By: Natalie O'Laughlin on June 17th, 2013

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Interview with Kay Curling, SVP & CHRO, Salient Federal Solutions

Communication | Community | Business Management & Strategy | Employee Relations | Talent Acquisition

Apollo Honoree, Salient Federal Solutions, shares the challenges of merging two cultures and what they do to help employees engage and embrace the change. Read more about how Salient brings cultures together in this interview with their Senior Vice President & Chief Human Resource Officer, Kay Curling, below.


Helios: Merging the cultures of two companies can prove to be challenging.  How have you kept employees on both sides engaged?

Kay Curling: For me, the conversation of keeping employees engaged starts with communicating our core values. The reason it starts here is because the core values are the lifeblood of the organization – not just a program. It is how we choose as a company to engage with our customers, our colleagues and our local communities. When you are courting a seller and conducting due diligence, you have an obligation to understand the hard and soft side of the business.  Core values are at the foundation of both the business strategy and the culture. Salient is known as a quality buyer with a highly regarded reputation in the federal IT industry – one that sellers seek out.  An important task during the acquisition process is to ensure we have a strong cultural fit that will allow us to quickly earn trust and engage the hearts and minds of our new employees. There is ample research that suggests that many acquisitions fail to add the value originally promised to Boards and shareholders.  This can often be traced back to not having a complete and disciplined due diligence and integration strategy. Often, the rush to get the deal done or the thrill of the hunt and the quest for quick growth overshadows the need for decision makers to develop a game plan or ask the right questions. This can then lead both the buyer and seller to disappointments, business disruptions and integration delays. Many quality purchasers spend a great deal of time on hard due diligence investigating business areas that are more easily measured and validated. Fortunately, Salient has a well-honed integration strategy and process that covers all phases of due diligence and integration. Our philosophy and practice brings together a highly experienced team of experts to work together through all phases of a purchase and integration.  Acquisitions are complex , expensive as well as emotional.  A misstep in any single portion of due diligence or integration can be costly to the business, its leaders and its reputation.  Communications is a vital part of our strategy – who, when, why, what and how are all questions that must be answered for various audiences.  These audiences include the Board of Directors, the shareholders, the employees of both the purchaser and the seller and the marketplace.  Engagement and trust are built one deposit at a time.   Each communication we have throughout the process allows us the opportunity to live out our core values.  We focus on effectively communicating messages in context.  For example, most employees being acquired feel anxious and want to know, “what is going to happen to me?” Salient equips our managers to answer these questions honestly, timely and in context. Communicating to our current employees is focused on how this acquisition adds value to the company and why growth is good for them.  We try to answer the basic question, “how does it benefit the company and the employees?”

Our integration and communication strategy is a detailed plan that begins long before the ink is dry on the deal.  To give you a quick peek into our strategy, the week before and after the deal is closed is full of purposeful activities.  After the deal is closed by prior to the public announcement, there is a gathering for managers and leaders – an opportunity to meet and greet our new colleagues.  That same night, we mail out welcome packages to the home of each new employee.  The day following the closing of the deal, we host simulcast meetings for all of the employees of the newly acquired company.  During this meeting, the senior executives from both the buyer and seller speak candidly with employees about the deal.  During these meetings employees have an opportunity to hear from their new leaders and ask questions that may be on their minds.  On Day 1, we also launch a phone and email hotline to address questions during the integration.  Our philosophy of a Day 1 integration is important to building trust and encouraging engagement.  We want to ensure that we answer the pressing questions and help the employees stay focused on delivering high quality services to their customers.   We take the opportunity early in the acquisition to get business leaders together from all business areas to focus on the “Power of One”.  During this two day event, business leaders learn how they can leverage the knowledge, tools, services and products of the larger combined organization to benefit their current customers. Streamlined communication is constant and ongoing.

Perhaps the greatest single tool we have in our employee communications toolkit is the Employee Transition Compensation Statement.  This one page document quickly answers the questions, “What’s going to happen to me?”, “My leave?”, “My 401k?”, “My benefits?”   This one page document compares their current compensation, title and benefits costs to those at our company.  They are able to see where the differences are.  This takes the mystery and angst out of much of the transition.  To date, we have provided every employee whose costs would be increasing as a result of the acquisition a one-time true up in base compensation to help bridge the gap.  It is a powerful way to start out the relationship by showing we care about each employee as an individual.

During the first week of integration, we conduct new employee orientations at all major locations.  Employees not located at a major location connect to the session through a webcast.  Typically, the CEO or COO and I will conduct the orientation sessions providing an opportunity for the new employees to network and visit with the senior executives.  We take “Welcome to the Family” gifts which include a lunchbox, coffee mug, lanyard, etc. Within the first 90 days we conduct Salient Leader training.  This gives us an early opportunity to discuss the “Salient Way” of conducting business and living out our values.  Bottom line, if you want your employees to learn, grow, connect and adapt, you can never over communicate.


Helios: What are some of the strategies you used to integrate List employees into Salient?

Kay Curling: The integration of LIST was no different from the integration of the four other companies we’ve acquired to date.  Regardless of the size of the acquisition, we utilize our proven due diligence and integration strategy.  We want to ensure that we preserve the value of the purchase and enhance the capabilities of the combined organizations.  We look closely at best practices from both organizations and ensure that we are synergistic as we combine the organizations.

Helios: What are one or two lessons you can share with HR professionals involved in M&A activity?

Kay Curling: The first lesson to remember is that every single phase of due diligence is important and warrants our full attention. It’s far too easy to get sucked into the front of an acquisition where you are busy identifying business risks while failing to provide the energy and strategy to see the integration through successful completion. After the marriage (better known as the merger) happens, there’s a tendency to move on to the next big thing. The import of our role should not be taken lightly.

The second lesson to keep in mind is to answer questions in a timely, consistently, respectfully and always in context.  Empowering supervisors with the tools and information they need to blend and create high performing teams is critical.  It is HR’s role to help align and re-balance the combined business and people strategies.  In the busyness of the acquisition, we must not lose site of the “Human” in Human Resources.  This is less about making employees happy than it is creating environments where the employees understand how their contributions fit into the greater organization and how their personal and professional goals are being met.

Helios: We understand you have a robust mentoring program. Can you speak to your nine-week certification process?

Kay Curling: Our nine-week certification process is specifically tailored for our Talent Operation Specialists (TOS), typically known as recruiters in other organizations. What makes our model different from the typical corporate recruiting model is that our TOS are embedded into our business units. They are business professionals who understand what our clients need and are proactively looking for our next great hire long before the client has a need.  In order to give our clients the talent they need, exactly when they need it, we have to make sure our Talent Operation Specialists are the best trained recruiters in the marketplace. We thoroughly screen TOS candidates using a standardized sales assessment.  Typically, only one in ten candidates makes it through this screening process.  Once the TOS is hired, they are taken through an intense nine-week certification process which includes traditional instruction, coaching, role playing, and clear performance measurements. This is certainly not a role for the faint of heart.  It takes an individual with drive and fire in their belly to be successful in this role.  The most important thing that this group does is provide our clients with talent. If we are able to get that right, we make a difference for our clients. It’s vitally important that we have the right people out there representing Salient and looking for our next great employee.

Helios: Tell us more about your “I Make a Difference!” campaign. How did you create and implement this across your organization? What’s been the impact?

Kay Curling: We want each member of the Salient team to feel as though they can impact the business. The “I Make a Difference!” campaign was born out of our desire to make our core values actionable. The company’s core values start with a relentless focus on creating value for our clients. We strive to serve them with the same sense of purpose and commitment they have.  “Honor Thy Client” is the Salient commandment.  We want to make sure that we honor our employees and provide them with opportunities to engage, grow and lead. The best way we can serve our communities is by creating great jobs and healthy work environments for our employees.   We tend to hire employees who are already involved in their community.  We see our role in community service as a synergistic one -- to help connect groups of employees together to help build community inside and outside of Salient.  Making a difference for our clients, our colleagues and our community is revolved around the foundation of our core values. As a welcome gift, all of our employee’s receive lanyard that says, “I Make a Difference!” We see that statement every day and our clients see it too. We also give everyone sticky notes that say, “I Make a Difference!” They can write their contribution on a sticky note and place it on the I Make a Difference banner that is located in a common area.  It’s real, it’s visible and it reminds all of us to make a difference every day. We also have four different lapel pins made for the theme. As managers catch someone making a difference, they can immediately give the employee an “I Make a Difference” lanyard pin.

Small differences everyday equate to large improvements – whether for a customer, colleague, or someone in the community. We encourage all of employees to focus on making a difference every day – to have the heart attitude to honor our client in everything we say and do.  During the Salient Leader training, Bill Parker, our COO, leads a session on what it means to live out the Salient values.  He points out that our heart attitude drives our actions.  He encourages everyone to find ways to create value and make a difference each day. There are many ways to make a difference – big and small.  The idea is that 1,100 people striving to make a difference can make an appreciable impact.  Examples of  this include writing an employee a handwritten thank you note, celebrating important employee milestones, offering to help a colleague, etc.   We all have a role to play in making a difference in the world around us each day.

Helios: How does Salient make a difference in our community?

Kay Curling: There are many ways our local offices contribute back to their communities.  Our local offices are empowered to support group activities that benefit local not-for-profit organizations.  One very unique way we give back in the local Northern Virginia community is through our involvement with students from the Davis Center.  The Davis Center is a post-high school vocational program run by the Fairfax County School system operating out of Marshall High School. This is a program focused on assisting students with different types of disabilities transition from school into a work environment. The program takes students who have significant challenges and provides them opportunities in business to learn skills they can use after this transition period. In Salient’s first year of business, we had two Davis Center students working in our headquarter facility.  We expanded our program during our second year of business to include three students working from two Salient facilities. The Davis Center students are integrated into our workforce and given opportunities to explore a variety of different tasks throughout the school year.  We work closely with the job coaches to ensure that we are providing the right level of independence and support to ensure each student has a positive work experience.

Depending on the capability of the student, tasks may include scanning, copying, faxing, shredding, filing, stocking kitchen supplies, helping with mass mailings, etc. The students gain important work skills and develop appropriate business behaviors while on the job. We know that when a Davis Center student leaves us at the end of the year, we have positively contributed to their ability to transition successfully into another work environment.   Salient employees benefit as well.  They have the opportunity and privilege of helping, encouraging and coaching these students into a more successful tomorrow.  Our contribution helps ensure that the students move on to become contributors within their local communities.

In my own personal life, I have witnessed the power of this program first hand. My 22-year-old son is preparing to transition out of the Davis Center and into the work world.  The work experiences my son has participated in have prepared him to contribute back to the work world.  He has achieved far more that I dreamed possible.  He loves to work and the opportunity to work contributes to his positive self-esteem and personal sense of accomplishment.   I am proud of his accomplishments and proud that Salient chooses to make a difference in the life of these students.  I would encourage other employers to consider this opportunity.  It’s one that will pay back benefits far into the future for the student and for the company.