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Golden Oldies: Pay For Performance

by Miki Saxon

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies are a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

Money. Everyone’s favorite subject that no one wants to talk about. Especially when it comes to work, as in, “what were you making previously” and “what are you looking for now?”  

Tomorrow’s post focuses on a new law enacted in Philadelphia and New York City that has the potential to change that entire, unwanted conversation, forcing managers/companies to focus on the future, as opposed to history.

Read other Golden Oldies here.

starIn a post last week I asked for opinions on the ideas presented in a series of articles in Business Week on managing smarter but especially one that claims that “treating top performers the same as weaker ones is ‘strategic suicide’” and said I would add my thoughts in a future post.

Bob Foster left two interesting comments (well worth your time to click over and read). Regarding pay for performance he tells the story of a company where everybody from the CEO down all quit.

“Taking on the task to salvage the company, I hired new people that met unusual qualifications: they had to be qualified for the job they were applying for; they had to be unemployed and available immediately; they had to work at sub-standard wages; they had to work while knowing the company could close at any minute; and they had to work without supervision. The team that came together produced a highly successful company, and it was not because of high pay, or performance bonuses (there were none). The team stayed together, and performed, because of mutual respect, trust, appreciation, and consideration—people were ‘valued.’ To me, this is the truest form of ‘pay for performance.’”

I agree that trust was one of the key ingredients in what Bob accomplished, but it wasn’t the only one—or maybe I should say that it needs to be based on fairness and honesty.

Bob says the pay was ‘sub-standard’, but I assume that it was universally sub-standard relative to position and experience. If he had chosen to pay part of the team, say 10% more than their peers, the team wouldn’t have coalesced.

And that is exactly why I disagree with the idea of paying top performers, AKA stars, big sign-on bonuses or higher salaries than their peers.

  • Based on my own experience, 98% of star performers become stars as a function of their management and the ecosystem in which they perform. Change the management, culture or any other parts that comprise that ecosystem and the star may not survive.
  • Just as a chain is as strong as its weakest link there is no star in any sport, business, media, etc., who can win with a team that is subject to constant turnover and low morale.

Consider this common example.

Two people are hired at the same time with the same background, same GP0 and similar work experience, but with the one exception. One graduated from a ‘name’ school and the other from a community college. Starting salary is $50K, but the manager adds a 20% premium to the first candidate’s offer on the basis that she must be better to have gone to that school.

Neither candidate lived up to their potential because the manager made poor choices. In doing so he set both up to fail but for different reasons; one thought she had it made and the other that he was low value.

Merit bonuses fairly given for effort above and beyond acceptable performance levels make sense as long as they don’t come at the cost of developing new talent.

But one problem with ‘pay for performance’ is the pay often comes before the performance, but there are others and I’ll discuss them more Thursday. In the meantime, here are links to five posts from 2006 that give more detail on the trouble with stars.

Stars—they’re in your MAP

More about stars and MAP

Rejects or stars?

Star compensation

Retaining Stars

Image credit: sxc.hu

There were several interesting comments on the original post; check them out.

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