How to Tie Executive Compensation to Sustainability

The challenge of running a sustainable enterprise has taken center stage among shareholders. Last year, for example, Russell 3000 companies received 144 shareholder proposals requesting action on social and environmental issues. Meanwhile, in a survey of 89 institutional investors by Callan, 43% of respondents said they incorporate sustainability factors into their investment decisions — up 21 percentage points from 2013.

The dilemma for directors, however, is determining what aspects of sustainability, or ESG performance, should have priority — and should be linked to pay incentives. The UN, for example, has outlined 17 broad Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Progress is measured with 169 targets. The goals include eliminating poverty, offering affordable and clean energy, achieving gender equality, protecting ecosystems, increasing responsible consumption and production, and much more. Meanwhile, a number of business organizations have created their own sustainability measures, including the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, Sustainalytics, Bloomberg, and MSCI. And at many companies, sustainability efforts are measured with well over 10 internal metrics.

Compensation committees often start by tying bonuses and long-term incentives to goals related to compliance and risk management. That approach pleases some stakeholders, but it may put the focus on issues far removed from the company’s core mission. For example, measures of regulatory fines gauge only a company’s environmental “hygiene,” which may reduce risk but doesn’t incentivize executives to increase the company’s broader environmental impact.

What’s a better approach? Have bonuses depend largely, or solely, on executives’ success in tapping big strategic opportunities related to sustainability. By pushing the top team to go on the offense strategically, this change brings the work of advancing sustainability from the periphery of the business to its heart.

Though not all businesses today are in a position to implement big strategic initiatives based on sustainable thinking, the opportunities to pursue them are growing fast. According to a survey by the UN and Accenture, 63% of executives believe that sustainability will cause major changes in their businesses in the next five years. And if that shift ends up determining which companies thrive in the future, then it’s likely that incentive goals must apply to bold business opportunities.

One major heavy-equipment manufacturer, for example, has 14 sustainability goals. Only one of them, however, stands out as big and strategic, with the prospect of significant returns: remanufacturing products and components, which can save customers money, extend product life cycles, and reuse materials. A logical measure for this goal — a measure to tie incentives to — would be growth in revenues from remanufacturing and rebuilding, or the percentage of revenues or profits derived from both.

By limiting the number of sustainability goals in its incentives, companies can wield huge power to change leaders’ behavior. An auto executive’s bonus might depend on advancing the company’s electric vehicle, connected and autonomous vehicle, or ride-sharing business. A financial services firm’s executives might be rewarded for the percentage of affordable capital that’s allocated to worthy sustainable projects, such as renewable energy or sustainable agriculture.

Boards should demand entirely new kinds of strategic thinking from management, the kind of thinking that not only makes the company more sustainable but also aids suppliers and customers in becoming so. If you’re a food company, can you produce healthy products that address the growing rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease? If you’re in agriculture, can you devise rice strains that grow in less water and yield more for farmers? If you’re in health care, can you improve care quality for the employees in the companies you insure?

To take this approach to heart, boards should ask several questions:

As a sign that many executives are thinking along just these lines, a recent McKinsey survey of retailers and consumer goods manufacturers found that almost half of those undertaking sustainability initiatives were pursuing new business or growth opportunities.

That doesn’t mean companies should abandon traditional strategies for reducing costs, mitigating risks, and preserving a “license to operate.” And when those strategies are core to the business, incentive plans should link bonuses to fulfilling them. If you need water for beverages — think Coca-Cola or PepsiCo — a bonus for preserving water sources would be strategic. If you need ore bodies to mine — think Rio Tinto or Teck Resources — a bonus for top-tier environmental protection would make sense. If you need to demonstrate appropriate labor practices — think McDonald’s, Dunkin’, and Nestlé — a bonus based on mitigating risks might be critical (as would a provision for clawing back bonuses if the risks are not discovered until after harm is done).

Directors should, of course, continue to monitor and disclose many other aspects of ESG performance. In fact, they should insist on seeing ESG metrics in corporate or individual scorecards — assuring that executives act responsibly, mitigate risks, and comply with regulations. The compensation committee can then use its discretion to adjust pay after the fact for sustainability performance in these areas. Alternatively, sustainability performance can be addressed in the objectives of individual executives or business units, rather than being used in company-wide objectives.

As with all targets for executive incentives, directors need to choose carefully to avoid unintended consequences. Do new targets motivate undesirable trade-offs? If executives hit sustainability targets at unacceptable cost, safeguards are needed to make payouts contingent on meeting core financials. Directors should remain focused, however, on isolating a limited number of sustainability goals that deliver the most value. And that value should be of such scale that it will energize executives to go after it, in turn yielding the biggest reward for shareholders, other stakeholders, and society.

Read this article by Seymour Burchman as it originally appeared at the Harvard Business Review.