VisionLink Blog

Ken Gibson

Why You Need a Compensation Strategy, not Just a Plan

You are considering the introduction of a phantom stock plan for your key people. You have decided this is the right concept for your business. You’re a private company and don’t want to give equity away, but you do want your executive or management team adopting more of a stewardship approach to the future of the business. Ideally, you’d like them to think more like you as the CEO or owner.  This led you to speak with the company’s accounting firm and they agreed a phantom stock plan would be a good idea.  So, with all of that logic and the positive momentum you’ve garnered, you have contacted your attorney and asked him to draft a plan agreement. He’s done so and you’re about to meet with your 10 key producers and introduce the plan to them.  STOP!! Please don’t go any further.

Before you proceed, there are a few questions that really should be answered.  Your response to these queries will help you determine whether you’re ready to introduce the plan or not.  They will also help you know whether what you have at this point is a compensation strategy or just a “plan.”

I could go on but hopefully you get the idea.  A legal document is not a compensation strategy.  Before your plan is introduced to anybody, you should consider taking the following steps to ensure that a strategic context is created for its roll-out and each of the questions above is adequately answered.  These will also ensure that both shareholder and employee interests are properly served.

Write a Purpose Statement

This step should answer the question, why are we doing this? It should make clear to company leadership what the plan will help the business achieve. For example:  This plan is designed to share future value of the business in a way that promotes an ownership mindset on the part of key producers. It should build a sense of partnership between ownership and participating employees.  It should improve focus on key leverage points (named specifically if possible)  in our business plan and accelerate our ability to achieve our growth goal of doubling revenue in the next four years.

A purpose statement should be consistent with the company’s pay standards and will be easier to articulate if leadership has developed a clear, written philosophy for compensation.

Draft a Plan Blueprint

The plan blueprint should answer the question, what type of plan will we have and how will it be structured?  It is basically the architectural drawing of the specific rewards program you want to initiate.  It describes what type of plan it will be–phantom stock, SAR, profit pool, PUP, deferred compensation, etc.–and what performance thresholds it will be based upon.  At this stage, a business is determining whether the company wants to tie the reward to the business value or some other financial metric.  You are addressing whether you want to give present value away or only future value, whether the reward will be performance-based (employees must achieve a future result before they will receive shares) or have immediate value, and so forth.  The plan blueprint creates a framework in which the company’s rewards strategy can be manifest.

Develop a Financial Model

With a purpose statement completed and a blueprint in place you now need to answer a critical question: how much value will this plan make available and what will the reward be based on?  Such is the role  of a sound financial model.  Done right, this process projects a future value of the business based upon different performance assumptions–for example, base, target or budget and superior.  It attempts to anticipate what level of additional shareholder value will be achieved under each of those scenarios so the company can determine how much of that increase can or should be shared with those primarily responsible for its creation. This step makes clear that compensation design is an outcome-based endeavor.  You are envisioning a future result and then engaging in a kind of reverse engineering process to determine how that potential value can be communicated in “today’s” terms (percentage of salary, percentage of profits, etc.). It is a “self-financing” approach that allows the company to define appropriate thresholds of performance that must achieved before the plan will either accrue or pay out its value.  It also allows a company to envision how it might be able to pay higher percentages of value to participants if increasing levels of results are achieved.  Done right, this phase of development brings the plan to life.  To get a sense for how this modeling process works, check out the “Picture Your Future Company” tool in our new website,

Document the Plan

Once two to four iterations of the financial model have been worked through, and the metrics for creating plan value have been clearly defined, you are ready to put the final specifications on the plan and document it. This step must produce both a legal document (where applicable) that addresses all of the statutory requirements of the plan, as well as a summary plan description that explains how the plan works to its participants.  The plan specifications must address all of the details of the plan–how benefits are earned, when they will be paid out, how they will be treated in the case of early termination, disability, death, and so forth. The production of these documents requires the ability to understand both the legal guidelines associated with the plan (i.e. ERISA or 409(A) issues) as well as the strategic purpose the new program will serve.

Market the Plan

When a company takes a strategic approach to compensation, it doesn’t just “announce” a new pay program.  Rather, it creates an opportunity to build a sense of partnership with its key people by literally marketing a future to them.  This is more than explaining how the new long-term incentive plan will work.  It involves framing the compensation value proposition in a larger context that links together the vision of the company, its business model and strategy, employee roles and expectations and the rewards for fulfilling those expectations. Although an initial meeting may be held to explain the plan and “roll it out,” that communication is one of many that will occur as the company treats its workforce as a key constituency that needs to be consistently and effectively nurtured.

Each of these steps could be further embellished but hopefully you can begin to see how the building out of a pay strategy differs from just coming up with a plan.  Further, when a company seeks to align compensation with the business model and strategy of the company, it has an opportunity to create greater engagement and execution on the part of its key people.  It essentially makes those individuals stewards of the shareholders’ vision by helping them feel a greater sense of partnership and clarity about the future of the business.

For more information on the strategic role of long-term value sharing arrangements, check out our white paper entitled, “Why Long-Term Value Sharing Matters.”

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"VisionLink has helped us successfully navigate a number of complex issues regarding our rewards programs. It has dealt with all facets of these varied issues with a high degree of competence, integrity, and straight forward advice. VisionLink's experienced team has consistently delivered first class results in a timely, professional manner and has become a valued Storm partner."

Thomas K. Grzywacz
President/Chief Executive Officer
Storm Industries, Inc.

"VisionLink has helped us successfully engineer a long-term incentive plan that has empowered our company to reward and retain key talent while increasing shareholder value. The knowledge, patience and deep experience of its team members helped us navigate a road that was unfamiliar to us. Ultimately, VisionLink designed a plan that met the high standards of both stockholders and key management employees. We have further engaged VisionLink to address our business succession and transition planning needs."

Reggie Dupre'
Chief Executive Officer
Dupre Logistics

"Over the past several years, National Technical Systems has engaged VisionLink to provide insight and direction on a number of executive compensation issues, as well as a performance evaluation of our 401(k) plan. Under its direction, NTS completely revamped executive level rewards to align with our business growth objectives and the strategic plan of the company. VisionLink's insight and direction have been invaluable. NTS has achieved its growth objectives and our executives feel appropriately rewarded for their performance."

Bill McGinnis
President/Chief Executive Officer
National Technical Systems

"VisionLink arrived on the scene just in time for us. We needed a new framework for our short-term and long-term incentive plans. VisionLink's modeling and forecasting process broadened our horizons and expanded our view of how to use a good incentive system to build, retain and strengthen our senior management team. We remain impressed by their expertise, professionalism and great service."

James Keng
Jimway, Inc.

"Our firm has had a long-term incentive plan for over eight years but we never quite felt like it was firing on all cylinders. We hired VisionLink to re-energize our plan, and they did it! We now have a cohesive awards strategy that's fair to shareholders and valued by our employees. VisionLink's team is technically skilled and very creative. We're happy to recommend VisionLink to firms looking to upgrade their management incentive programs."

John M
FTO Inc.

"Our company was like VisionLink's typical clients. We were great at sales and haphazard at how we compensated our people. VisionLink's process brings great clarity and confidence to our growth planning - and makes compensation a great growth capability."

Dan Sullivan
Founder and President
Strategic Coach ©

"The team at VisionLink helped our company structure a long-term incentive plan that parallels the company's strategy for continued growth as a global market leader within our industry. Their approach resulted in a program that our corporate team and executives embraced on both a professional and personal basis. Through VisionLink's guidance and execution, we were able to create both a motivational tool for current team members and a recruiting device to attract future executive level associates. Well done!"

Mark Rhoades
Fluidmaster, Inc.

"As a leading direct seller of scrapbook photo albums and supplies, Creative Memories has independent consultants across the country. And for over six years now, VisionLink has helped us to stay connected and administer a voluntary 409A non-qualified plan for them. VisionLink has provided support for all aspects of our plan from notification of eligibility through registration and distribution. The VisionLink support team has offered suggestions for improving processes and provided us with outstanding service year after year."

Guy Walker
Creative Memories North America

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