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Long-term incentives plans serve as a critical motivator and recruiting tool for leaders. The key to the success of those programs is selecting the right measurable goals. Identifying the right measures for your organization can be tricky and often the best way to do so is to enlist the help of an experienced rewards consultant. To give you some ideas and get the conversation started, read through the helpful tips and considerations shared by Ryan Cameron, one of Mercer’s incentive design experts.
Since the use of long-term incentives (LTIs) has become more standard, there is an increasing expectation from shareholders that payout of LTIs will link to company performance. This naturally leads to two questions:
This article will answer these two questions and provide some guidance as to how you can be a resource to your organization’s leadership when linking long-term strategic goals to compensation.
There’s no easy answer to this question. There are essentially two components of company performance that we pay attention to and they don’t always align. Those are:
As illustrated in the graphic, strong operating performance during a time of weak stock performance is probably a better indicator of “good” performance than weak operating performance during a time of strong stock performance. The logic is that stock prices fluctuate due to a variety of factors, some beyond the control of the organization, and are not always an effective indicator of long-term “good” performance when taken at a specific time point. Strong operational performance, however, suggests that in the long-term, the business will continue to create value for its investors.
We need to define “strong operation performance” because strong operational performance is the best component on which the organization should focus to drive future value for shareholders (i.e., “good company performance”). What operational measures indicate strong performance? Defining operational measures and strong performance is business and industry specific. For your company, you need to consider a variety of questions and perspectives.
Consider the Internal Business Context:
Consider the External Value Correlation and Design Tradeoffs:
Broadly speaking, the relative correlation of specific metrics by industry significantly decreased since 2019 when we last did this analysis. That decrease is most likely driven by noncompany-specific impacts on Total Shareholder Return (e.g., COVID’s impacts on the market). In our most recent analysis, we continue to find that most industries have a weaker long-term relationship between revenue and shareholder returns (i.e., growing revenue does not appear to have much impact on shareholder returns), as indicated by yellow, orange, and red shading; whereas, others, such as Telecommunication Services, have a fairly strong relationship between revenue and shareholder returns, as indicated by green shading. That would suggest a revenue growth measure (often via customer acquisition) as a strong potential performance measure within Telecommunication Services. Conversely, a retail organization using total revenue as a performance measure might be better suited to shift their focus to earnings from continued operations net income or an earnings per share (EPS) measure. These measures show more of a correlation to driving shareholder return than total revenue in the retail sector.
Understand the Company-Specific Fit:
Once you have narrowed down the specific measures that will define good versus bad performance for your organization, then comes the task of linking that performance to payouts.
In its simplest form, using stock-based incentives naturally links payouts to company performance. The underlying assumption is that strong company performance will lead to an increase in stock price. If executives are being issued stock, they will benefit from the higher stock price. In the past few years, this hypothesis has consistently been challenged as businesses may have had a strong operating performance in an economic environment that drove inconsistent results relative to that operating performance.
Given that stock price is not determined solely by company operating performance, a common approach to promoting long-term company performance is to align LTI payouts using goal-setting (i.e., set threshold, target, and maximum payout goals). A key component of linking payouts to goal-setting is to understand leverage and probability of success. Based on Mercer’s experience, the table below outlines typical guidelines for payout ranges and probability of success or achievement.
In the table above, we show a range of possible payouts and their related probabilities, but let’s walk through an example to show how this would actually work.
In the above example, the executive’s target goal is set at the time of grant. The stock price at that time is used to convert that target value into a target number of shares.
To put numbers behind this, let’s imagine the company has set a target goal of $300M in revenue to be achieved over the next three years (i.e., $100M in revenue per year on average). The company sets this target goal believing they have a 50% to 60% chance of achieving it. They also set a threshold goal of $270M in revenue and a maximum goal of $350M in revenue (assuming they have an 80% to 90% and a 10% to 20% chance of achievement, respectively).
In our simplified example, the company’s CEO has a target LTI value of $500,000 and this value will be received in shares. At the beginning of the period, the company grants $500,000 worth of unvested shares. If the stock was priced at $100 per share on grant date, the executive would receive 5,000 unvested shares.
The company has also set the below payout opportunities for the CEO, based on goal achievement:
At the end of the three years, the company has achieved a revenue of $325M. Since $325M is halfway between $300M and $350M, the CEO has earned the midpoint between Target (1x) and Max (2x). In other words, at the end of three years, the executive earns 7,500 shares. At the original stock price of $100, these shares would be worth $750,000.
Now, given the company’s strong operating performance (exceeding the target goal), it may seem fair for the CEO to receive $750,000 worth of shares. However, a key underlying reason why LTI is often paid out in shares or equivalents of shares is to align the CEO’s final payout with the return experienced by shareholders.
Imagine that in this example this company’s industry has experienced a dramatic decrease in market value (e.g., this is a real estate construction company and the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates higher than expected). The company’s shares have decreased in value by 1/3 since grant date (i.e., shares are now worth ~$67). That means the payout of the CEO’s grant is now worth $500,000 (i.e., 1/3 less than grant date). Due to the stock’s decrease in value, the CEO now “feels the pain” of the shareholders by realizing $250,000 less than the expected value.
The keys to a successful LTI program lie in selecting the right performance measures for your organization and setting up the right correlation between success and payout. By considering market, industry, and internal perspectives – with guidance from Mercer experts when necessary – you too can put in place a plan that will engage and motivate the leaders in your organization.
For more information on LTIs, read “Long-Term Incentives: The Basics” or check out our Executive Rewards offerings.
Ryan Cameron, CFA, Principal, led Mercer’s national training on performance measurement & goal-setting. He primarily focuses on compensation strategy for executives and board members. He has helped leaders in multiple industries develop incentive strategies to drive company performance and maximize shareholder and stakeholder return.