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Follow The Leader

Follow The Leader

When I first thought about this idea — that a lot of what we do in the compensation world is to follow the leader — it was the children’s game that came to mind.  Remember – if I’m the leader and I skip in a circle, you do to; if I put my right-hand pinkie finger in my ear, you do too.  Sort of a cousin of Simon Says.

Then my mind went to what really happens when we play follow the leader in compensation.  Maybe some or all of this has been on your watch:

  • We let market data dictate what “we believe” jobs are worth and how employees are paid
  • We design incentives based on how our competitors do it, or how the VP did it at her last company
  • We enable management’s somewhat mistaken belief that benchmarking is the only valid approach to program design

When we play Follow the Leader, we handicap our creativity to align our reward programs and systems to our unique business philosophy, strategy, objectives and values.

Give Up On Benchmarking?

It’s not my intention to totally scrap the idea that we can learn from others.  Some of the best learnings I’ve had in my career have been from people that have faced challenges and found unique solutions that worked.  For years I kept paper copies of presentations I had attended at conferences, industry meetings, consultant presentations, etc.  And I did go back over them to pull out ideas, but I didn’t take that material and just paste my current company logo in the upper left corner.  It did help though to add elements to programs that would fit the needs of the problem I was trying to solve.  For example, should a bonus program have a payout threshold?  Should a vesting component be used?  These are ways to put real value into company bonus, sales incentive and executive compensation plan designs.

Market Pricing

There are other aspects of benchmarking that I am solidly behind (especially when it reinforces my own beliefs!).  Of course, many pay programs are benchmarked to a local market – Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, you name the location and that’s probably right when it comes to certain jobs and levels of pay, for example non-exempt work.  And for example, I see pay practice surveys that show the quantitative metrics participants use in their broad-based bonus plans and the prevalence of that.  (I’d bet right now that not many readers of this know what EVA is, but I worked in a company once where it was the primary metric in the employee bonus plan).  I could easily show how it simply wasn’t appropriate for the level of employee that needed to understand it, but it took an executive departure before we could wrestle that one down.

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(By the way, bonus points if you know the answer to this related quiz question.  What are the two most common quantitative metrics that companies use for their bonus programs?)

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Now with COVID this last year, we’ve all heard (herd?) of Herd Immunity.  One of the more common applications of the compensation ‘herd mentality’ is on market pricing of jobs.  If you are an old-timer like me, you probably know that at one time, job evaluation systems like point factor, classification or factor comparison systems were more prevalent than market pricing.  And if you haven’t taken C2 (the job evaluation class) from WorldatWork, you may never have heard of those.  But much more so than market pricing, they enabled companies to determine how to pay their employees when they selected what was important to them rather than letting the market do it for them.

I still tell my clients that “the market is… interesting… but don’t let it tell you what to do.”  What I mean by that is this: Follow the Leader isn’t always your best choice.  And as a trusted advisor in your company, take heed that if you are going to play that game then you know what you’ve signed up for.

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Quiz Answer: Revenue and Profitability

——Jim Harvey is a Managing Partner with Alliance Compensation LLC, a team of seasoned experts and trusted solution for clients across the Western US in public and private companies. He has over 35 years of experience in corporate leadership roles and consulting, and lives with his wife and three dogs in Sherwood, OR.

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When I first thought about this idea — that a lot of what we do in the compensation world is to follow the leader — it was the children’s game that came to mind.  Remember – if I’m the leader and I skip in a circle, you do to; if I put my right-hand pinkie […]

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Big, Hairy, Audacious Compensation

Big, Hairy, Audacious Compensation

A while back (1994 to be exact) a term called a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) was coined.  Think Boeing in Seattle getting into the jet airliner business as an example.

What do you think the compensation plan was like for Boeing executives and engineers?  Do you think it matched the size, scope and impact of their goal – and accomplishment?

Probably not.  And probably never really entered the mind of those, or most rewards designers since.  Isn’t it time to re-think what rewards should look like when someone really and truly “hits one out of the park?”  I’d say so.  It’s not going to be about what the surveys say, or what percentile you decide to pay at.  It should be differentiation on a scale beyond all those things.

Some might continue to point to their existing plans and programs and say, “That’s what our recognition plan is for,” or “That would be covered in our annual incentive plan,” or “But then they’d make more than the CEO,” or even “We’ve never done it that way before.”

(That last one makes me shudder.)

I recently worked with a client, a small but fast-growing software firm with offices in Silicon Valley and Portland that is making big inroads into data storage and management.  The path to success is clear – create growth and you create value, and being able to do that without outside financing creates exponential value.  Wouldn’t we all agree that creating exponential value would be worth exponential rewards?  Now not something unreasonable, but it has to be impactful.

In my client’s case (software as a service) we discussed the real drivers of value in that SaaS space where they play  – long-term contracts, pre-paid business and attracting logo business.  Other industries will of course have other value drivers that are specific to their type of business, competitiveness, and where they are on the business cycle (start-up, growth, maturity or decline).  Now here’s the thing about rewards under the BHAC thinking.  The amounts can’t scare you, no matter your industry or experience.  They are, by design, BIG AND SCARY (and of course, hairy but that’s not something I’m going to blog about)!

What might a $2M, 2-year contract be worth under a regular commission plan?  5%?  So $10,000, and if structured like most plans, pay that out over the life of the contract.  $416.67 a month – THAT’s exciting!!

This isn’t necessarily intended to just get you thinking about sales incentives though.  And as I said earlier, it isn’t going to help if you get caught up in percentiles.  A BHAC plan is about VALUE.  Who would look back 2 years after landing a logo client in Los Angeles that doubles your revenue and increases your market value by $5M and say, “Gee, it was probably a mistake to pay Colleen that $50,000 bonus, don’t you think?”

Let’s pivot to a favorite value creator, product designers.  Could be software engineers in Santa Clara or apparel designers in Beaverton.  I may be wrong, but from my experience, those roles typically come with a caveat on who owns what, i.e., intellectual property.  One company I worked for years ago had a very talented stable of design engineers who over the years created product after product that were patented.  Their reward?  A nice plaque, an original copy of the patent with their name, maybe a promotion, maybe a few percentage point increase in their merit increase that year.  If the company also did well that year, maybe a somewhat larger bonus (say 20% instead of 15%).  Again, how exciting is that?!

We do need to be a little careful though, BHAC isn’t necessarily for everyone.  Some occupations (engineering being one) attract the type of person who may get enormous satisfaction just from the accomplishment.  Some cultures (no matter what the occupation) have a much stronger aversion to individual recognition than others.  Still, it can’t hurt to think bigger than where the data usually lands, right?

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Jim Harvey is a Managing Partner with Alliance Compensation LLC (www.alliancecompensation.com) , a team of seasoned experts and trusted solution for clients across the Western US in public and private companies. He has over 35 years of experience in corporate leadership roles and consulting, and lives with his wife and three dogs in Sherwood, OR.

A while back (1994 to be exact) a term called a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal) was coined.  Think Boeing in Seattle getting into the jet airliner business as an example. What do you think the compensation plan was like for Boeing executives and engineers?  Do you think it matched the size, scope and impact […]

Read More
 
Alliance Compensation