Brandt on Leadership -- A Job to Die For

Aug. 8, 2008
What if you were so money that they'd keep paying you even after you're dead?

You're a leader, a go-getter, and that likely means that you've tried a lot of crazy things to get rich over the years, or to at least pay the bills. You've had jobs, gotten promoted, then found better jobs, etc. Maybe you bought a rental property on the side. Maybe you sold those herbal supplements or Tupperware at parties of your unsuspecting friends. I don't know, maybe you swiped a few coins from one of those Take A Penny, Leave A Penny dishes at the 7-11 (I hope not). But there's one strategy I'll bet even you never thought of on your climb to the top: Dying.

Don't laugh. In the latest example of how CEOs really are smarter than you and me, at least when it comes to creatively lining their own pockets, the Wall Street Journal has reported on a new compensation trend that pays CEOs enormous sums -- for all kinds of reasons -- after they're dead. I am not making these up:

  • Shaw Group CEO James M. Bernhard Jr. will earn $17 million upon his demise, provided that he honors his agreement to not work for a competitive firm while he's dead.
  • XTO Energy CEO Bob R. Simpson will earn a $111 million bonus -- simply for dying.
  • If (not when) Nabors Industries CEO Eugene M. Isenberg expires, he (well, his heirs) will receive a severance payment topping $260 million (more than Q1 earnings at Nabors) for being dead.
  • One of the smaller but still probably best deals, though, went to Lockheed Martin CEO Robert J. Stevens, who received his $1 million death benefit in March of this year, even though he didn't die. A spokesman for Lockheed Martin told the Journal that the company was eliminating the benefit for senior executives, but paid officers currently expecting it anyway.

I don't know about you, but this whole scheme is looking better every minute: Hammer a weak-willed board into agreeing to pay you when you die and after you die (as long as you don't whisper tips to rivals through sances), and then ask for the money anyway, right now, because you're such a great guy and you've had the leadership and courtesy not to die.

In fact, the only problem I see with this trend is that as more and more CEOs (and their heirs) realize how much more they'll be worth dead rather than alive, a whole series of perverse incentives may come into play:

  • CEOs may feel less averse to risky behaviors such as parachuting, mountain-climbing, or eating bacon.
  • CEOs with unscrupulous relatives may want to make sure that, at family reunions, someone else tastes the potato salad first.
  • CEOs may realize that their best next career moves could involve faking their own demises, living off the profits of death on some tropical island. They might even band together to form a gated community: Club Dead.

The Journal didn't analyze the possibility of a massive die-off of CEOs, whether self-inflicted, assisted or faked, but the potential effect could be just as devastating as the last time a large group of reptiles expired all at once, plunging the planet into a 10,000-year ice age, or whatever. Imagine the impact on the global economy alone, as private golf clubs, single malt whisky distilleries and cigar-makers worldwide struggle to stay afloat while they search for a new generation of customers.

Which, happily enough, is where you and I come in. With all current CEOs dead or in hiding, we will volunteer -- nay, insist -- upon assuming the larger burden of CEO leadership ourselves. It's a sacrifice, yes, but the world's fate hangs in the balance.

See you at Club Dead!

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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