Saturday, August 30, 2014

Real Leaders Shouldn't Need $63 Million in Tax Help From Their Company

One of the hottest topics in business schools and in business is leadership. Business schools are expected to provide a range of leadership development opportunities, and their graduates—after interviews that  invariably emphasize leadership potential or accomplishments—then enter corporate leadership development programs. Companies spend large sums on leadership training, and numerous consultants and organizations provide services for furthering developing corporate leaders.

It’s probably safe to say that these efforts are not aimed at creating command-and-control,  transactional leaders. Rather, something deeper is being sought, such as the widely-popular concept of transformational leadership that occurs when “one or more persons engage with each other in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” (James MacGregor Burns, Leadership, Harper & Row, 1978). Or consider this description of purposeful leadership:

It is about having clear values and demonstrating a commitment to living those values. It is about modeling positive attitudes and behaviors that others wish to emulate. It is about building a sense of community where people feel that their work is important, that they are important, and, as a result, they are inspired to perform at the highest levels. (Training Magazine, October 16, 2013)

Medtronic, a leading medical devices company, says of its executives and leaders:

We are proud of our reputation for attracting and developing some of the brightest leaders in the medical technology industry. Strong leadership is vital to achieving our goals and fulfilling our Mission to alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.

Our executive leadership team members serve as role models. Not only do they provide strategic oversight and motivation, they also contribute to the collective good of the company and the industry – by serving on Inclusion Councils, leading volunteer efforts in our communities, and collaborating with industry peers to improve healthcare policies.

Medtronic further describes its mission as follows:

Written in 1960, our mission dictates that our first and foremost priority is to contribute to human welfare. Over a half-century later, the Mission continues to serve as an ethical framework and an inspirational goal for our employees around the world. It guides our day-to-day work and reminds us that our efforts are transforming the lives of millions of people each year.

Sounds great. But actions speak louder than words. Medtronic has found itself in hot water over its recent decision to move its corporate headquarters from Minneapolis to Ireland to avoid billions in taxes on money it holds overseas. This move has upset long-term shareholders who will now have to pay immediate capital gains taxes. And then this week, Medtronic disclosed that  it will pay its top executives (pronounced “leaders”) $63 million to compensate them for special excise taxes they face.

A Medtronic spokesperson told the StarTribune, “The company believes these individuals should not be discouraged from taking action that they believe is in the best interest of Medtronic and its shareholders.” By making these payments, Medtronic’s top leaders will be able to “focus on what is in the best interests of the company, and not on their personal finances.”

But wait a minute. Read that again while thinking of the corporate emphasis on leadership (sometimes even ethical leadership). This hardly paints a picture of transformational, purposeful, role-model leaders, and even less so of ethical leaders. Worried about their personal finances? The CEO made over $8 million last year. Are these “brightest leaders” so easily led astray by their own paydays? Shouldn't transformational leaders be able to rise above their narrow self-interest? With or without an ethical duty to do so?

Or has the culture of executive pay become so obscene that it fuels its own fire? Indeed, research in behavioral economics has shown that financial incentives can crowd out intrinsic motivators. So maybe it’s true that personal finances trump deeper leadership qualities when executive pay is so high. But adding more fuel to the fire doesn’t seem like the answer. If companies truly believe their own rhetoric about leadership, it’s time to reign in executive compensation, open up corporate governance, share the wealth more fairly, and demand that corporate executives truly be leaders.

Happy Labor Day.

A column appeared in yesterday's StarTribune with the headline "Medtronic had no choice but to cover the excise tax." I disagree. If someone wants to argue that the payments are justfied because they serve some purpose, then that's fine. But Medtronic certainly has a choice. Now why does the column think that these payments are a good choice? An alternative way to avoid this extra tax is to allow the executives to exercise their options early. But according to Medtronic, this would “undercut Medtronic’s compensation philosophy of ensuring that executive officers hold long-term, performance based compensation." And the columnist then writes, "the next problem would have come the morning after closing, when the CEO and nine other executives came to work without any stock options." This brings me right back to the point of my initial post: Should we call someone a leader if they require millions in stock incentives to look beyond their own self-interest? Shouldn't a true leader be able to lead even in the absence of such strong (some might say, obscene) incentives? And what kind of culture have we created such that these incentives are not only acceptable, but are seen as essential?

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