How Should Pay Be Linked to Performance?

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Two news items caught my eye recently. The first was the report from the Home Depot annual meeting contrasting this year’s investor-friendlier tone set by the company’s new CEO, Frank Blake, with last year’s, led by then-CEO Robert Nardelli. It’s hard to tell how much of the investor-friendlier tone was created by the fact that Blake is earning about 70 percent less in base pay than Nardelli, totally aside from the fact that the latter also took home a nine-figure package in incentives. Home Depot’s stock has had lackluster performance under both CEOs. But there are those who say that Nardelli’s task of leading a transition from a highly decentralized, founder-led organization to one more reliant on shared services and central direction was enormous and that he was making good progress. How much is that worth?

The second item was a report of the decision by Moody’s Investors Service to begin taking into account the spread in pay packages between the top two executives in the organizations whose bonds it rates. Presumably, the larger the spread, the lower the bond rating, reflecting the higher implied risk associated with a large spread. As Mark Watson from Moody’s put it, “We are rating the company, not the person. A bus might come by and knock the (top) person over.”

There are several assumptions implicit in these two items. First, there are limits within which pay can elicit performance. Above a certain amount of incentive, does pay provide an incentive for or even influence performance? The Moody’s decision might suggest the assumption that pay reflects value to an organization, and possibly also potential performance. In other words, one’s pay in relation to the leader reflects one’s value (or even likelihood of being promoted) if the leader were to get hit by a bus today. A third assumption is that good leaders are very hard to find and are worth every penny they are paid, regardless of structural imperfections in the ways that compensation packages are negotiated and determined.

There are a number of reasons why pay may not reflect performance. First, many of the larger pay packages are negotiated by those being hired from outside the organization. Most often, an outside hire is prompted by poor performance by insiders. So in a sense, the bargaining power of the outsider is increased, regardless of the performance that may be delivered later. It is one of several reasons for the careful planning of executive succession. Further, many pay packages are determined on the basis of what others in comparable jobs, regardless of performance, are being paid. This creates a natural disconnect between pay and performance. Third, current pay often reflects past performance, not current or expected performance.

And to what extent does substantial pay for performance elicit short-term decision making that can even exacerbate management turnover? Does it encourage playing the “roller coaster” earnings game, in which executives in an organization can make enormous performance-based incentives in the odd years and none in the even years (ironically, when the large performance-based pay is reported to the public), thus netting a substantial performance bonus while producing little long-term benefits for owners? Is it even fair to ask those lower in the organization, who may be less able to afford it, to put part of their pay package on the line?

If pay is linked to performance, should it be to past, present, or expected performance? Or should pay be linked more closely to past, present, or expected value to the organization? Or are these differences academic? Do cross-company comparisons confuse the matter even further? Just how should pay be linked to performance? What do you think?
Copyright © 2007 President and Fellows of Harvard College

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