Many times, people who find out that part of my business is focused on executive compensation consulting ask how I can support “CEOs who are already making so much money.” I usually answer with a variation of “but, hardly anyone makes as much as you think.” When I inform people that most (>75%) CEOs make salaries of less than $500,000 a year, I am often met with exclamations about “multi-millionaires”, “people who control everything”, “greedy executives”, "horrible pay ratios” and whatever other compensation outrage has made the news in the past year. I know it’s hard to believe, but most CEOs are paid in the middle of their range. So what is the middle? Not surprisingly, when I talk to CEOs about their pay, the reaction is often similarly misinformed. You should see the reactions when I tell CEOs that about 50% of small companies pay their Chief Executive Officer $250,000, or less, in salary. They have seen the articles. They watch the news. They know in their bones that “hardly anyone makes that little.” There are about 400,000 CEOs in the United States. That means hundreds of thousands of them do not make a million dollars a year.
In fact, less than 10% of CEOs have annual salaries north of $1 million dollars. To be fair, CEOs at Fortune 500 companies do get paid an average of $10.8 million in total compensation (depending on how it was measured this number is quoted as high as $12.9 million). This amount is broken down approximately into thirds. With one-third being salary and bonus, one-third “other compensation” and one-third income from stock option exercises and vesting of other equity awards. I should note that few in this group are paid salaries above $1,000,000 due to 162(m) restrictions.
If you take these 500 people out of the mix, you have about 399,500 CEOs left. The vast majority of these have little in the way of equity with real intrinsic value. Virtually none have anything in the way of high-end perquisites. And, a huge percentage of these CEOs founded the companies they oversee. Most have never heard of, nor care about, ISS and Glass Lewis. Most don't care about Say on Pay, because they are large shareholders (or sole owners) of the companies they oversee.
These executives and the compensation professionals (internal or external) who support them are constantly striving to align compensation with success. The goal is seldom to pay at all costs. Pay for performance and well-designed compensation programs are not just for the front-page executives who make millions. Let’s be honest. Hardly anyone makes that much!
How do you define “enough” for your CEO? Are they overpaid, or is that just one more myth that compensation professionals need to dispel?
Interesting fact: Imagine the blue background of the image accompanying this post represents the 400,000 CEOs in the US. The five yellow dots would represent all of the CEOs at Fortune 500 Companies. Sometimes it seems like we may focus too much on too little.