tools. Uh, WebEx, Slido, one of our recent acquisitions, that have really allowed us to take meetings to the next level, to where we are not just meeting with a group, we can truly engage with them in that process. That’s been tremendously helpful, uh, in all of this. We have found some success, really looking at acquisitions, similar to what I did in higher education, in this kind of cohort model. This is a new group coming in together and creating online communities for them throughout that process. And we have to use some different platforms sometimes. You know, initially they don’t have access to our system. So we need truly an external facing website. But it’s a chance for us to share information and for them to engage with our team easily. And that has been successful. I think the other thing that we have found some success in, and this other worked on this before my time and did a great job, setting it up. If you think about an acquisition and coming into a new company as an employee, your job doesn’t stop. I mean, it’s kind of like you just roll into, oh, my paycheck’s coming from somewhere new. And there’s a lot that goes into that process. But your day to day may not change much. So you’re having to balance all of the work that comes with being a new employee, the orientation, the onboarding stuff, with your day-to-day job. That becomes disruptive for a lot of individuals. So we found some success, creating some opportunities for on demand. Um, whether that be recordings or podcasts or, so that people can do that at their leisure as they have time. And still access the information when it’s needed. Uh, and, and there’s a lot more I think we can do in that space. And I think we’ll continue with that. But what we have done so far has worked well.

Narrator:  Just as Joey has tips on what to do, he also knows what NOT to do.  

Joey Wilkerson: In most individuals, I like to assume good intent. And I think in this work, we all come to the table wanting to be helpful. There is a fine line though, that I have found to where, while being helpful, you are actually causing more harm than you were doing good. And as I think about it within other organizations. I’ve been part of, there’s a difference in me handing you information. It’s kind of that old, you know, give a man a fish versus teaching him to fish. There’s a difference in me giving you what you need and in me teaching you how to navigate our organization to find it. Because in a year I might not be here to provide that information. And I think that’s a fine line that I, as an employee have experienced, uh, and in this space and this employee experience space have experienced having to figure out when we’ve crossed that line. And actually, maybe we’re not setting everyone up quite like we want to, because we’re handing over more when we should be teaching more.

Narrator:  Of course, when working with so many employees, it becomes really difficult to give each one a personalized experience.  But in some ways it’s even more important.  So how does Joey do it?

Joey Wilkerson: I think personalized experiences are so critical in everything we do. I mean, we see it in, you know, email marketing that companies do, you know. We, we pay attention to that. And I think my background in fundraising at universities helped. As there’s certainly value in creating personal experiences. In this case, one of the big priorities is creating the group experience so that it’s personal to that team and to that company coming into our organization. And we want to embrace who they are. This is a major milestone for a lot of organizations and something to be celebrated. And I remember at one point sending an email to a group. They were getting ready for, uh, one of their orientation sessions and in the email, we use this image that I think our social media team had done. And it was just, it was the two logos, uh, of Cisco and the company being acquired. And at like midnight, their CEO sent me a message and he was so proud of seeing those two together. That meant a lot. And that’s something that we do try to do is pull in things that are personal to them, uh, that, you know, they share with us. We ask a lot of questions. I think there is great value in a person’s name. And we so often miss that just in society. And so actually getting to know someone and learning who they are. When that is possible, I think that goes a long way. And throughout this process, our entire team, uh, the integration team is, is a large robust team. Relationships are being built and that should be celebrated. Celebrate those relationships. If someone is more comfortable going to someone else, even if it’s a question that normally, they would come to me, that’s fine. Don’t come to me. Go ask the person you’re comfortable with, because that’s going to make this better for you.

Narrator:  Relationships really are everything, and key to retaining employees longer.   We all know how it feels to work in a place where you feel a sense of community and that people really care about you.  That’s what Joey’s working towards.  But how does he know if he’s succeeding?  How would he know if the 75,000-plus employees are having a positive experience?  

Joey Wilkerson: Yeah, measuring and metrics will always be one of those that I think a lot of places struggle with. Um, as I think about measuring our work, participation is the key. Are people showing up? Are they clicking? Are they reading? Are they, you know, we vote with our feet so often. And that’s really important. And I think we also can gauge not just what they’re doing, but also what they’re processing and understanding. You know, if they’re asking the questions that we think they should at that time, great. But if it’s stuff that’s, you know, several weeks behind in terms of what we’ve been doing, there may be an issue. We may not have covered something really well that we may need to, to look back to. We certainly watch attrition, uh, like any organization, um, and, you know, pay attention to that. And we collect a lot of feedback along the way, both formally through some survey tools, but also informally. We constantly have conversations going, just tell us how everyone’s doing. The leaders of an acquired company become such a great resource to share with us what their team is thinking that, that we may not have access to. And that’s so valuable.

Narrator:  That’s a great piece of advice – to engage the leaders as allies in the integration process.  They’ll have the inside scoop on how the group is really faring.  Joey says there are other signs that tell you things are going well with new employees.

Joey Wilkerson: When I think about new employees coming in, you kind of think about like that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And there’s that kind of basic level, you know, first we’re worried about doing a job. We have a paycheck, benefits, all that. When I see people start to ask questions about, uh, making a gift and having Cisco’s foundation match it, or how do they take advantage of time off to volunteer or those what I would consider to be much higher level needs that may not be critical, but that are certainly important. I think when someone gets to that point where they can think about that, it’s going well. I’m going to assume that it’s going well for them. And they’re really starting to thrive. Um, I also, you know, as we hear about milestones that they’re meeting, that’s exciting. Um, and it’s for some of them, there’s some quick turnarounds. And so that’s certainly a great indicator of how things are going and something that we can certainly help celebrate with them in.

Narrator:  It’s been a smooth flight so far, but it’s time to buckle up.  We’re going to visit the bumpier parts of employee experience in our next segment: Turbulence.

Joey Wilkerson: As I think about my own career, I can definitely identify some experiences that were a little rough. And I think they all fall into this category of employee recognition. And I think what happens there is, there’s a lot of times that we can do something and then approve, improve upon it. But with employee recognition, I think you have to be really careful because if you don’t do it well right out of the gate, It doesn’t seem genuine. And that can really rub people the wrong way. And I think about, you know, put it in a sales perspective. If you’re recognizing, you know, the, I don’t know, the largest contract or something. Well, are you really comparing every person the same? Because if people are in different territories or markets, or they may not be competing on that level. And you just didn’t think about that. You’re not comparing apples to apples. Um, I worked at a place that used to love to give surprise days off, but they do it at 10 o’clock on Friday. Oh, we’re going to close at noon. Well, that doesn’t do anybody any good because we’ve got an afternoon of stuff planned that we’ve got to do. And really, it just took a single conversation. But I think that that category of employee recognition, if it’s not done well right out of the gate, you lose your audience pretty quickly.

Narrator:  Joey definitely has a tough job.  The thing about acquisitions is that the numbers are against him.  Most fail.  But he has insight into why and what to do about it.

Joey Wilkerson: In general, you’ll see most acquisitions are unsuccessful depending on how they define success. And one of the leading causes of that is the clashing of two organizations’ cultures. So it’s definitely something that we pay attention to and take to heart. We do spend a lot of time studying the organization, understanding who they are. A lot of that comes from conversations. We’re asking a lot of questions. Uh, if you think about, you know, buying a house, that due diligence process, that exists in the acquisition space as well. And that’s our chance to really learn. To learn how they operate, how they communicate, what tools they use, benefits, perks, how they solve problems, traditions they may have. Things that are sacred to them. Uh, what value they place on learning and leadership and growing careers and all of that stuff. The list could go on and on. And that’s certainly very helpful. We continue to learn through the entire integration process as we interact with more employees and see how people, um, behave and communicate and all that fun stuff. There’s also an element of approaching this as if I were applying for a job with the company. I’m going to do the same kind of research that I would if I was an applicant and see what’s happening on social media, if that exists for them. You know, what’s on their website, uh, do they share information about their values and their culture? What are former employees saying on some sites about, you know, Glassdoor, whatever they may be. But there’s definitely some research that goes in to help us understand who’s joining us and becoming part of our team and where we overlap and can celebrate and highlight that and where there may be friction so that we can figure out how we overcome it.

Narrator:  We can revisit that idea Joey brought up earlier of constant evolution.  He’s always looking for ways to improve, lessons to learn and ways to find success.

Joey Wilkerson: As recent as today, I had a conversation with a colleague about what we can learn from a company that was recently acquired by Cisco and how they operate. And there are certainly opportunities for us to, to learn and grow and evolve our practices based on what we see from them. When we’re investing in an organization, it’s in that talent, it’s in how they work, um, and in what they’re doing. And that’s such a huge part of it. We absolutely want to see and understand. We’re a large organization and I’m making change takes time in any large organization. But there are apps. There are certainly opportunities there where we see good practices and good ways of doing business that influence some things and lessons learned along the way.

Narrator:  And luckily, Joey is isn’t doing everything on his own.  He has a team helping him with the important logistical aspects of the transition.

Joey Wilkerson: And the entire process, while I focus my work on the employee side of things, there is a team dedicated to how do we transition their facilities, their labs, and anything like that over into our portfolio and part of our organization. The badge reader, just all those little things that sometimes we take for granted when we enter and exit an office. We’re going to get you through that general kind of enterprise level stuff and then really focus on getting you part of that specific team and working in the way they do. Uh, and we want to support those teams that are doing really good work with the resources and tools they need.

Joey Wilkerson: The integration and onboarding process of a new employee in this acquisition space is robust because we aren’t just bringing them on board. We are bringing all of their work on board too, and it does require a shifting and learning of new tools, new processes. Um, new procedures and policies, and there is a learning curve. And even beyond a learning curve, there’s a migration curve that also exists. And We do work closely with those experts in those areas to make sure that we’re being disrupting things as little as possible, but also moving individuals over to our systems and you know, a great example, you’re going to get a new laptop. It might be different. And sometimes applications that you were using before may not be naturally part of our day-to-day process. So we’re going to have to have some conversations about, is there something that we have that can replace that? Uh, or do we need to bring on whatever you’re using. And you know, we’re gonna, we’re going to have those conversations with individuals, but that can be, that can be one more thing that we think about in the employee experience space, or is what kind of stress is this adding to this process and how do we help mitigate some of that as much as we can? But there’s a transition of so many tiny elements that we don’t naturally think of day to day often.

Narrator:  In other words, it’s a huge job.  All those little details of bringing on employees from an acquired company need to be tended to.  And sometimes Joey has to bring it back to the basics.

Joey Wilkerson: When I think about employee experience, I often come back to the, this idea, there is this trap we fall into of assuming we know what employees want and what they need. And we don’t. We can make some generalizations, but we need to ask, we need to be asking the questions to understand truly what employees need inside an organization. And we need to understand that will evolve and change. If you had asked me five years ago, how important wellness and mental health resources would be, I don’t think I would have predicted the kind of level we see now. We ha you have to be open to evolving and changing. And understanding by asking where employees are and meeting them where they are.

Narrator:  So when all else fails, just talk to your employees.  They’re the ones you’re serving.  And sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of that.  Of course you might not be able to talk to all 75,000 of them, but having regular conversations with some of them goes a long way.  And Joey is here to remind us that simple but impactful touches like that might be easy to overlook, but they also might make the difference between success and failure for that recent multi-million dollar acquisition.   

Thank you for listening to this episode of Cruising Altitude. This episode of Cruising Altitude is brought to you by SocialChorus. SocialChorus is the creator of FirstUp, the platform that makes the digital employee experience work for every worker. FirstUp brings personalized information and systems access to every employee, everywhere.

No matter whether they’re wired, distributed, or on the front line. That’s how they help Amazon AB InBev, GSK, and many others stay agile and keep transforming. Learn more at

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Cruising Altitude

Lessons from companies over 30,000 employees

In this podcast, we will talk to leaders who are designing the best digital employee experiences in the world – from the front lines to the back office. Life is different over 30,000. Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

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