Situation: A technology company has established a leadership position in their niche. Nevertheless, they struggle with individual performance and buy-in to company performance. The CEO asks whether increasing ownership through stock incentives in a non-public company is an effective incentive for employees. How do you strengthen internal incentives and ownership?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the past, employees voiced a strong predilection for share ownership as recompense for the personal risk and sweat that they have put into the company.
It may be advisable to revisit this, particularly given the increased risk that comes with share ownership as a result of regulatory changes of the last 10 years.
As a substitute for share ownership, they may be open to some proxy that will provide them with value and the opportunity to have their opinions heard in the case of a buy-out.
Another company looked at this closely at the time of formation. They decided that proper recognition for contribution did not equal ownership. Ownership also entails personal liability and risk, which many don’t realize and, once they understand the implications of owners’ liability, don’t want. As an alternative they adopted a liberal profit-sharing structure that has met with employee enthusiasm.
Think about this discussion in terms of incentives:
Short Term – Annual-type incentives
Make sure that incentives align with desired behaviors so that individuals’ contributions contribute to business plan objectives and the next step for the company.
Long Term – consider the trade-offs
Broadly distributed share ownership not only complicates future flexibility but may also complicate a buy-out or merger opportunity. Consider the implications of a situation where most shares are in the hands of past rather than current employees.
Strategic Partners wishing to invest may be reticent to work with a company with broadly distributed ownership.
ESOPs, while frequently referenced, tend to eat their children. They have several complications:
They are governed by ERISA, so you cannot discriminate. All must be able to participate.
Ownership is prescribed – with a maximum of 10% per employee. Will a future CEO candidate be happy with 10% when the admin assistant gets 3%? In this way ESOPs can impair succession and recruitment plans.
Annual valuations can be expensive.
Phantom or Synthetic Equity Programs
A company can tailor these to meet changing objectives.
Valuations are cheap and valuation metrics are easy to monitor.
To work through the options, sit and talk with the employees, and listen. Ask what concerns them. Don’t try to come up with a solution until their concerns are understood. There is an array of options available.
Situation: A company is concerned about increased energy expense as prices rise, and the impact on the bottom line. Pricing in their market is competitive. What’s the best way to recover these costs? Can you pass higher expenses on to customers?
Advice from the CEOs:
Businesses regularly pass on their increased gas and transportation costs to both commercial and retail customers as these costs rise.
This isn’t just true for gas and transportation expenses. As other expenses rise, companies regularly increase their pricing to account for increased costs.
Is it necessary to send out an announcement letter about the company’s intent to do this?
Some companies do. Others just start adding a line with a gas surcharge to their invoices. This is happening frequently enough so that most customers just pay it without question.
What do you do if someone objects?
If a customer objects, you always have the option to credit them the charge.
Again, most customers are so accustomed to seeing and tolerating these costs that they don’t object.
Look at the company accounting system. Are costs and performance trackable by business segment? Performance numbers show both the impact and magnitude of energy cost and improve the ability to manage the business.
If the talent is not present to either improve the current accounting system or to shift to better software, bring in part time accounting help. A good source is Robert Half International/AccountTemps. The cost of adjusting the current system will be recovered as the company gains more control over expenses by segment.
Situation: A CEO is considering a new revenue model for his company. The existing model is profitable and stable, but not scalable. A new model, and perhaps additional locations may be needed to add scalability. How do you assess the risks of the model? What steps can be taken to reduce these risks. How to you evaluate a new revenue model?
Advice from the CEOs:
Project both the current and new models on a spreadsheet. What do profitability and return look like over time based on current trends?
Include assumptions about adding new customers within the model. Consider capacity constraints at the present location. Add start-up investment needed for the new model. Does overall profitability increase in the projections and will this adequately cover new customer acquisition costs?
Are performance standards for the current and new models different? Would it make sense to have different teams managing the models? What kind of experience will be required in the people who will build the new business? Account for personnel additions and start-up costs in the financial projections.
Critically evaluate the upfront financial exposure as new clients are signed up for the new model. Consider hybrid options which can be added to customer contracts. Examples include:
A variable flat fee model. Customers contracted under the new model will receive services up to X hours per month for the flat fee, with hours over this billed separately.
How do current time and materials rates compare with industry averages? If they are high, it is not necessary to quote existing rates to new model customers. Create a new rate schedule just for new model customers. Taking a lower rate under the flat fee model will not cover all costs and profit; however, it will at least partially cover utilization exposure and a higher rate for additional hours can make up the difference.
During the ramp up period of a new operating unit, client choice is critical. If, based on observations and responses in client questionnaires, heavy early work is anticipated, charge an initial set-up fee. Alternatively, ask for a deposit of 3-4 months to cover set-up exposure. If either at the end of the service contract or after a burn-in period some or all these funds have not been used, the client is refunded the unused deposit. This can both cover early exposure and make it easier to sign new customers for the new unit.
Draft contracts under the new model to include one-time fees in the case of certain events – e.g., a server crashes in the first 9 months of the contract, or an unplanned move within the first X months of the contract. These resemble the exceptions written into standard insurance policies. They can be explained as necessary because standard contract pricing is competitive and does not anticipate these events within the first X months of the contract. Most companies will bet against this risk. Those who do not may know something about their situation that they are not revealing. In the latter case you will be alerted to potential exposure.
Consider a variable declining rate for the new model. The contract price is X for the first year, and, assuming there are no hiccups, will be reduced by some percent in following years. This resembles auto insurance discounts for long term policy holders with good driver records.
Adding hybrid options may make it easier to sign new clients while covering cost exposure. The view of the CEOs is that most clients will underestimate their IT labor needs and will bet against their true level of risk. Provided that the new model delivers the same service that supports the company’s reputation, once clients experience the company’s service, they will be hooked.
An additional benefit to hybrid options may be faster client acquisition ramps within new satellite units and faster attainment of positive ROI.
Situation: A boutique software company with superior expertise in their market competes against a large corporation that provides similar software for “free.” The competitor sells systems with their software pre-installed; however, these systems are known to work better with the boutique company’s software. How do you compete against free software?
Advice from the CEOs:
Create an alternate message that rings consistently through your advertising, speaking, and media. The core of this message is that if you want a successful experience with the competitor’s installation, the only clear choice is your software. Feature data from your case studies showing improvements in performance, savings of time and resources, etc.
Your best target is customers who are in the proof of concept stage. Here they are learning about the system and dealing with the early challenges with the software installed by the competitor. They not only have to pay for the system, but they must pay for installation services. If you can demonstrate both cost savings and smoother operation they will be open to your pitch.
Keep a list of the competitor’s trial sites and approach them three months after they try the pre-installed software. Have case studies in hand that demonstrate the clear superiority of your software. At this point they will have experienced enough during the trial that they will be open to your sales message.
Focus on the regional rales organizations of your competitor – the people who sell the competitor’s equipment. The RSOs are driven purely by sales performance. Show them that it is easier to sell their systems, and that trials go more smoothly when they recommend your software as part of the sale.
Your message: with our software your trial installations go more smoothly; without our software, the entire system sale is at risk.
Continue to refine your search engine optimization so that you appear in the first five hits when anybody asks about the competitor’s systems or software.
Find an independent Blogger who cares and wants to spread the message that your software is the only way to go with the competitor’s system. Continually feed this blogger with fresh material from your field sales experience.
Situation: The CEO of a company has a niece working in the company on a project basis. The niece is has helped to develop a strategic plan and has performed well. She now wants to move from part-time to full-time and to receive a raise. Does it make sense to promote a relative?
Advice from the CEOs:
If you are pleased with the individual’s work, don’t worry about the family relationship – go ahead and hire her. This is especially true if she can play a significant role developing the strategic plan and help you to improve your sales organization.
Give this individual a set of responsibilities, a budget, and a time line to do the jobs you want done.
Evaluate her performance just as you would any other employee. Don’t compromise your standards for a relative.
This may offer the opportunity to improve your sales. Have your niece work and travel with your sales people as a systems engineer. This will allow her the opportunity to learn your products, customers, and process – and will provide you with valuable input on how your sales team is performing.
You are really addressing two problems:
What is your niece’s passion? Don’t make work for her simply because she’s related and available. The work must serve your and the company’s needs.
Do you have holes in your business? Put your best people on these If your niece is one of these people, then give her a chance but don’t play favorites.
Situation: A founding CEO is evaluating a purchase offer for his company. The buyer wants the CEO to retain some ownership interest to assure a smooth transition post sale, and ongoing assistance from the CEO so that the company continues to succeed post-sale. Should the CEO retain a minority share of the company? How do you structure an earn-out?
Advice from the CEOs:
The ideal option is full payment up-front. However, if the CEO is perceived by the buyer as critical to the company the buyer will want to have some assurance of continued services for some period.
An earn-out of fixed payments over time is acceptable provided that the language of the agreement is acceptable. However, performance-based earn-outs make no sense if the CEO no longer has control over the decisions that will impact performance. Don’t structure the payment as an earn-out, but as a retention bonus and assure that the terms are favorable.
Post-sale a minority share of your old company holds no value if you can’t monetize it. Holding a small share of a non-traded company has the same challenges.
It is all about liquidity.
If the other party offers this, ask what is the value is to you of the retained share.
Minimize the earn-out if one is demanded, but don’t count on it.
If there isn’t a strategic fit between the buyer and the company, the value of the company in a sale will be lower.
Situation: A company’s accountants advise them to make distributions for tax purposes. Simultaneously, the company’s future is based on technology and staying ahead of the competition. This requires ongoing investment. Do you focus on taxes or investment?
Advice from the CEOs:
The focus of the answer is distributions and company morale, not tax planning. Think about the impact on the team. Are there considerable differentials in compensation within the company? If so, this may be impacting morale.
Differentiate bonuses from variable compensation. Make bonuses special. This starts at the top. The attitude should be that if someone works hard, they will be compensated. Once bonuses become assumed, they are just regarded as part of the overall compensation package.
Smaller geographical units can help retain a small company atmosphere and drive. As a company grows, similar results can be achieved with Tiger Team projects.
If the organizational structure enables this, foster friendly competition metrics between offices – and publish the results.
One company distributes performance data to top staff – with color-color coded red/yellow/green metrics based on performance. All red and yellow numbers require an explanation. The company has seen a significant reduction in red and yellow metrics since they started this.
At company meetings – publicize and recognize top 10 performers in various areas. Recognition boosts morale.
Company events boost teamwork and morale. These may include company barbeques, in-house cooking shows created and run by staff, and quarterly outings – bocce ball, tubing, sailing on the Bay.
Growth is accompanied by change. When a company starts it’s a mission. After 15 years it’s a job. This is a function of growth, and it takes ongoing creativity to keep individual employees excited about their job and role.
Situation: A company is having difficulty finding the right sales candidates for the opportunity that they offer. They have had good conversations with prospects, but once they present their offering the candidates reply that they’re not interested. How do they define their offer to attract good candidates? How do they adjust the conversation to produce better results? How do you define your sales offering?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is the same conversation that you have with your biggest client prospects.
Good people have options. If you have not convinced yourself that you have a great opportunity, you will never convince them that your offer is better than other options.
You are selling YOU.
Change early process.
Be sure that you are as passionate about your opportunity as you are about positioning your services with clients.
Divorce the conversation about the opportunity from the general screening interview.
Here’s the process:
Your recruiter does not sell.
Just ask the recruiter to identify potential; not to initiate the sale.
Do this sale yourself.
Aspects of the story – much of this is the same story that you present to your clients:
Your performance within your industry.
Strength of your people and brand name.
The quality of your clients.
The unique opportunity that the prospect has joining you at this stage of your business growth.
Situation: A company hired an employee one year ago. The employee is competent but slow. Even after a year on the job, other employees with similar skills and experience are able to complete the same job three times faster. What is the best way to handle this? How do you set expectations for an employee?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important principle governing situations like this is clarity of communications. You must clearly express your expectations, and you must assure that the employee clearly understands your expectations.
Assure that expectations are clearly expressed. This means what you expect in terms of performance, and firm timelines for achieving minimum requirements. You also must assure that the employee understands the consequences for failing to meet minimum requirements. The best assurance is written confirmation that the employee understands what is expected.
Don’t be vague or nice about your expectations, performance requirements or the consequences for failing to meet minimum requirements. This risks sending the wrong message to the employee.
Put the employee on a performance improvement plan to meet minimum job requirements. Monitor and document for 30-60 days and then handle according to how the employee responds.
If the individual can’t meet the objective, but has potential value to the company, offer the person an appropriate position at the level that the new position pays.
Have a second person in the room when you deliver the message. If you determine that you have to terminate the employee and the employee elects to sue, this will help your case in a judicial action.
Situation: A company’s staff is highly paid. Historically, annual raises have been 4-5%; however some individuals are above industry salary ranges. The CEO doesn’t want to lose key individuals who would be expensive to replace. The company is planning salary increases for the end of this year. If the level is lower than historic averages they are concerned about the impact. Are planning for salary increases this year? How will you communicate your decision to employees?
Advice from the CEOs:
What’s the problem? Even in an improving economy your employees are lucky to be making what they do! On top of this, you need to consider profitability compared to last year as well as historic levels. Selectively share financial data with your employees as well as financial realities – your and their top priority are to keep the company healthy.
Gather data on salary ranges for roles in your industry. Good sources are Salary.com for national data (it may be dated) or Assets Unlimited’s Silicon Valley Survey for up-to-date salary information by industry and position. This will help you to prepare for conversations with employees who are currently paid above the range for their positions.
If you have employees above the range and do not want to give them raises, give them bonuses or spot bonuses for work well done.
Formalize your bonus system – base bonuses on performance metrics. Consider tying bonuses to net margin performance for the company or for departments that can impact new margin.
Whatever you decide, make announcements about salary levels a positive event.