Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: What tosh is spoken about CEOs' pay - and art

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Perhaps they realise if you were truly to pay CEOs on performance there should be some downside. Photo / Thinkstock
Perhaps they realise if you were truly to pay CEOs on performance there should be some downside. Photo / Thinkstock

There are some things in life I just don't get. How to play 500. The appeal of George Clooney. Why middle-class women can never get out of those black Lycra leggings even when they're not exercising.

And lately, must add to that list: CEO pay. I hope you understand I'm not saying this in an eat-the-rich, fat-cats-are-bastards kind of way. Some of my best friends are fat cats and I enjoy drinking their expensive plonk.

But my attitude to CEOs is more like my problem with appreciating conceptual art. There is an installation at Auckland Art Gallery which is made up of leftover building construction materials from its renovation all piled up together.

Is this uber-brainy and I am just too much of a philistine to understand it? After all, I can't even play 500. Or maybe it really is just a pile of old building materials?

I get that same Emperor's New Clothes feeling when I ponder the reasons given why CEOs get huge pay rises at a time when there is no money for anyone else.

I'm not the only one. TV One's Close Up did a story about this and interviewed my old boss, the former owner of the National Business Review, Barry Colman - hi Baz! - who smartly presented the CEOs' argument - they are paid on performance.

Until now, I have tended to accept this view and even advanced it myself. It was special pleading given I was getting paid a decent salary by Barry Colman at the time.

But that was back when our economy was not lying on the floor in a puddle of dribble. And frankly, I am not convinced that our CEOs are that great. In fact, they seem decidedly mediocre but not paid that way.

Exhibit A: Telecom boss Paul Reynolds earned $30 million in five years with the company. If we have got such a brains trust running our corporations - we have to pay to attract talent from overseas, see - why is our productivity moribund?

Maybe the CEO himself is the very reason the company is stuffed.

Last month, former head of the HBOS bank Peter Cummings was banned from ever working in banking again after the company almost collapsed under his leadership.

The Financial Times has suggested, not entirely tongue in cheek, that top managers ought to get some sort of psychological "warrant of fitness" to show they have not got carried away with their own hubris and arrogance.

Another British commentator, Luke Johnson, has written an influential piece that what matters most is that a CEO "listen to his heart, not his head".

"Managers who lack charm will not gain true loyalty from their team," he writes.

Righty-oh, but then let's stop worshipping CEOs as if they are a special breed of professorial genius here to save us with their MBAs. I'm sure there are some charming linesmen willing to have a go in the Telecom boardroom.

But management is not a popularity contest; it's about respect. And workers lose respect when they see the pay gap between themselves and some deeply average, but highly paid, management.

Perhaps they realise if you were truly to pay CEOs on performance there should be some downside.

How about CEOs get a base salary of a linesman or the average worker unless the company was surging ahead? Or perhaps CEO salaries should be indexed to the country's overall productivity.

Oh I know, I probably sound as naive as droopy saucer-eyed Madeline Bassett ("every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born"). I know it wouldn't make any difference if we divvied out the boss' pay packets between the workers.

People don't really get paid what they are worth - otherwise oncology nurses would earn as much as hedge fund managers. But at least we should be honest about CEOs and their senior management teams getting high salaries simply because they can.

There is nothing very moral or rational about it. Let's tell ourselves the truth. Some conceptual artworks might be genius, but others are simply a pile of junk.

- NZ Herald

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