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Alliance Compensation News & Events

Alliance Compensation News & Events

Announcing Alliance Compensation

Announcing Alliance Compensation

On June 15, 2020 two great firms and three great consultants will be joining forces in a new business venture. Announcing Alliance Compensation!

Columbia Compensation Consulting Inc. and Compass Total Rewards LLC will be merging. Principals Jim Harvey and Nancy Ellington are being joined by David Adent, most recently of Cisco Systems. Jim, Nancy and David all met while working together in senior compensation leadership roles at Cisco.

Columbia Compensation and Compass Total Rewards have served local, regional, national and global clients across the spectrum of compensation and rewards strategy, design and advisory services. They’ve built a reputation for experience, excellence, and expertise. David is a natural fit to the new firm with his extensive background in executive and board consultation, and broad industry experience. Alliance Compensation already has clients in the Western United States including Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, and Arizona. They’ll also serve Idaho, Montana and Nevada.

As friends and colleagues, they believe now is the time to form their Alliance given their successes in their own businesses as well as combining their collective knowledge, experience and expertise to serve their existing clients, and form new relationships. Most of their new business comes through their current client’s referrals, something they’ll continue to value and strive to live up to as they move forward.

There will not be any disruption in any services that clients have relied on; as a matter of fact, their Alliance should increase their availability. Their focus has been and remains serving the broad spectrum of compensation, rewards and incentives from the basic blocking and tackling of market pricing and salary structures to the highly specialized and specific aspects of executive and sales compensation. And you’ll still be able to work with your existing partner, although you may want to meet the whole team along the way – they’re putting their heads together behind the scenes to make sure their products and services are everything you expect and more.

For existing clients, your continued support and partnership is greatly appreciated. For new clients, the Alliance Compensation team looks forward to meeting you and learning about your compensation needs.

For more details about the Alliance Compensation team and service offerings, visit their website or contact them directly at 425.836.0206 / 888.877.4746.

You may contact Nancy at, Jim at or David at

Announcing Alliance Compensation! Columbia Compensation Consulting Inc. and Compass Total Rewards LLC will be merging

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Is Sales Compensation Coming From The Battery Drawer?

Is Sales Compensation Coming From The Battery Drawer?

My mouse started acting up the other day. That usually means the batteries are wearing out, so I headed over to the battery drawer for new batteries.

What a mess. Lots of batteries, finding a fit wasn’t the problem. I just had no idea if any of them were any good. So I did what was necessary, which was try all the various combinations of those batteries until I got something like the performance I needed to make the mouse run again. But at this rate I have no idea how long it’ll work because I somewhat randomized my chances for success by just taking what I could find. (If your battery drawer is better organized than mine, I salute you!)

When you start “going through the battery drawer” to design a sales compensation plan, you have just about as much chance to get it right as I did with my mouse. Problem is, the stakes are a lot higher for your company and the sales force. You might find a great combination that results in a super-charged field sales team, producing at unheard of performance levels. Winner winner, chicken dinner!! On the other hand, think of all the other possibilities, like great payouts but not so great results, or any combination that results in detrimental effects on the sales force or the company..

So randomizing the inputs probably isn’t how you’ll be successful in this particular compensation expertise. You need to be thoughtful with sales compensation plan design so unlike my experience with the battery drawer, you’ll produce the kind of excellence you can rely on. For example:

  1. Batteries might not be the problem. Sure, it’s easy to check the batteries first, but you should always start with the owner’s manual! Consider all the factors that influence the results your sales force are getting. Are they trained? What’s the status of your product or service, are you growing or falling behind the competition in features and benefits? Is marketing generating demand? Did the business strategy change and the sales plan didn’t? Are finance or other processes keeping the sales force from getting desired results?
  2. Use the right size batteries, put them in the right way and don’t mix sizes. I’ve opened up battery cases and found the wrong sized batteries even though almost every battery case made is pre-molded to the right size. But desperate times call for desperate measures, right? It can be so easy to just try something and hope it works and everyone can get back to work. But not having the right mix between base and incentive, unclear sales role definitions, having the wrong people on sales incentives or using any old performance measure mix may work for a while but will eventually short out.
  3. Some batteries aren’t accessible. Many newer electronic products use battery power, but you aren’t supposed to open the battery case. If you’re being told there’s nothing wrong with the sales plan, and you haven’t seen any supporting performance data, I’d suggest getting another opinion. Typically sales operations groups are rich with data, and with a little market data you can fairly quickly get an idea for just how effective your plans are, and whether getting at those batteries might just be a worthwhile project after all. For example, are top performers earning at the desired excellence levels? How much are underperforming reps earning? Did most of the sales force achieve quota last year? Were they supposed to?
  4. Don’t use used batteries, and safely dispose of the old ones. Chances are your business isn’t really exactly like the one your new sales VP came from, or where your HR/compensation peer works. You have so many options and alternatives when it comes to designing sales incentives; don’t give away your creativity to others. And after you’ve tried something and it didn’t work, make sure you’ve documented what the issue was. Chances are you are probably doing something right but could just use a fresh set of eyes (or new batteries?).
  5. Sometimes you have to go to Batteries+. Although batteries are available at most corner stores, sometimes you need an expert to help figure out what to do next. Over the years I’ve found that most people seem to think they are compensation experts. As a matter of fact, count the total employees in your company and subtract one and that is the number of people who seem to know as much (or more) about compensation as you do.  And you probably don’t need an external consulting expert for every single thing every single year. But if it’s been a while and you’re not sure you’re still getting the most out of sales compensation, there are folks like me who do this work, and by the way really enjoy it. I’ve found few places in a company where you can learn more about a company and what it takes to make them successful than in the process it takes to design sales compensation plans.

Last night we were going to sit down and binge on a show on one of the streaming services. I went to turn on the TV and a message came up, “No Source Identified” so I take the remote and start pushing buttons, nothing happens. I shout downstairs, “Bring up 2 AAA batteries for the remote!” One, I hadn’t opened the remote fully other than to see it had AAA batteries, and two, I hadn’t thought what else might be wrong. Turns out I was wrong on two counts (the wi-fi needed to be reset, and the remote required 4 AAA batteries). After I reset the wi-fi, everything worked and we happily binged away.

I’m happy again, and continue to learn about batteries.

So randomizing the inputs probably isn’t how you’ll be successful in this particular compensation expertise. You need to be thoughtful with sales compensation plan design

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I Could Tell You, But Then I’d Have To…

I Could Tell You, But Then I’d Have To…

I have enjoyed teaching a couple of compensation certification classes for WorldatWork, the association for total rewards professionals. I would get a lot of questions about a lot of topics, but one that frequently surfaced – whether in a module or not – is “this is great, but would you tell your employees that?” And this isn’t some super-secret recipe for the incentive plan funding that makes you an insider, this is some of the compensation basics like pay grade, pay range, that sort of thing.

So just to get it out of the way let me say that I am a believer in sharing more openly about compensation than most people I’ve met. That belief doesn’t come from a beating I took or something I learned when I was young, it comes after seeing what happens when you don’t share more openly. The best thought-out programs with the most strategic elements and execution can still fail when not properly communicated. As a matter of fact, I’d say the two things that most often are an anchor around the neck of an otherwise successful program are the lack of management training (related topic, different time) and the lack of effective communication.

Think of it another way. What if for one of the biggest investments most people ever make (like your house) all you were told was, “it has a total of 11 rooms. Sorry, I can’t be more specific.” Is that enough information for you to be all-in as a buyer? Should the seller, who really wants to unload the house reasonably expect to sell it?

Compensation is a huge investment your company makes, and if you are keeping secrets you probably aren’t getting the most from your money. Here are my Top 5 reasons you should communicate as much as possible about your compensation programs:

  1. Employees will make up the part they don’t know.
  2. Missing information is a constant negative and anxiety producing reference point.
  3. Most of your employees are adults and you expect them to act like adults in all other ways.
  4. Underlying problems don’t require secrecy, they require fixing.
  5. Put accountability where most of us want it anyway, in the hands of managers.

Making it up. This is a very real outcome of not communicating compensation. For example, a base pay program is typically the largest ongoing investment an employer will make, yet one of the areas that can be shrouded in greatest mystery when pay grades and ranges exist, but are closely held secrets in HR. And the associated HR strategy implications in areas like succession planning and career development can’t be overstated if an employee doesn’t know what sort of pay opportunities you’ll offer them for their continued growth of skills and abilities. Without facts from you, other opportunities with known facts are certainly more realistic outcomes.

Negative reinforcement. Your employees make decisions every day about their engagement. The anxiety that can be produced in a person when managing critical aspects of life without sufficient information isn’t something that should come from something that represents a major part of someone’s life and livelihood. And even though it’s not really lying, you’ve got to dance your way out of it every time someone asks you a question your policy doesn’t allow you to answer, and that doesn’t leave a lasting positive impression either.

Maturity is a two-way street. Since most of your employees are adults and you expect them to act like adults, what makes you think they can’t handle the truth? The best example I’ve experienced of telling the truth about compensation was at a company I worked for during the first recession, when we knew we weren’t going to be able to give base salary increases that year. We told employees three months in advance of the usual date. Sure, there were a few rants, but by the time it came to execute the program, it was a non-event.

Fix the underlying problem. If you have something uncommunicated because it would cause unrest, fix the underlying problem – design, training, whatever, don’t mask it. Salary range spreads causing compression? New hires coming in above current employees? Neither a good reason to stop communicating about pay ranges, but good input for the next program design cycle. Segmenting your promotions budget so organizations with more entry level employees get more funding? Explain how job families work and the concept of promotion velocity for early career employees. These aren’t difficult problems to solve when you communicate openly.

Accountability in the hands of managers. Providing needed compensation information to those who make the day-to-day decisions about the base pay, promotions, classifications, bonuses, recognition, etc. only makes the most sense. One common issue with open compensation communications is who has control. After all as it is frequently said, information is power. Do you really need “Compensation Power?” or can you afford to let managers do what their job descriptions tell them they are supposed to be doing? Sure, there are some who abuse it, but realistically that is a small minority. Most management jobs come with some level of fiscal authority anyhow, and in most cases that is many multiples above what we’d ask of them in a compensation program.

I strongly encourage you if you see yourself somewhere on the secrecy side of the communications spectrum to re-evaluate your approach to compensation communications. At least start asking yourself whether the way it works now couldn’t be improved. Good communication won’t repair a flawed rewards program, but ineffective communication will cause a well-designed program to fall short of expectations.

So just to get it out of the way let me say that I am a believer in sharing more openly about compensation than most people I’ve met. That belief doesn’t come from a beating I took or something I learned when I was young, it comes after seeing what happens when you don’t share more openly.

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Think Outside the Box: Better Labor Cost Management

Think Outside the Box: Better Labor Cost Management

“What is our average compa-ratio Jim?” asked the CEO as I sat down to report on our annual focal exercise.

Having been through enough of these meetings over the years, of course I had the answer; as a matter of fact, I had it calculated not only for the whole company, but for each division, each country and each corporate function. But I didn’t want to just spout off the answer, I wanted to educate him about how to think differently about his labor costs. Unfortunately, he had worked with enough compensation professionals over his storied career and had been taught by each and every one that if he could just get the compa-ratio to 1.0, another year could be put in the books.

“We ended at 0.99,” I said, “but what I really wanted to review with you was…”

“That’s great Jim, and tell your team that Jerry thinks they did a grrreat job! Could you ask Kathy to come in here on your way out?”

I shook my head again as I headed for the door. Not only because he still referred to himself in the third person, but again I was not getting the sort of traction that would really make a difference in the company’s performance. I mumbled to myself, “Yes Jerry, it’s just wonderful to know that all your averages are aligned. In addition, do you know you have 20% more Senior Professionals than your competitors? Do you know that when it all adds up our labor costs are 4.5% more than your competitors, and on a $200M payroll, that’s $8M, or about $0.05 per share?”

As the aisle row occupants of cubeville stared at me talking to myself again, I decided I needed a better approach than expecting the CEO to just nod his head and hang on my every word. What I needed was a few more people with some time and some skin in the game in order to make the difference bottoms-up rather than top-down. I needed people with shortages of resources to get their jobs done. I needed Human Resources.

Even then it was a hard sell. I had a solution looking for a problem. I finally found an ally in the HR Director of the Technical Services organization, a group that was in the process of trying to manage global labor costs through a planned migration to lower cost-of-labor markets and away from some of our higher-cost US urban locations.

It didn’t take long for her to get it – it seemed she was “high-potential” after all! Her organization’s costs and associated factors looked something like this, with these assumptions:

  1. Our average wages were the same as the market at each job family level
  2. Our benefits were equal to the market, 35% of base pay
  3. Our incentive targets were competitive and identical to the market

The difference in how we’d looked at this in the past was taking off the “Jerry Glasses” and looking at the data in a whole different way – our total labor costs, not just our average labor costs… our “Portfolio” of employees. You see, you have choices in how you manage the decisions around factors and variables that make up your labor costs, even while maintaining the typical “50th percentile” strategies that so many companies employ.

So even though we’re matching the market in all the traditional senses we’ve become accustomed to, we’re still exceeding the overall market cost-of-labor by 4.5%, or with this example the sum of $13,000,000!! Would that make a difference anywhere in your business – hiring more skilled technicians, sales people, funding a new product line, avoiding layoffs… you fill in an example.

How does this happen? Here are a few things to check for after you’ve done an analysis like this:

  1. What is your promotion policy and practice? At Our Co, we enabled a process that says that people can come to expect promotions when they are high performers. Nothing really wrong with that on the surface, but it got away from us, and we didn’t take into account how many people we already had doing work at senior levels. We probably should have thought about more rapid promotions for employees hired at lower levels and slower rates for higher leveled employees.
  2. We’ve had a few difficult years on the merit budget, so pay increases have been hard to come by. But when a new employee is hired, they can be hired at pretty much whatever level the manager wants. Our managers started over-hiring levels because they didn’t expect they’d be able to give pay increases. We’ve got a lot of competitively paid but under-skilled people as a result.
  3. We’ve ruled out the geographic labor cost issues – we know that the cost of labor is higher in places like the Bay Area, so that’s not a factor here.
  4. Obviously we also discovered a few more dollars hiding from us, since incentives and benefits are a factor of base. Never forget that, as a business it’s all about fully-loaded labor costs.
  5. One thing we did do right was we “gated” movement into the P5 or expert level of the job family. That means it requires additional approval to promote or hire someone there. It is more administration, but at that level the responsibilities are so much greater and implications of misplacement are of greater consequence so it’s worth it.

What can HR do with data like this? Thinking first of a popular topic, how about an element of workforce planning, as in an overlay around labor cost? How about coming to the table with a proposal to reduce labor costs over time by realigning skill requirements and leveling? Obviously there are many other aspects of workforce planning to consider, but armed with cost-of-labor data, a smart HR Leader can create hiring plans around needed skills and determine whether training and development may enable business needs rather than taking an expensive hiring or replacement route.

Data can be intimidating, or at least that’s what people tell me when I ask why they never got into compensation. But almost anyone can see the clear benefits that present themselves when looking at data differently than the way we’ve been training everyone else to do so for so many years.

Data can be intimidating, or at least that’s what people tell me when I ask why they never got into compensation. But almost anyone can see the clear benefits that present themselves when looking at data differently than the way we've been training everyone else to do so for so many years.

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