Negotiating Executive Compensation

In my 20 plus years of executive search experience, I have worked on hundreds of C-level assignments and navigated countless compensation negotiations through the “offer stage”. Here are 5 tips for executive candidates to keep in mind when closing the deal:

  1. Think like an owner. Value long-term awards and creating value over time as the key drivers for your compensation. Forgoing cash for more equity sends a strong message of leadership and “buy-in” to the board and/or C-suite. This indicates you are committed to the future success of the company and have confidence in the value creation you can drive. If the opportunity is available and you are in a position to do so, ask to purchase stock on your own beyond the equity grant or put your own money in the PE or VC round of financing. 

  1. If you negotiate, go one turn and then accept the counter offer. There is nothing wrong with accepting the initial offer if you believe it is strong and it meets your expectations. Yes, you may be able to negotiate marginal percentage points higher in base, bonus, equity, or sign-on, but do not underestimate the momentum of a positive, team oriented start. In my experience, one round of tweaks or negotiations is common, but if you push beyond that, it is generally poor form. 

  1. Communicate your compensation expectations to the company and/or recruiter prior to receiving the formal offer.  Many candidates think they are weakening their bargaining power by sharing expectations. They think keeping things “close to the vest” until the actual negotiations will provide the best outcome, but this can work against them. If the company is not clear on the expected compensation range, they may low-ball the candidate at offer stage (often a red flag for a dysfunctional company culture). Ultimately, the deal needs to be compelling for both the candidate and the company. Lack of communication of expectations prior to the formal offer stage can undermine the deal and be perceived as unprofessional. 

  1. Share your current and past compensation with the recruiter and company if they ask. Note, it is now illegal in a number of states to ask a candidate’s compensation. In the states where it is legal, withholding this information is regarded as a lack of understanding of how executive deals are structured. As executive recruiters, we are not asking your previous compensation history to lessen your negotiating power. We are asking these questions to ensure the best fit for both you and the company in an effort not waste either party’s time. For example, if your base salary is $400,000, you will ultimately not take a job offering a $275,000 base. There are exceptions, but in my 500+ executive searches over two decades, candidates are rarely willing to take pay-cuts in cash compensation. A candidate squeezing into a role with less than ideal compensation, usually means the role is not the right fit and the candidate leaves the company within 24 months. The exceptions tend to be candidates who forgo cash for more equity, aligning with point number 1. 

  1. Focus your identity as an executive on the value you create, not being the highest paid in your industry. Value creators are discovered and rewarded over time – keep this in mind in negotiations. You want to exceed the expectations of the CEO and board and create value and wealth for everyone in the organization. The experience of doing this is far more valuable, fulfilling, repeatable, and lasting than a certain base salary or sign-on bonus. 

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