Only pay top pay for top people

We often hear organisations say they need the best people, therefore have to pay the best too. This line of argument is seriously flawed but is cited in every boardroom remuneration battle. It too often results in highly excessive reward for mediocre performance. In many cases, someone as good or even better could be employed for far less.

I meet a great many CXOs in my line of work, and with a few exceptions who really are worth their pay, I have noticed very little correlation between rank and overall capability or quality of judgement. Why should people be paid much better if they aren’t a lot better than their potential replacements? There are a few stars who ought to be rewarded, but most senior posts can be filled just as well at lower cost. Only vested interests maintain the ubiquity and longevity of this flawed reasoning that top executives have to be paid very richly within a company. 

In the vast majority of situations, and at every stage of promotion, a number of candidates apply for the job. There is usually very little to choose between the top candidates, but someone has to get the job, and it goes to the one who performed marginally better in the interview. What is then forgotten is that although the job has been filled, there are still several equally good people who could do it. If the winning candidate were to move on for higher pay elsewhere, any one of the others could easily pick up the baton and probably do just as well. It is therefore nonsense that the pay for the job has to be a lot higher than the grade below. If it were just 5% bigger than the lower grade, it would still be filled by someone just as competent. People would still want the more senior job because it is more senior. Pay is actually one of the lesser incentives, power being a greater one.

If each grade were paid 5% more than the grade below, wages would be much flatter. Typical blue chips have about 7 layers of management, and even this is open to question in terms of wisdom. That means that the top job only really needs to pay 40% more than the lowest grade. If an executive then performs far better than expected, they could be rewarded by bonuses, just like any other staff. If such a remuneration policy were implemented, it would save companies a great deal of money.

Of course, experience should be rewarded too and a wage scale within each grade is still useful to reward people who stay with a company as they become more useful. It would be reasonable to implement a bigger differential between the top and bottom of a scale than between scales. A higher grade might mean more responsibility or longer hours, but doesn’t necessarily need significantly more talent, and usually the job could be done by any number of people at the layer below. Therefore, promotion should be rewarded less lucratively than progress up each pay scale according to experience and tenure, which does correlate very highly with being more useful. Too often, someone who is excellent at their job is promoted to one where they are less excellent, and the company suffers (as does the person). Rewarding skill and experience within the job is often a better idea than promoting someone.

Clearly, some people do deserve to be paid much more than their colleagues. In many fields – design, leadership, research, engineering, teaching, law, medicine and so on, there are always a few high fliers who are so good at their job that they produce many times the value of their more ordinary colleagues. A top engineer might invent many of the key products on which the company depends, whereas many others perform at levels where they are easily replaced or outsourced. A top designer might make the product so appealing that it sells far better than it would otherwise. Companies should try hard to keep such people since they generate a disproportionate amount of income. But even here, pay is only one of a range of incentives that appeal to people, so companies should spend more effort looking at the individual’s goals and desires and target them more accurately. Bonuses and pay can be used of course if that is appropriate. In this case, there is no good reason a top designer should not be paid more than the CEO.

So, the problem is not that some people should not be paid more, it is that it isn’t always necessary to pay more. Just beating a few other candidates at an interview does not in itself guarantee that a person is much more valuable than others who also applied. In most cases they aren’t.

So, how to identify those that should be paid more? Simple. Top people stick out. If they don’t stick out, they aren’t top people. Top people don’t get discovered at job interviews. Often they don’t even apply for promotions because they are already exactly where they want to be.

If a product is hailed as having a wonderful design, find the people who were responsible and reward them. If a team performs well ahead of expectation, first reward them, and then ask them why they did so well. If they think that excellent leadership was a key factor, then reward the leader again too. Just don’t always jump to conclusions and always reward the people who happen to be in charge at the time something goes right. It may well have happened anyway, or even in spite of their involvement.

One of the big problems that many companies are now discovering is that top people no longer want to work for them. Often those people have found that thanks to the net, they can work freelance on a contract by contract basis for the highest bidder. Some of them can’t now be bought at any price as permanent employees, other will respond to higher offers. The result will be a small elite who are highly rewarded, and a large majority who are simply commodities and whose skills can be acquired at low cost either locally or from other countries.

So, what of the companies paying high salaries for top people. Well, some of them deserve it. Having them on board can save a company or dramatically improve its performance. But the simple truth is that most of the so-called top people are not top at all, but only marginally better than the competition at a series of interviews. They deserve 40% more than the junior manager, and not a penny more. We need to spend a lot less on high blanket remuneration of all executives, and start spending a little effort on identifying the really top people and reward them instead. It doesn’t take that much more effort, because as I said, the top people really stick out, and if they don’t, they simply aren’t top people.

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