Merrill and Lehman employees can’t afford to stay in mourning

Merrill and Lehman employees can’t afford to stay in mourning

—Courtney Ellison, Amherst, Massachusetts

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

It’s a normal response. But career-wise, that response can be disastrous.

We’re not about to blithely tell Merrill’s roughly 60,000 employees and Lehman’s 26,000 to put on a happy face and get on with life. A massive earthquake just struck Wall Street; understandably, people will be reeling for a while. But the employees most directly affected 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’s been an independent company, so proud that brokers were known to call themselves “the thundering herd." Now, suddenly, it’s a subsidiary of the mammoth Bank of America Corp., and a rescue mission at that. How do you suppose Merrill’s employees will react to that change?

It’s true that Bank of America has clearly demonstrated a competency for the merger-and-acquisition integration process.

Even so, if Merrill’s people are like most acquired employees, some will balk. Bank of America’s culture, processes, leaders and way of doing business will seem different—and wrong. Everything at Bank of America, basically, will seem worse than the good old days at Merrill, and many employees will say so, if not out loud, with their attitudes.

No, no, no! If you’re a Merrill employee—in fact, if you’re the employee of any acquired company—understand one thing. Your new owner has limited patience for pouters. They know merger-and-acquisition resisters slow work, and their cynicism poisons the waters for everyone.

That’s why, when it comes to sorting through their new roster, the vast majority of acquirers choose buy-in over brains. Sure, they may give a pass to the famous superstars who bounce around Wall Street with ease. But if you’re a “regular" type—say, a middle manager with a track record for good performance—you could now be one of two people competing for your job. Your margin for error is smaller than ever.

So, to Merrill employees: honour your past, but put it away. Rescind your claim on victimhood, join the Bank of America team heart and soul, and work hard for its future. It’s your best chance that Bank of America’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 and paralysis.

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

If you’re thinking, “Fine, but no one on Wall Street is hiring," we hear you. Which is why our next piece of advice is to broaden your search, in terms of both job content and geography.

A few years back, we encountered a group of laid-off engineers in a mid-size Midwestern city who had been unable to find work after a year of looking. The reason was simple. Even though their industry had shrunk and largely left the region, they all wanted positions as similar as possible to 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 like the one rocking Wall Street.

To move forward, Lehman’s former 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 “cozy familiar" that may never come again.

We don’t expect Merrill or Lehman employees to readily embrace our message. Who wants to be told to let go of their anger or angst, especially when such feelings are entirely human? But uncommon times call for uncommon solutions. The tumultuous events may have you hungry for the past. We urge you to thirst for the future instead.


Write to Jack and Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller ‘Winning’. Mint readers can email them questions at Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.