Are CEO Pay and Performance Linked?

Since the 1970s, CEO pay has risen dramatically in an effort to inspire a similar rise in performance. The evidence, however, suggests that pay and performance are only loosely linked, if at all.


If people are motivated by pay, and pay is tied to job performance, then increased pay should lead to improved performance—but over the past few decades, the evidence has failed to support this conclusion.

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In Indispensable and Other Myths (University of California Press, 2014) Michael Dorff explores the consequences of the addition of stock options and bonuses—as well as salary increases—to CEOs’ pay. Not only has performance pay not demonstrably improved corporate performance, but linking pay and performance seems to decrease CEOs’ ability to perform the kind of tasks companies ask of them. Dorff argues that companies should give up on the decades-long experiment to mold compensation into a corporate governance tool and maps out a rationale for returning to the era of guaranteed salaries. The following excerpt comes from the Introduction.

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Pay and Performance in a Darwinian Economy

The year 2008 was a tough one for most public corporations. The stock market collapsed, diving 38 percent. The broader economy sank into the deepest and longest recession since the Great Depression. The financial markets froze, blocking companies from their usual ability to borrow when in trouble.

Even against this depressing backdrop, some companies’ suffering stood out. American International Group (AIG) endured cataclysmic losses in 2008, over $13 billion in just the first six months. Annual losses grew to a staggering $99 billion by year’s end. From a high of over $70.00 per share, AIG’s stock price fell to $1.25 per share in September, a drop of over 98 percent. To keep AIG afloat, the federal government ultimately loaned the company over $180 billion.

Few companies have imploded as dramatically as AIG. But other companies’ shares also dropped much further than the market as a whole. The stock price of Abercrombie and Fitch sank 71 percent, for example, and the oil and gas company Nabors Industries saw its share price cut in half.

When a company performs as dismally as these three did, we expect the board to fire the CEO. We might also envision (even a little gleefully) that the CEO’s assets would be confiscated in lawsuits by angry shareholders. Images of brave captains going down with their ships spring to mind. After all, these CEOs led their companies into disaster, causing mayhem for employees, customers, suppliers, the economy generally, and, most important, the companies’ owners—the shareholders. In a Darwinian economy, we expect the weak to be, well, eaten.

AIG’s CEO, Martin Sullivan, was, in fact, fired. Then AIG’s board of directors paid him $47 million severance as a reward for a job well done. Abercrombie’s CEO, Michael Jeffries, not only kept his job, but received $71.8 million in total pay, roughly equivalent to $1 million for each percentage point decline in the company’s value. The total included a $6 million retention bonus to persuade Mr. Jeffries to stay, even though he had been with the company for seventeen years and showed no signs of leaving. Nabors’s CEO, Eugene Isenberg, also made out pretty well, taking home $79.3 million, including a $58.7 million bonus.

These sorts of stories of CEOs receiving enormous rewards for dismal corporate results anger almost everyone, from pundits to presidents. They seem like clear signals that something is wrong with the way the corporations are governed. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks these CEOs deserved the pay they got. When a company does poorly, even defenders of the current system tend to agree that it’s wrong for the CEO to take home a huge paycheck.

But what about success stories like that of General Electric’s legendary CEO, Jack Welch? Welch became GE’s CEO in 1981, when its market capitalization was $14 billion. By the time he retired twenty years later, GE’s market capitalization had skyrocketed to $415 billion, making it the largest corporation in the world by that measure. In 1999, Fortune named Welch “Manager of the Century.” (Not everyone agrees that Welch deserves all this praise, but the dominant narrative describes Welch as a superstar.) GE compensated Welch richly for his leadership. To give some sense of the wealth Welch—who comes from a humble background—accumulated during a lifetime of employment at GE, the year of his retirement Forbes estimated his net worth as $680 million (equivalent to almost $900 million in 2012 dollars). Is there anything wrong with Welch earning huge sums for expanding GE’s worth nearly thirtyfold?

Many people believe that when a corporation does poorly, its leader should suffer commensurately. That CEOs such as Sullivan, Jeffries, and Isenberg receive eight-figure compensation packages understandably offends shareholders who are suffering staggering losses. Employees losing their jobs at these companies no doubt feel similarly outraged. Conversely, many would support the notion of rewarding excellent performance like Welch’s with superior pay.

Is it possible that both these ideas are wrong? Is blaming the CEO for a corporate meltdown unfair? And is rewarding the CEO for a company’s outstanding performance wrongheaded? Could basic ideas like (1) the CEO determines the company’s performance and (2) tying the CEO’s pay to the company’s performance will motivate the CEO to excel be completely off-target?

Common Beliefs About Pay and Performance

Our notions about pay and performance and the link between the two are based on a number of deeply held ideas that are difficult to question. What ideas am I talking about? The least controversial of these is our sense of what’s normal. For the past few decades, CEO pay has risen dramatically, even after accounting for inflation. There have been a few off years, but we are typically treated to a steady diet of news stories about the latest enormous increase in CEO compensation. Because this trend has continued for so long, we tend to think that this is how things have to be.

We also have a strong intuition about how CEO pay should be structured. We are used to hearing about million-dollar salaries that are dwarfed by large bonuses, huge baskets of restricted stock, and enormous options packages (sometimes in the tens of millions). The key, we believe, is to tie CEO pay to the company’s performance so the CEO will be incentivized to run the company well and boost the stock price. Like our beliefs about having consistent increases in the amount of pay, the conventional wisdom about the structure of CEO pay has lasted for several decades, long enough that most of us have trouble conceiving of any other method than tying pay to performance.

Many of us also think of corporations in a sense as people. The comparison of a corporation to a person can seem apt in important ways; corporations are entities with interests and motives of their own that act aggressively to increase their wealth and power. Some of us may be suspicious of corporations; we may fear that they have far too much power in our society, that they have the money, sophistication, and connections to get what they want from the political system in a way most of us cannot. But I suspect few of us worry that corporations are vulnerable, that they are too easily taken advantage of in some of their most important deals. To most of us, corporations—especially the type of large, publicly traded corporation I discuss in this book—are the epitome of power. We might need protection from them, but they are perfectly capable of looking out for their own interests.

Our faith in corporations seems especially well placed when they are negotiating their CEOs’ payment packages. What could be a more important decision than how a company motivates its leader? Surely with so much at stake, and with so much sophistication and intelligence applied to the task, corporations and their CEOs must negotiate the most effective and efficient compensation packages possible, designed to inspire just the right actions. The market for CEOs (including their pay packages) must be incredibly efficient.

Crony Capitalism or Efficient CEO Pay?

There is a split in popular thinking at this point. While many people wholeheartedly agree that CEO pay is set efficiently, others feel that the directors who run corporations do not bargain at arm’s length with their CEOs. These critics suspect some version of crony capitalism must be at work. The directors and the CEOs move in the same social circles; many directors actually are CEOs or senior executives at other companies. Whether out of affinity for one of their own or outright corruption, the directors may funnel as much corporate wealth as they can to their friend the CEO.

There is little overlap between those who think CEO pay is efficient and those who believe it is the product of cronyism or corruption. Most people will agree with one of these ideas and disagree violently with the other. It’s hard to imagine a sane person simultaneously believing that CEO pay is highly efficient and corrupt. Whichever theory you believe, though, you likely believe quite strongly, to the point that you have trouble entertaining seriously the possibility that the other might be true.

If you’re in the efficiency camp, you will almost certainly agree with two additional statements: (1) it is imperative that companies hire the very best CEOs they can find, because the right leader can make all the difference to a company’s performance; and (2) boards of directors are well equipped to figure out who that right person is. For the CEO labor market to be efficient, both statements must be true. If it doesn’t matter who runs the company, then there is not much incentive for it to work out the best possible pay package. And if directors can’t choose the best CEO from a pool of candidates, then we can’t have much faith that there’s a market in which buyers bid for the best CEO talent; you have to be able to recognize talent before you can bargain for it. Most folks in the cronyism/corruption camp will also agree that leadership is important, though perhaps they will feel less sanguine about directors’ ability to spot talent.

With that brief detour into dissension, I think we can safely return to unanimity with the last two ideas. First, people are motivated by pay. If you’re hiring a real estate broker, your broker’s compensation should depend on the sale price of your house. That way, your broker will share your incentive to get as much money for the house as possible, and you’re much more likely to maximize your profits. CEOs should be paid the same way. The more closely companies tie CEO pay to the company’s results—the more sensitive CEO pay is to performance—the more successful the company should become. Well-managed companies will apply this principle throughout the organization, making everyone’s paycheck depend on how they do their jobs. But it’s especially important for the CEO.

Second, the CEO works for the corporation’s owners, the shareholders. Since it’s the shareholders’ company, it’s their well-being (which you can read as “wealth”) that matters. Ultimately, then, the goal of a good CEO pay package is to motivate the CEO to earn as much money as possible for the shareholders. Other groups with ties to the corporation—such as employees, bondholders, customers, and the communities in which the company operates—are important only to the extent that meeting their needs furthers the fundamental goal of maximizing shareholder wealth.

If these ideas sound right to you, if you’ve been nodding your head, maybe thinking “of course” as you read, then it may surprise you to learn that none of these ideas has strong empirical support. In fact, the evidence weighs against most of these notions, in some cases quite strongly.

One of the central purposes of Indispensable and Other Myths is to unpack these supporting intuitions and reveal just how flimsy the evidence for them is.

Reprinted with permission from Indispensable and Other Myths: Why the CEO Experiment Failed and How to Fix It by Michael B. Dorff and published by the University of California Press, 2014.