Designing effective executive incentive plans

Key concepts to consider when designing executive incentive plans

Dec 21, 2023
Compensation & benefits
Labor and workforce Business tax Employee benefits ESG

Executive summary:  

In today's dynamic business landscape, aligning executive incentive pay with performance has become a critical aspect of ensuring organizational success. There are five key concepts organizations should consider when designing their incentive pay structures to ensure its effectiveness. These concepts describe the importance of strategic compensation practices in motivating and rewarding executives for driving sustained performance and growth. 

Designing effective executive incentive plans 

In our experience, many RSM clients are considering incorporating performance metrics into their present discretionary annual bonus plans. Those professionals considering those changes should consider the following key concepts when implementing these impactful changes to their current incentive plan design.

Performance metrics and goal setting

The first guiding concept emphasizes the significance of establishing clear performance metrics and goals. To align incentive pay with executive performance, organizations must define specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based (SMART) objectives. These objectives should reflect the company's strategic priorities, business objectives, and goals allowing executives to channel their efforts toward initiatives that contribute to long-term success. By linking incentive pay directly to these performance metrics, companies create a transparent framework that motivates executives to focus on key strategic areas. 

Best practice is that business goals should be reasonably expected to be 80% achievable. Goals should be clear and transparent enough where the executive understands there is a meaningful and clear linkage between performance and compensation. A threshold, target and maximum goal should be established to show the level of opportunity that should be attained if the goal is achieved at each interval. Special rules may be included to account for external market conditions, such as non-operation gains and losses that effect the metrics. 

Balance short-term and long-term objectives

While short-term goals may address immediate challenges, long-term objectives are crucial for sustainable growth. Achieving the right balance ensures that executives are incentivized to deliver short-term results without compromising the organization's future viability. This approach encourages a holistic perspective, fostering strategic decision-making that considers both immediate gains and long-term value creation.

Rigorous performance measurement and evaluation

After setting metrics and goals, organizations must implement robust systems for assessing achievement towards these goals. Regular evaluations provide a mechanism for feedback and improvement, helping executives understand how their efforts contribute to the company's overall success. Transparent and objective evaluations enhance the credibility of incentive programs and reinforce a performance-driven culture within the organization.    

Flexibility and adaptability

Market dynamics, industry trends, and internal changes can impact the relevance of performance metrics and goals. To maintain alignment with executive performance, organizations must be agile in adjusting incentive plans when necessary. This adaptability ensures that incentives remain meaningful and reflective of the current business landscape, supporting executives in addressing emerging challenges and opportunities.

Aligning executive interests with shareholders

Aligning executive interests with those of shareholders is crucial for promoting responsible and ethical leadership. Executives should have a vested interest in the company's success beyond short-term cash incentives. Aligning executive pay with shareholder value may involve introducing equity-based compensation, such as stock options or performance shares. By tying executive rewards to the company's equity performance, organizations create a direct link between executive prosperity and shareholder returns, fostering a sense of shared success.


Aligning incentive pay with executive performance is a multifaceted endeavor that requires a strategic and comprehensive approach. The five guiding concepts discussed in the article provide a roadmap for organizations seeking to create effective incentive programs that drive sustained executive performance. By focusing on clear goal setting, balancing short-term and long-term objectives, implementing rigorous performance measurement, embracing flexibility, and aligning executive interests with shareholders, companies can establish a robust framework that motivates and rewards executives for their contributions to organizational success. As businesses continue to navigate the complexities of today's competitive landscape, a well-aligned incentive structure remains a key driver for attracting, retaining, and motivating top executive talent.

RSM contributors

  • Mark Ritter
    Senior Director
  • Antoinita Thompson

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