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Lenovo’s secret M&A recipe

October 31, 2014, 11:30 AM UTC
Photograph by Brian Stanton

Within three months of being hired as chief diversity officer at Lenovo in 2007, Yolanda Conyers received some feedback that she was being disrespectful to her Chinese coworkers. Conyers, a perfectly polite woman from Port Arthur, Tex., was taken aback by the critique because she thought she had worked tirelessly to be polite to her new team.

It turns out that Conyers efforts were getting lost in translation. She thought she was being very deferential when she sent emails to her senior colleagues to “request” a meeting. But the word request translates in Mandarin to a term that executives use when asking for a meeting with someone below them. Without knowing it, Conyers was telling her new managers that she thought she was above them.

“It sounds small, but those small things can generate a lot of mistrust,” Conyers said in an interview with Fortune. “We had to go through a lot of effort to understand the different cultures within the company and the reasons people behave the way they do.”

Since 2005 when Lenovo bought IBM’s PC business, the Chinese company has gone on a spree of high-profile acquisitions. Most recently, the world’s largest personal-computer maker said on Thursday that it had completed a $2.91 billion acquisition of Google’s Motorola Mobility unit. The merger makes Lenovo the third-largest smartphone maker. Each time Lenovo buys an overseas company, its staff gets more diverse and its corporate structure more complicated. Today, the company has more than 60,000 employees across 60 countries.

That’s where Conyers comes in. After a slew of culture problems and missed business opportunities shortly after Lenovo acquired part of IBM, the company realized it needed to take a harder look at its strategy for combining new teams. Now serving as Lenovo’s first-ever diversity officer, Conyers’s job is to figure out how to align the company behind common goals while respecting everyone’s differences.

But before Conyers could worry about bringing the company together, she needed to understand Chinese culture for herself. She decided to live and work out of Lenovo’s headquarters in China from 2009 to 2012 and she turned to Gina Qiao, Lenovo’s SVP of Human Resources, to guide her through the transition. Qiao, who works out of Beijing, made a similar decision in 2005 when she lived and worked out of Lenovo’s Raleigh, North Carolina offices. Qiao also struggled to understand American workplace culture. She didn’t realize that when she didn’t speak up constantly in meetings, her American coworkers assumed she hadn’t prepared.

The two women relied on each other to understand the nuances of corporate behavior across the organization and encouraged their co-workers to do the same.

“You need to take the time to listen more and take time to get to know people’s struggles and their relationships,” said Conyers. “I needed to take the time to go live in that environment and now I am such a better global leader as a result.”

Conyers and Qiao outline both their personal journeys along side Lenovo’s path to becoming a truly global company in the recently released book The Lenovo Way. The book outlines the tech giant’s initial struggles with corporate culture clashes and traces how Lenovo successfully became the largest company in the world in global computer sales. For Conyers and Qiao, figuring out how to bring people together with each new acquisition is just as essential as mixing supply chains and distributions networks. Without a concrete plan of the human side of things, mergers and acquisitions too often fail, they told Fortune.

According to the Lenovo execs, here are three key components companies should consider when acquiring a company from a different part of the world:

  1. Live diversity every day. In 2009, Lenovo realized that the new leadership team, comprised of executives drawn primarily from Lenovo, IBM and Dell, was not fully committed to bringing Lenovo’s operations together into one fully integrated business. “There was this terminology of three rivers” as each created silos between themselves, said Conyers. It was only once the company realized that cultural integration shouldn’t be rushed and needs to be something constantly considered did workers feel like they were truly apart of one global firm.
  2. Have a zero-mindset. Too often, employees who come into a new company after a merger think that the success they had in the past can be replicated in the future with their new firm. Understanding that you often need to start from square one when outlining corporate strategies is essential to success.
  3. Have humility. Humility is the basis of any meaningful interaction between two people trying to understand each other’s culture. “When you have humility, you are humble and you are open to new ideas. That’s essential at any global company,” says Conyers.

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