Would you consider giving up a third of your salary if you rated in the bottom third among your peers? What if you won the lottery? Would you ever consider giving a third of it back if you didn’t have to?
I didn’t think so.
But that’s exactly what Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook has done. He’s chosen to forfeit – that’s right, forfeit – up to one third of his stock-based compensation if Apple’s stock underperforms relative to other S&P 500 components.
At today’s stock price, that means Cook will give up $130 million if Apple shares perform in the bottom third of S&P 500 components over the next eight years. And he’ll give up half of that if it performs in the middle third.
Make no mistake; there’s no upside here. No small print either. Cook was previously awarded one million shares of Apple stock when he was appointed chief executive of the technology giant in 2011. Now he’s chosen to lead by example and forfeit a portion of that if the company’s stock fails to perform.
Not only that, but nearly all of Cook’s compensation is equity based. The same is true of Apple’s other top executives, as well. While it’s become quite common for executive compensation to be heavily stock-based in large technology companies, the practice hasn’t quite caught on in more traditional industries.
By way of example, I looked at the proxy statements for three technology companies -- Cisco (CSCO), Intel (INTC) and Qualcomm (QCOM) -- and three non-tech companies -- GE (GE), PepsiCo (PEP), and Disney (DIS) -- and compared the earnings of their chief executive officers over the past three years.
At the technology companies, about two thirds of total executive compensation was equity-based (stock and option awards) while one third was cash-based (salary, bonus, incentive plan).
The non-technology companies, on the other hand, had it essentially reversed: 37% of total CEO compensation was equity-based while the remaining 63% was non-equity-based.
Generally speaking, tech companies have been reasonably aggressive at tying executive pay to stock performance or long-term shareholder value. Traditional companies are far more likely to go with old school corporate governance, meaning CEOs get a nice big chunk of change more or less for showing up to work and sticking around.
Of course, you can make the argument that cash incentives and bonuses are supposed to be performance based, but if you spend as much time immersed in proxy statements as I do, you’ll find that it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way. Executive bonuses and incentives are often paid out in full while companies go down the tubes.
Just last week, SandRidge Energy CEO Tom Ward was fired and still managed to walk away with a $90 million exit package, more than the company’s earnings last year.
You rarely see that sort of thing in the technology industry where employment contracts and termination agreements are generally frowned upon. And that’s a very good thing. Corporate governance in corporate America hasn’t exactly been a paragon of virtue the past few decades.
Nearly 30 years ago, Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, argued that executive pay was out of control and lucrative severance packages destroyed accountability. “This is morally and socially unforgivable,” he said, “and we will pay a heavy price for it.”
Indeed, he was right. It’s only gotten worse, a lot worse. And yet, there is good reason to hope.
In a nation where everyone wants more and more stuff, where people milk the system for all its worth, where greed and corruption is spreading like a disease, where crony capitalism runs rampant, where accountability and common sense are getting harder and harder to find, there is good reason to hope.
Tim Cook may not be Steve Jobs, but the man’s definitely got a vision for how he wants to run the world’s most powerful technology company. And even though Apple’s stock is in the tank and its ability to innovate is in question, Cook is holding himself to a high standard. He’s holding himself accountable in the most real way possible.
Tim Cook is putting his money where his mouth is, $130 million of it. He’s sending a message to boards, executives, and business leaders across America. And he’s setting the most powerful leadership example we’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s a good thing. We desperately need it.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.