For the C-Level

Late last fall, a group of senior sales leaders of a high-tech hardware company found themselves stuck. Their problems began 10 months earlier when the sales leaders embarked on their annual sales compensation review and design cycle. They went through the rounds of interviews and surveys with the sales organization, worked through alternatives for the plan, and arrived at a final set of compensation designs in early winter. The CEO, Edward, heard updates throughout the design phase and deferred to the executive steering committee. It was a long process that year because the company had shifted its focus slightly to include some additional software that complemented its hardware products. The sales leaders worked through the complexities with the executive steering committee and kept the sales compensation program relatively simple. The CEO continued to receive updates and defer to the executive steering committee.

As November passed, the sales leaders met with the executive steering committee for final review and approval of the new sales compensation program. The plan had been financially modeled for any imaginable situation, but it still had to be communicated to sales directors, sales managers, and opinion leaders in the field. All that remained was the formality of getting the CEO’s “nod.”

“What do they say about the best laid plans,” one of the SVPs of sales asked rhetorically. “We had the presentation down. It was very simple: a few pages, big diagrams, the strategy, where we are now, and what we’re going to change. Edward had already seen it all, in pieces, as we designed it. But we got a few pages into the presentation, and he started asking questions that sounded like he hadn’t seen the plans before.”

The other SVP chimed in. “The first question was about our planned mix of software and services by segment, and why we didn’t have an incentive measuring that for each rep. We talked about that a number of times with the executive steering committee months earlier and agreed to keep it at the sales management level and have them manage it during year one until we had some reliable numbers to set goals. Then Ed started digging into the financial modeling and challenging us about why the plan would pay more than the targeted cost of sales if we hit our company goal on average but had a lot of high performers. The team had agreed on the above-quota accelerators, and that’s what happens with accelerators. There were a bunch of other questions after that but I started to get a little irritated, because it was clear that Ed just wasn’t connected. We worked hard on keeping him informed, but when he finally locked in, we were at the end of the game. We ran this program by the field, we worked through all the details, and now it’s like we’re starting back in September and it’s practically December. So, we need to make some adjustments pretty quickly to keep the wheels on this thing for January.”

C-level executives get involved in various ways during the sales compensation process. Too much involvement too late can wreak havoc on the labor-intensive and time-consuming design process. It can also undermine the heavy lifting already done by the design team and the confidence the C-level has placed in the team. On the other hand, zero C-level involvement isn’t the right strategy, either. While the compensation design team may be brilliant, a brilliant sales compensation plan must line up with the vision for company-wide growth, which most often must come directly from the corner office.

We recently looked at C-level participation across a range of companies and found in 82% of companies high-value involvement peaks at the start of the process to provide strategic direction and 55% provide guidance on the priorities of the compensation plan.

According to our survey, 23 percent of C-levels participate periodically in design team meetings. However, most C-levels and their teams give caution about getting too involved in the details. It pulls the C-level out of his area of strength and sometimes turns him into the bull in the China shop. About 36 percent of C-levels get involved in the details occasionally, but very few (about five percent) get involved in the details frequently. For the inquisitive, high-IQ CEO or president, it takes a certain level of self-control, and team reinforcement to prevent this from happening.

How can you determine the right involvement points for a C-level executive in your sales compensation design process? How do you ensure his or her engagement?

To learn more, visit SalesGlobe, email mark.donnolo@salesglobe.com, or read What Your CEO Needs to Know About Sales Compensation.

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