MERGING TWO COMPANIES presents many challenges. For employees, the greatest test is learning to play on the same team with colleagues who were competitors in the past.

Meeting planners in the insurance and financial services fields are all too familiar with this scenario as they theme their conferences around achieving a common vision among attendees who had previously been competitors. For many insurance meeting planners, the biggest challenge is finding the right speaker to communicate the message that change can be good and working as a team can produce amazing results.

Making Music Together

One insurance company took this literally when they hired Boris Brott, a well-known music conductor based in Canada. All the attendees in Brott's audiences learn to play music with an orchestra so that everyone can be a part of the incredible sound that results. Just as no single musician can create what the entire orchestra can, what can be accomplished when two merged companies share a vision can be inspiring.

In another case, the newly merged agents at Thrivent Financial for Lutherans (former Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood) were taken by surprise when “war” was declared by the Afterburners at the opening business session for the 2003 Field Leadership Conference, held in early March at La Quinta Resort & Spa in La Quinta, Calif.

The Afterburners — naval fighter pilots and instructors who are serving in the reserves or the National Guard and who also work with corporate groups — announced that a competitor had just declared war against them, and they would need to strategize ways to fight this “enemy” together and beat the competition. The audience was divided into small groups and given hard hats, maps, supplies, and instructions. Soon small groups of former competitors were working together on a common goal and, more important, they were having fun doing it.

Let 'em Laugh

But what about the specific topic of “change”? This key component must be addressed at all meetings post-merger, right? Wrong! I've found that by the time a meeting rolls around after the merger, employees are sick of the topic. They've undergone massive change in their work environments and don't want to be brought off-site to talk about it some more.

A good way to deal with this is to let them laugh at change. Try bringing in a speaker who can raise the topic indirectly — and with humor. Some insurance and financial services companies have hired meeting hosts like Dale Irvin, a motivational speaker who gets audiences to laugh along with him at the consequences of change. (Read Irvin's “Last Laugh” column on page 148). When company execs get up to speak about marketing, sales, and new product development, Irvin is there to do a recap — and make it funny. Suddenly, those housekeeping messages about the merger that may have created tension now become something that attendees look forward to hearing. And, studies show that when people laugh, they also tend to retain more.

The goal of all meetings for newly merged or soon-to-be merged companies should be to create a sense of teamwork. Change is the byproduct but teamwork is the key to creating a successful company. After all, without the team, the merger is irrelevant.

Ruth Levine is founder of Speak Inc., an international speakers bureau based in San Diego with offices in Chicago and Kansas City. She can be reached at (858) 457-9880 or by e-mail at To view speaker demo videos online, visit