Compensation people should inspire leaders to supply achievement objectives beyond simple imitation and blind followership. To succeed, we need to capture the imagination with catchy phrases.
Total rewards practitioners in most organizations are still compelled to imitate rather than create. “What are our competitors doing?” is constantly asked by top management. Then, orders to copy that consensus prevalent practice follow. No one is surprised by unexceptional results because the guidance was likewise the product of modest conservative expectations.
True innovators are hard to find. Those who gain media attention and conduct profitable speaking tours as innovators tend to be opportunistic exploiters from outside our profession. Entertaining profiteers hijack tradecraft terms and frame their frequently trite messages in overly simplistic prescriptions that are are easily swallowed by an uninformed public. Complex issues rarely have easy solutions. Slogans that sell books and make headlines don’t always translate well into real practice with real people in real organizations.
A major part of the problem may come from the apparent inability of compensation experts to communicate valid needs for variations in concise terms simple enough for senior executives to grasp and understand. We must come up with better short memorable phrases that create head-slap moments of revelation. If commercial speechwriters can successfully sell misleading (or at least partially defective) concepts, why can’t we sell superior ideas? Let’s work together to fight the desire to huddle together in mediocrity! Create better catchphrases.
The typical targets involve dull statistical terms. The mean is the average, the sum of all values divided by the number of observations. The mode is the most common case. The median is the precise middle. An average or central value defines what is mediocre. We can do better than that! Now, let’s build on those concepts…
Average is an insult when applied in performance ratings because it means “nothing special.” Most common is never used to describe the best. The median is neither high nor low but simply the center… precisely routine. So-so gets a shrug while great earns admiration. Which phrases reflect your aspirations? How many organizations strive to be undistinguished barely-noticed members of a crowded cluster group? Who wants to work at a boring mediocre organization?
The real action is at the outliers. Extremes are the exceptions. Do you want to excel at the top or settle in comfortably with the mass in the middle? Distinction requires contrast.
Leaders precede the rest, showing new directions for followers. Trailblazers go ahead of the pack. The best don’t meekly fall in at the rear to crawl up towards the crowded center. The path most taken eventually gets muddy and nearly impassible in bad weather. That sure doesn’t sound like “the safest” course to follow all the time, unless you want to end up where everyone else went, arriving long after they beat you there.
The optimal outcome from imitating others is only a tie. Winners act smartest first, define what is best and initiate the methods others scramble to copy. Leaders don't depend on others to guide them. No one ever got ahead by following the group.
Turkeys flock together; eagles fly alone. Your toughest rival appears in the mirror. Don’t be a lemming; set your own course. Imitators simply follow. Although every compass points north, that is not always the right direction to go.
While it is useful for context to know what the norm is, no enterprise seeks mediocrity. The cry to action should be, “Now that we know where everyone stands, how can we leap over them?” The standard course of action is the most common method and merely identifies the comfortable center location where all the unambitious copycats cluster. Only insecure executives need reassurance that they can defend feeble actions by pointing to a large mass of fellow low-achievers who lack the courage and foresight to take a different path for leadership. Make a choice to seek safety in the middle where mutual support and finger-pointing excuses abound or boldly stride into the lonely dangerous zones where better new ways produce breakthroughs.
Too verbose? Shrink them. What other short pithy memorable phrases can you suggest?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent consultant with extensive total rewards experience, specializing in job evaluation, market pricing and pay budget distribution. After HR corporate jobs in chemical/pharmaceutical manufacturing, he consulted at retail, government, energy, IT, tax-exempt and other industries throughout North America before becoming Senior Associate of pay survey software publisher ERI until 2015. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook) and speaker, he gave expert witness testimony in many reasonable executive compensation cases both for and against the Internal Revenue Service. Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
Vancouver BC train station tulips photo by E. James (Jim) Brennan