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Employee compensation represents one of an organization’s biggest and most crucial investments. With the right compensation structure in place, an organization can hire and retain great talent to drive profitable business. On the other hand, a poor compensation structure can lead to a talent crisis or trouble maintaining profitability.

Unlike so many other elements of business or HR, executive compensation is not simply a matter of best practices. While industry benchmarks are an important part of the formula, any compensation strategy should focus on the unique needs, goals, strengths, and culture of the organization.

That means designing a strong approach to compensation requires a great deal of thought, planning, and self-knowledge. Recently, Launchways hosted a free one-hour webinar focused on how organizations can align their compensation structure to their company’s size, strategy, and culture.

Looking forward, we’ll explore some of the main ideas from the webinar, including:
• The value of planning and alignment when it comes to executive compensation
• Creating alignment with a business’ cultural and philosophical values in mind
• Leveraging equity effectively as part of a compensation strategy
• Creating a bonus structure that’s scaled to your business

The Power of Planning and Alignment
Executive compensation would probably be a lot easier if all businesses were the same, but the incredible variety of industries, business types, and corporate cultures in the marketplace means that one-size most certainly does not fit all.

In order to succeed in such a wide-open game, organizations must articulate a clear, well-thought-out strategy to guide their approach to talent acquisition and retention that’s built on a deep understanding of what their business is, where they are today, where they’d like to go, and what they need to do to get there. By focusing on compensation strategy conceptually and not just hiring and compensating employees one-off, businesses can create a more cohesive culture that’s aligned with business goals.

For example, in the case of startups, many key players (especially executives) are often brought onto a team one at a time. This creates a flexible situation in which many early-stage companies create a variety of different salary points, equity offers, and bonus packages on an ad hoc basis to fit employees as they hire.

While that model works well for some startups and may be tempting in the short term, it can be disastrous as a basis for a long-term compensation structure for several reasons. First of all, planning compensation one employee at a time makes it easy to lose the forest for the trees. That means that, after several years of hiring, employees throughout the company could command salaries and benefits packages that have little to do with their current value to the organization and better reflect how desperate the company was for talent at the time of hire.

Additionally, working on a case-by-case basis without a well-structured, well-aligned plan in place can wind up producing a pay scale that feels unfair and demotivating for workers just a year or two in. The more transparency and logical explanation an organization can provide about how compensation works, the more likely they are to connect with discerning talent.

When a business builds a consistent, richly-planned, well-articulated compensation structure, it tells the workforce, “Everybody here is valuable, and we are in this together.” By planning a consistent approach to compensation from the outset, organizations can create a well-scaled core team with a healthy culture that’s positioned to drive both innovation and profit.

Planning with Values and Goals in Mind
If self-knowledge is the key to compensation alignment, the next logical question is, “What kind of self-knowledge do we need?” The short answer to that question is “as much as possible,” but let’s take a moment to think about some specific questions businesses’ should ask themselves about their organizational values and goals as they build a compensation strategy.

Revenue vs. Profit vs. Innovation – The way leaders are compensated must directly reflect their ability to drive business success. With that said, there a variety of different ways to quantify that success depending on a business’ size, position in the marketplace, and growth targets.

A strong approach to executive compensation must identify key growth indicators or KPIs and ensure individual success is aligned with company success. That means compensation strategies may shift as the organization evolves, but only in mindful ways that reflect the work at hand and upcoming goals.

Individual vs. Team Performance – Some businesses are about achieving results no matter what and elevating the difference-makers who got there when others couldn’t; other organizations emphasize collective or team-based success. Each scenario requires a specific approach to compensation, and a lack of philosophical alignment only sets everybody up to fail.

Make no mistake, incentivizing individual achievement or teamwork will directly and strongly shape workplace culture, which reinforces the importance of planning with organizational goals and values in mind before designing compensation packages out of thin air. Both models can be successful in different scenarios, but once again, it’s a matter of industry, goals, and organizational self-knowledge.

Short- vs. Long-term Performance – It wouldn’t be fair to judge or compete in a race if the distance wasn’t established ahead of time. By the same token, the effectiveness of leaders can’t be fairly judged without a business articulating what they really value and expect.

Some organizations philosophically prefer a slow and steady pace; others are innovation-minded and would rather someone step up to the plate and hit a home run than maintain a solid batting average for several years. Again, both styles can work, but getting caught between the two in terms of articulation or finding compensation out of alignment with organizational goals can both be costly.

Aligning Different Elements of Your Compensation Package
Any compensation package includes a salary, employee benefits, and often for executives, equity and bonus opportunities. For a compensation structure to truly work, all those pieces of the pie must be balanced in a way that works for assets and the company alike, building reward, incentive, and buy-in.

Let’s think about how different elements of that compensation puzzle can be implemented or leveraged depending on company goals, size, and industry.

Balancing Base Salary – Base salary is probably the least “unique” piece of a compensation package, as it is generally strongly informed by industry benchmarks. With that said, salary can be adjusted on a sliding scale based on organizational values and growth goals.

For example, an early-stage organization prioritizing growth, innovation, and short-term performance can create strong bonus incentives for executives (more on that later), allowing the organization to place less emphasis on salary. On the other hand, larger, more established businesses who are years or decades past their IPO can align their compensation structure to their market positioning by putting greater emphasis on salaries.

Intelligently Leveraging Equity – In almost any for-profit business scenario, the business itself is the owners’ primary asset. When experienced executives see a profitable idea or great business model, they want to get in on the ground floor and grow along with that company. That means equity offers can be powerful incentives for executives and other leaders to drive growth, achieve milestones, and stay bought in for a half-decade or more.

On the other hand, some organizations’ goals or financial positions might make it advantageous to protect equity. That can be a successful and profitable long-term strategy as well, but in order to win with great talent, those organizations will need to pump up other aspects of compensation, such as salary or achievable bonuses.

Again, the key either way is to articulate a consistent approach that’s aligned to company goals and drives growth – not just to land talent by offering them stock options.

Building an Impactful Bonus Structure – Startup culture has made equity compensation so attractive over the last 20 years that cash bonuses are often forgotten as part of a winning compensation strategy. With that said, a well-scaled bonus structure is a fantastic tool for keeping leadership engaged and maximizing each project or initiative.

Bonuses invite employees to succeed and celebrate alongside the organization they work for and see the true connection between their great work and company growth. In this way, bonuses reward assets for their direct, impactful alignment with company values and goals. That’s why bonuses are great buy-in tools and motivators, both in the long- and short-term.

One of the best ways organizations (even small or medium-sized ones) can provide impactful bonuses that show clear alignment with company values and goals is to provide ad hoc rewards. Essentially, ad hoc bonuses are cash rewards distributed to leaders and/or team members when specific goals are achieved. An ad hoc bonus could come at the end of a timely development sprint, at the completion of a key project, at the closing of a major account, or any other time for organizational celebration.

Creating a winning executive compensation structure is highly complex because no two businesses are alike. Remember:
• Executive compensation must be aligned with organizational goals and values in order to succeed
• Salary, equity offers, and bonuses can all be structured, balanced, and leveraged in different ways depending on company size and objectives, but the compensation structure must match be built purposefully and account for the uniqueness of the organization

If you’re looking for more tips on how to align your compensation structure to your business and culture then download and stream the complete executive compensation webinar now.

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