No More MBOs

I am so very tired of MBO-based bonuses in startups. I knew the concept of MBOs pre-dated my time in business school, but I couldn’t remember where they came from. Wikipedia reminded me – it’s another Peter Drucker creation from The Practice of Management.

I’ve only worked in what could be considered a “big” company for 18 months (1993 – 1995) and that was the company (AmeriData) that bought my first company (Feld Technologies). When they acquired us, they weren’t  big (probably 200 people) and when I left they still weren’t really big (2,000 people) but were “big enough.” So the joy, and experience, of working in a 50,000 or even 100,000 person company eludes me.

As we enter Q4, I’m starting to see discussions about annual performance – often in the context of gearing up for 2014 plans. This often comes in the form of long emails or tedious board discussions about compensation and bonus programs. And inevitably, discussions of MBOs and qualitative performance bonuses quickly enter the discussion.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of programatic bonuses. I spend way to much time reviewing comp plans and trying to help CEOs get a decent alignment between an elusive and inaccurate “plan” (which – especially in a rapidly growing company is never anywhere close to correct), bonuses driven off of company performance, and then bonuses driven off of individual performance. It’s just really hard to get right and feels like an enormous misallocation of time for a young company.

The ostensible goal is to motivate certain behavior and reward certain outcomes. The quantitative, performance-based bonuses are about rewarding outcomes. The qualitative MBO based bonuses are often included to motivate behavior.

Therein is the conflict for me. I have a deeply held belief that a manager cannot “motivate behavior.” She can only create a context in which a person is motivated. It’s up to the individual to motivate himself. Theoretically MBOs help create this context, but it’s often an artificial construct linked to arbitrary behaviors that have nothing to do with motivational structure. Toss money in, and you put focus on the behavior, not on the motivation.

This is totally messed up in a startup. Things are changing daily. Annual performance plans are often irrelevant by February. Quantitative metrics are either too easy to hit, or completely impossible. So the MBOs becomes the achievable bonus, and behavior shifts to achieving them, even when they are even more irrelevant because of the needs of the business.

At Feld Technologies, we had a very simple bonus program. Each quarter, we paid out 10% of pre-tax profits as a bonus. We did this on an accrual basis. My partner Dave and I took the number, made a list of all employees, and figured out how much we were going to give each of them. We then printed out checks and gave them to each person. When we had our act together, which was several quarters each year, we delivered feedback – good and bad – with the checks. If I had realized how powerful this was, I would have done a better job of figuring out and delivering the feedback, in the goal of creating a context for motivation for each person, and realigning goals each quarter.

I’m considering encouraging all the CEOs I work with to get rid of MBOs in 2014. If you insist of having a bonus plan, use a financial bonus for the entire company based on top down performance. This will be a calculation across the entire company and built into the budget at an EBITDA level (e.g. it has to be funded by the performance of the company, which could include a negative EBITDA number, but the bonus pool is linked to that.) Then, the CEO and the leadership get to allocate the bonus to each person on a direct performance basis at the end of the year.

Even better, consider using equity compensation as the bonus. Figure out an equation for converting the bonus amount (in current cash terms) to stock option awards. Then let’s set aside that pool, at the beginning of the year, to award at the end of the year based on the bonus achieved. Be transparent with everyone in the company about the size and determined value of the pool, how their behavior will increase the value, and then work like hell to achieve it.

I’m looking for feedback on this approach. A programatic bonus amount driven by company performance. Individual bonuses based on the discretion of the leadership team that add up across the company to the company bonus pool. No MBOs.