Escaping the Conformity Trap

Pearl Meyer & Partners has just released their contribution to the NACD’s new Governance Challenges 2014 and Beyond report, “Escaping the Conformity Trap: Aligning Executive Pay Programs with Business and Leadership Objectives.” I love the overall theme, which is that companies should not default to cookie-cutter measures of executive performance just because their peer companies do. The report also indicates that companies shouldn’t defer to peers on the amount of pay, though this point is less prominent. I make a similar — though more sweeping — argument in my forthcoming book, Indispensable and Other Myths: Why the CEO Pay Experiment Failed, and How to Fix It. (The book should be out around the end of May.)

Unfortunately, while there’s a lot in the Pearl Meyer report that is laudable, there’s also a fair amount of rehashing of typical errors. On page 18 (the report starts on p. 17 for some reason), the report describes the growth in CEO pay of 12% from 2009-2012 in Fortune 100 firms as “comparatively conservative.” This is technically true, if by “comparatively conservative” Pearl Meyer means that there have been much steeper rises in executive pay. But the rationale seems to be different. The report points out that the market capitalization of Fortune 100 firms increased by 50% over this same period, and credits external scrutiny of CEO pay and a desire to remain within peers’ norms for restraining CEO pay.

The clear implication here is that CEO pay should rise in proportion to the company’s stock price. (The report says this more explicitly on page 19 when it says total shareholder return is often a good performance metric.) As I point out in Indispensable, this is a dangerous fallacy. CEOs do not control their companies’ stock price. They can influence price (especially in the short term), but careful empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that executives’ actions account for only a small percentage of share price movement. The external environment broadly — and in the industry more particularly — drive the bulk of share price movement. So why should companies peg CEO pay to the growth in share price that for the most part is independent of their actions? This sort of rhetorical move is particularly disappointing in a report whose laudable aims seems to be to move companies in precisely the opposite direction, away from easy, off-the-shelf measures like share price that fail to capture what companies should really care about.
The report also backtracks when it comes to using comparable companies to set the amount of CEO pay. Despite having at least hinted that this is a poor strategy elsewhere in the report, it states (on p. 18):

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with providing executives with pay opportunities that reflect market norms for comparable positions in similarly sized and oriented companies.  With well-designed long-term performance metrics and goals, establishing pay opportunities  at market median will help ensure that actual, realizable pay is appropriately positioned based on relative performance outcomes.

But there absolutely is something wrong with this. As Charles Elson and Craig Ferrere have recently demonstrated, there is no market for CEO talent. Since CEOs have little ability to move to another company, why should a company care what its competitors are paying their own CEOs? Why not try to get a bargain by paying less, if the CEO can’t get a comparable job elsewhere? Scholars have advanced plenty of rationales (which I explore in the book but don’t have room to delve into here), but none of them work very well.

Although I’m disappointed that the report does not go nearly far enough, I was heartened that a major compensation consultant is at least beginning to question the conventional wisdom. It’s a small step, but at least it’s in the right direction.





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