This type of component puts the ability to very directly manage pay, including potentially managing upside, in the hands of sales management. The availability of this sort of management discretion to directly design incentive components and determine payout amounts generally results in widespread direct management of pay levels and a decoupling of payout amounts from market value and productivity.
We generally recommend MBO-type components only for sales roles in startup mode or with very long sales cycles (over a year) for which solid performance this year will not show up on this year’s income statement. When we do design an MBO based incentive opportunity, we limit the flexibility and payouts to a few specific amounts (e.g., pay 0% at Unacceptable, 50% at Below Goal, 100% at Goal, 125% at Exceeds Goal, and 150% at Excellence). While it is mathematically possible to interpolate and pay a little bit more money for a little bit more performance, this suggests a degree of rigor and accuracy in goal setting and incentive design that is not likely to occur with multiple components changing each quarter and focused on one person. The more constrained type of MBO that we generally recommend, in contrast, says, “Generally do what we expect of you in this area and receive your target payout, do significantly better and get a nice piece of upside, underperform and it will hurt your pay.” This is usually the right message and mechanic for MBOs.
Donya Rose, CSCP, is Managing Principal of The Cygnal Group. She is a recognized expert in sales compensation plan design, regularly speaking at conferences and writing published articles. She serves clients from F500 to growth-stage businesses, and advises WorldatWork on sales compensation hot topics and best practices.