The Comp Strategist (Part 3) — Comp + Coffee: Ep. 33

Today we’re wrapping up our conversation on what it means to be a Comp Strategist.

In Part 1, we talked about how to get the most informative, organized data.

Part 2 saw us explore how to effectively communicate all that intel.

And now, in the third and final installment of our series, we’re exploring how to become a strategic ally to your organization. When you achieve it, you know you’re at your best, and that you’re doing what comp was meant to do.

Like what you hear? Make sure to rate and review! And if you haven’t subscribed to Comp + Coffee yet, you can follow us on Apple PodcastsGoogle MusicSoundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.


For a full transcription of the episode, see below.


Shawn: You know what? I’m out. I’m out. You can host it on your own.

Bill: And we’re live.


Shawn: And we’re live. Bill, how are you feeling today?

Bill: Chipper as always, Shawn.

Kaite: I don’t quite believe you.

Shawn: It’s the tone that I respect. Kaite?

Bill: I got my coffee from Comp and Coffee.

Shawn: Me too. I got the cold brew. What did you go with?

Bill: Hot, the usual from Starbucks.

Shawn: Classics?

Bill: Yup. Mm-hmm.

Shawn: Kaite bringing the sunshine as always. There’s always so much snark a laugh can convey.

Kaite: I’m offended. Did you call me snarky? Never.

Shawn: I’m saying your laugh conveyed snark. I did not call you snarky. It’s not the point. All right, so we’ve had two podcasts on this topic right now, two pods. Bill, you’re a podder.

Kaite: Stop. That’s enough of that.

Bill: Okay. I’m confused.

Kaite: Sorry. You can edit that part out. I guess the snark is here.

Shawn: Becoming a comp strategist. So the first thing that we talked about, just to quickly recap, was a comp strategist is organized. And what that means is that they have the most real time data readily available to them, that’s very customized down to the job level. And they can have access to that quickly so that their technology effectively becomes their analyst. And then last podcast, we talked about, well, because they have that, because that frees up hopefully some time for them, they can communicate the value and mechanics of comp better across the entire organization so that employees understand why they’re paid what they’re paid, the mechanics behind that. Managers understand and are the front line of communication, well-trained, well-versed on answering questions that come up. And you can start to map and have conversations with executives around more strategic things. And that’s today’s topic, which is becoming a strategic business ally. Bill, you’ve done that in your career?

Bill: Been a strategic business ally?

Shawn: The entire time.

Bill: Of course.

Shawn: And go.

Bill: Go where?

Shawn: One of the things we talked about when we talk about becoming a strategic business ally, I think of two things but let’s have this talk further which is, one, you are communicating with executives in a way that makes sense to them. And to put this in maybe blunt or harsh terms, they probably don’t care about compa-ratios. They probably care a whole lot about making sure that you’re keeping key retentions. Key people in the organization are staying and are happy and are engaged and are doing their best, that you’re hiring the right people. And that because of that, you’re helping drive key business initiatives. I think about that, the communication of it, and then I think about tying into those things that they care about to the best level that you can so that both of those things work well together. You’re talking their language, you’re tying into the metrics that they are staking their jobs on as well.

Bill: Exactly. The senior people in a company, in any business, wanna know that their goals are being met, their personal goals, their group goals, and the company goals. Not necessarily in that order, but they wanna make sure that those are being met. And you’re right, they don’t care about compa-ratios. And, you know, to a large degree, they don’t care about salary structures or any of that. They care about the results that… Why are you doing that and is it working? Is it helping me drive the company to higher profitability? Is it helping us make employees happier? Is it helping us give better customer support? Is it helping me or the company improve along whatever metrics are important to senior management, to the board, and to, you know, public companies to Wall Street?

Shawn: Yeah, exactly. In other words, “Okay, cool. Your philosophy to pay at the 60th percentile, and the majority of our employees are in that percentile except others for miscellaneous reasons. Don’t care.” What I wanna know is are we…do we have the right people that are going to get the initiatives that we need to accomplish done and are they staying around? And relatively speaking, this is probably more towards a Google model of things. Don’t care what we pay them. Do care to a certain extent, do care to a certain extent. But relatively speaking, make it happen and let’s keep this moving. Is that…

Bill: Yes, I think being smart about it, I mean on a side note, I think most people listening can probably name all the companies that don’t care about how much they pay the employees.

Kaite: I know. I was gonna say I feel like most of our listeners…

Bill: You know we all know the names and you know, it…

Shawn: Google, Facebook, [inaudible 00:05:11].

Bill: Exactly.

Kaite: Yeah.

Shawn: Apple.

Bill: Hedge fund of your choice.

Shawn: Hedge funds. Bill Coleman.

Bill: But, you know, most people, most companies out there do care but, you know, as we’ve said in other podcasts before and will say again, that when you target the 60th percentile, for example, for your company, that doesn’t mean everyone’s at the 60th because you end up with two problems, no matter what your, you know, market reference point, no matter what your target point is. You’ve got people who are overpaid for their level of performance or skill.

Shawn: Even if it stays at the same percentage.

Bill: If you have it at the 60th percentile, you’ve got people that should be paid at the 50th. And so those people are really happy and they’re never gonna leave, your lower performers. And then, you have your superstars who, even if your target’s the 60th, should probably be paid at the 75th or the 90th. And those people are not happy and they’re still likely to leave. So if you force everybody into one little box, one 60th percentile box, your good people…you’ll have less of this problem. But your top performers are still gonna seek opportunities for higher pay elsewhere and your bottom performers are gonna be pretty happy they came to work for you.

Kaite: There forever. Yeah. They’re not leaving.

Bill: And that’s what your CEO and CFO and COO care about is, like, keeping the wrong people and losing the right people. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

Shawn: Yeah, no doubt. Because you’re adhering to a philosophy.

Bill: Right. Right. The philosophy is that it’s a guideline, not a rule.

Shawn: Few it is, a market of one.

Kaite: It’s not black and white.

Shawn: Those key performers.

Bill: Yes.

Shawn: Now, one of the things I can hear coming out of this though is, okay, take that to its extreme. You’re gonna have a ton of pay equity issues. You’re gonna have trouble being fair, right? And I think this is an interesting spot specifically for compensation because I can make a very strong argument that they are the only people in an organization, relatively speaking, that can solve this. Right? How do you pay fairly while also ensuring that you’re viewing those key people effectively as a market of one, right? That each person is measured and evaluated and valued to those skills and contributions to the organization while also making sure it’s fair.

Bill: I think, you know, we’re launching into different-podcast land but…

Shawn: Always do.

Kaite: Isn’t that like our M.O. on this podcast?

Bill: Podcast about podcasts, but…

Shawn: I may say there’s too many podcasts out there.

Bill: The meta-podcast. But the… What is the definition of fair? You know, and I think that, you know, there are two tracks for that. One is, you know, the grandmother test. Like, you just sit there and, like, are you the compensation person or are you the company paying people fairly for what they do, you know. And that’s the one that lets you sleep at night. And then, the other track would be what’s fair in your company, your industry, your city state as far as legal terms.

Shawn: Legalese.

Bill: And I think the goal of compensation is to reconcile those two and to find the way to do what’s right by your employees and right by your company and stay within whatever legal constraints you need to stay within, and that’s where you may find yourself looking at changing how you think of jobs. And that there’s been this, in the past, the trend toward things like broadbanding or simplifying hierarchies and job titles and things. And in fact, maybe what we’re gonna start seeing is more job titles, you know, to differentiate between levels. I mean, the job can’t differentiate between levels of performance but having different skills, different goals, different responsibilities…

Kaite: This question is coming, like, straight out of my own ignorance on the legality of pay equity and all that, but do the laws allow for wiggle room between high and low performers? So if, you know, two employees have the exact same title, same number of years of experience, you know, yada yada, they’re essentially identical but one is a high performer and one is a low performer, can you make that argument? And I know I’m getting on a tangent here as always, but can you make that argument that they should be paid differently because they’re performing differently?

Bill: There are some places where it’s unclear.

Kaite: And then what if one’s a man and one’s a woman? And then you get like…

Bill: Right. You know, there are places… You know, like, the laws are all different so there is no single answer to that question. And some, you know, in some jurisdictions, you can do that. And others, it appears that that’s a little trickier, which…

Kaite: In which case, would you then give one a promotion type if you needed to adjust pay and give them a different role?

Bill: I mean, yeah, which is dumb. I mean…

Kaite: No, I agree.

Bill: I don’t think you’re dumb.

Kaite: No, no, no, no.

Bill: I mean, that’s sort of like you force people into having to do something.

Kaite: Like a slightly tweak there.

Bill: Just slightly tweak there, right, which doesn’t serve, you know, it doesn’t serve the purpose of the company or the law. But, you know, some of the laws appear…

Kaite: Or the individual, right? Like [crosstalk 00:10:54] random jumps like…

Bill: Yeah, some of the laws seem to be missing, like a grounding in the reality of business.

Kaite: Which I guess is… So all of this just kind of backs up like what we’ve been talking about of having a market of one.

Shawn: Yes, but you’re raising gray areas with that too, which is that that’s where people can challenge, right? So, you can have a market of one if you’re differentiating on [inaudible 00:11:21] skill sets, for example, some skills are more valuable than others. But generally speaking, if the job is the same, you’re gonna have to pay fairly.

Kaite: Even if Employee A is a low performer.

Bill: Well, so one of the things you can get, at least in many cases, is you can have performance, genuine bonafide performance-based awards, incentives, bonuses and things. And so, that’s where you can…

Kaite: Make adjustments.

Shawn: [inaudible 00:11:54]

Bill: Generally provide a differentiation. You know, and…

Kaite: So, I would give Employee B, my high performer, a spot bonus or whatever.

Bill: Right. Right. But it’s…

Shawn: Or you can max out their bonus, for example, as opposed to somebody else might not achieve all that, if you have the KPIs, that well.

Bill: Right. And, you know, I think in most cases and just general good practice would be to have a rigid, or not rigid, a rigorous outline of the performance criteria and how those are used to award a bonus, you know, rather than, “End of the year ago, Kaite did great, here’s a big bonus check. Shawn did okay, here’s a medium-sized bonus check.”

Shawn: That’s what I’m used to.

Bill: Bill did [inaudible 00:12:37].

Shawn: Medium-size will actually be an upgrade. I’ll take medium.

Kaite: Shawn, you’re usually our low performer, right?

Shawn: This is violating all kinds of HR rules right now and I’m starting to feel a little targeted.

Bill: She was just referring to your height, Shawn.

Shawn: It’s giving me an [inaudible 00:12:51].

Kaite: Zing.

Shawn: It giving me [inaudible 00:12:53] You know what? I’m out. I’m out. You can host it on your own. That’s at least the third time I’ve been threatened that this year.

Bill: And we’re live.

Kaite: Hi, Bill.

Shawn: Hello, Shawn. Are you saying that should be the intro? Come back to the topic, Bill. The fair pay thing…

Kaite: Yeah, sorry, I got off, way off.

Shawn: We will continue to cover that and there are interesting developments happening around that. But my point in making that was that comp is in a unique position to solve that, and in a lot of places right now, that is a strategic initiative. Because it’s a law, because you wanna be an employer of choice, because it’s the right thing to do, and because I guarantee you executives are worried about that. It is one of those risks that keeps you up sometimes that you’re like, “You know what, if we could solve that, not only would that be good for many reasons but it would mitigate our risk.” Guess who can solve that? Guess who was the only department in the company that can solve that?

Bill: Who?

Kaite: Could it be comp?

Bill: Sales?

Shawn: Revenue solves all problems, Bill.

Bill: That’s true.

Shawn: No, comp is the only department that can solve that. And so, if you… That is the easy, not…I’m putting quotes around easy. That is the direct, first way to start to get that executive buy-in is communicating and solving it. There are many other ways, and a lot of… We did a survey on this. We’re gonna talk about it in our webinar soon. But a lot of the things that we see are directionally accurate. Comp and HR are measured by retention, turnover, employee engagement. Generally speaking, those are the things, but, like, that was consistent pretty much across the board.

So you need the right talent, you need those people engaged to be able to do whatever the company initiatives are for that year. So how do you tie into those? How do you have talks around making sure that executives understand not necessarily your comp philosophy, but that you’re keeping the key people? Key people are happy, they’re engaged…

Kaite: Let’s go back to last…

Shawn: Part of that.

Kaite: The last podcast and our last episode about communicating.

Shawn: Communicating is the first step of that, no doubt, but I think there’s the… You have to understand what drives a business and how you contribute to that.

Kaite: Right. If you aren’t… You can’t communicate that if you don’t understand it.

Shawn: Right. You can communicate well to all levels of employees, to employees, to managers, but executives have this different thing. If you want to, as we always say, “earn your seat at the table,” you have to understand what’s driving them and how you map to it.

Kaite: And we’ve… I feel like this is a good opportunity to plug a potential opportunity for listeners to weigh in. We’ve talked about communicating to executives as possibly expanding on that topic a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about communication in general when it comes to comp. But if you are listening and you think it would be helpful to learn more about communicating to executives specifically, shoot us a note and let us know,

Shawn: That goes right to Bill. He sits there and sips his coffee every morning and reads all of them.

Kaite: It’s true. It’s true. That’s how he starts his day.

Bill: Don’t believe it.

Kaite: Then he meditates for 45 minutes.

Shawn: That would not shock me.

Kaite: And writes in a journal at the same time.

Bill: How shocked are you?

Shawn: Oh, there it is.

Bill: Zing.

Kaite: And then, he takes a shot of wheatgrass.

Shawn: While breathing through his oxygen mask that has purified lavender air in it with just a hint…

Kaite: Of juniper?

Shawn: Chamomile.

Kaite: Oh.

Bill: I’m lost.

Kaite: Nothing new there. I mean…

Shawn: Boy, we are our own harshest critics today.

Bill: But I think a thing a comp can do to become a best ally, and a way to be proactive could be…this won’t work for everybody but could be, like, how do you use, tying back to something actually both Kaite and Shawn, you alluded to, incentives. Like, can you as a comp person go out to your department heads, line managers, VPs, and figure out what they want their employees to do and help them to design incentive plans to reinforce and message what their goals are, and you know, a lot of people forget about that. But the whole point of incentive plans is alignment and they themselves are a means of communication of what’s important. So take that budget and use it smarter to help achieve goals. And as you start doing that, you’ll win friends and influence people throughout the organization.

Shawn: You win. You win.

Bill: Right. I should have ended with that since you’re doing that.

Shawn: We’re gonna go back and edit that.

Bill: You win.

Shawn: You win.

Bill: You’re a winner.

Shawn: Yeah, show me how somebody is incentivized and I’ll show you what they do. And so, it’s the cascading goals cast any incentives there in making sure that everybody’s mapping up to the department, which maps up to the organization and what it’s trying to achieve.

Bill: Right. And, you know, I think I lose my comp title if I don’t say and make sure that people understand what they need to do to earn it, you know, that it’s…

Kaite: That would be helpful, I feel like, you know.

Bill: Yeah, I mean, don’t give people working on a production line…

Kaite: Secret [inaudible 00:18:19] plans.

Bill: You know, things to help grow day sales outstanding metrics. And they’re like, “I don’t know what that is. I don’t know how to do it. I’m just gonna ignore it.”

Kaite: It has nothing to do with me. Yeah.

Shawn: I’m not gonna be able to help you with your accounts receivable.

Bill: Right. Make more widgets, that I understand. Fewer defects, that I understand.

Shawn: Right. And then that helps the company though if it’s all lined well by saying that fewer defects means fewer returns, which means better sales, which means less waste coming back.

Bill: Exactly. Right. Give people things that they can control.

Shawn: It’s more efficient. Yeah, exactly.

Bill: Things to focus on.

Shawn: So, we view this part as… Everything that we do on this is a conversation, clearly. Clearly that is the case, especially with Bill. It’s all an open book.

Bill: Just talk, talk, talk.

Shawn: That’s what we say. But especially with this part of comp strategist, look, this is something that we believe we as a community can do a better job of. We wanna help figure that out collectively. We can be the uniting force is how maybe we wanna think about this, but it’s a conversation. So it is our job, and we’re targeting to do it this year to give a better path to how can comp measure itself in a way that is more well-understood by an organization, not nuanced or niche-y to comp or HR. And so, it’s the start of a conversation. We’re gonna be doing a lot more this year. We’re gonna be having a little roadshow, if you will. Bill is gonna come out in a zebra suit.

Kaite: Flossing.

Shawn: He’s gonna floss.

Kaite: The dance move, not his teeth. Or I mean, maybe both.

Shawn: Both.

Kaite: I don’t really wanna see the latter.

Shawn: But keep an eye out for some events that we’re holding. We have a bunch coming up. We’re gonna be speaking at a bunch of places as well. We wanna have this conversation, we’re gonna be doing events in person and in virtual around it. We’re gonna be doing surveys and research around this. We’re gonna be looking to talk to people that believe that they understand their metrics and that it maps well. We wanna have all these conversations because we are nothing if not a lighthouse for where this might be able to go.

Bill: I would like to challenge the audience to leave their offices, get out of your HR department and go talk to people outside and find out what they want from you.

Kaite: That’s a good challenge.

Bill: Like, what would make you a success? What would make you their hero? I don’t know.

Shawn: What do they understand about pay? What do they need to know more of?

Bill: Don’t be, sort of…

Shawn: What are their initiatives and how can you help?

Bill: A hidden function. Be supportive, collaborator.

Shawn: That’s why these are, at least in my mind, a step, right? You have to, in order to get out of your office or your cube, you have to get out of reactive mode. And you get out of reactive mode by having technology that helps solve that problem for you and you can be much more quick and efficient in what you’re doing. That allows you to communicate, get outside your area and go talk to people. And through that, you get a ton of context, a ton of ideas and ways to maybe better approach why we do what we do. When you get that, come talk to Bill. We wanna hear that.

Kaite: Guest Bill. Not you.

Bill: No.

Kaite: Okay. This Bill.

Shawn: Email us at We wanna hear that. If you’re open to having us come and talk to your managers with you, we wanna hear that. Tesla likes to travel.

Kaite: Yup, she’s given it a thumbs up.

Shawn: But we wanna participate in these conversations. We wanna learn as well and we wanna help guide the industry.

Bill: I think we want, you, the audience, we want them to participate in these conversations.

Shawn: We want them to have these conversations.

Bill: Right. Get out of their comfort zones, literally and figuratively. And, you know, hear what your customers have to say, your customers internal to your organization.

Shawn: Your internal customers, yeah. Agreed. So we’ll be doing more of this. Be on the look out for it. If you have thoughts, ideas, discussions, conversations, theories, let us know. So, this is an ongoing conversation. We look forward to continuing it. Hit us up with your thoughts, ideas, theories on it, coffee@payfactors.

Kaite: Coffee… Oh, shoot. Sorry, Shawn.

Shawn: Go for it.


Bill: Kaite, do you wanna end this with a shameless plug for the ebook?

Kaite: How did you know, William?

Bill: It just came to me.

Kaite: Yeah. So you know, this series of episodes that we’ve just kind of run through is the first of many conversations that we’re having about this comp strategist topic. We actually just recently wrapped, if I do say so myself, an excellent ebook on the topic. It’s free. So if you’d like it, send us a note,, and we will send it to you.

Bill: It’s also in the notes, right?

Kaite: It is. That’s very true, Bill. That’s very true. It’s in the notes as well. If you’re on your phone, take a look. We’re also gonna be doing some webinars around this topic. You’re gonna hear us discussing this topic at our upcoming CompCon in October, so stay tuned. There’s a ton of material coming out on comp strategist and what it means and how you can grow into a role like that. So, stay tuned.

Shawn: And we’ll look for you next time. Over and out, Kaite.

Kaite: Making fun of me again. Over and out.

Bill: See you.