The HARD Truth About Rewards and Incentives

The HARD Truth About Rewards and Incentives

A long, long time ago I took a job in the Life Sciences industry.

I pursued that role for three reasons – and please remember, I was young. 

I wanted – in order; an attractive salary, benefits, and a company car.

I got them – though the base I accepted, even by 1980 standards, was questionable.

$13,600 – and I ask that you not laugh when you hear that figure. There was bonus potential on top of that – not much, but it was something. 

I considered myself wealthy beyond my wildest dreams – and given my station in life at that point, I was.

Then, still wrapped in the luxurious trappings of my new world – reality struck. 

I had quotas to hit – profit goals – activity minimums – thresholds that, if I didn’t meet them, meant that the 3 things I most wanted were going to go away – quickly.

That job of a lifetime suddenly wasn’t so wonderful.

The company car looked a lot less appealing – as did the benefits. My salary didn’t help allay my frustration. It made it worse.

“I am underpaid,” I told myself.

My job – regardless of the baubles that were dangled in front of me – had become, well, just a job. In some ways I yearned for my days on a loading dock when I was in school.

Less pay but a lot less headache.

And then one day I began to realize a very hard truth.

No matter how much I worked – or how extravagant the pay and the benefits – my job might always be just that – a JOB.  

And that was pretty depressing.  Working for bigger carrots – more elaborate extrinsic rewards – might ease the pain. It didn’t eliminate it.

I did the math – and if my calculations were close to correct, I was going to spend somewhere around 100,000 hours of my life … on a hamster wheel.


So I began to think about a few things – and for some reason was reminded of a doting aunt that always asked me when I was a kid, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

My answers then were rambling – and subject to the latest movie, TV series, or comic book I had happened to read.

But “what are you going to BE” for some reason resonated. I kind of thought I might have given up my “BE” for something else.

In the years that have followed I’ve found a lot of people have made that same trade – making the subconscious decision to spend 100,000 hours on the wheel versus investing them in a life of purpose. And that includes a lot of “professionals” that are highly educated but poorly situated in their career journey.

Finding my path wasn’t always easy – had I not encountered a few leaders who challenged me to actually think strategically about my life I’m not sure I would have.

Discovering what I was passionate about – and inventorying my skills in an objective way  to find an alignment there – took time.

But getting to my “BE” meant finding a sense of purpose – and eventually, a career of meaning.

The salary, company car, and even the benefits began to fade into the background.

Today, when I work with leaders and companies on their incentives and rewards I try to remind them of the limitations that can blind.

The “packages” – at best – buy employee compliance.  Nothing more.

Quid Pro Quo – you do the work for us and we’ll  give you something in return – the “something” can be incredibly extravagant but it is still an extrinsic reward. 

NO movement – and certainly no company builds greatness because its constituency decides to comply – even if they are overpaid for doing it.

I felt so strongly about the power of those drivers that I eventually codified them – and today The Starlight Principle is an essential part of many of our leadership and culture workshops.

Great companies do much more than sign their employees’ paychecks twice a month – they acknowledge that far too many “workers” toil too many years in a fog – hoping for a better life.

Hope is not a strategy – it’s often a complicated exercise in futility.

Leaders – REAL leaders – can change the calculus; transforming the hamster wheel into something more.

I still have pictures of that first company car – it was a Pontiac Catalina as I recall.  It got me from Point A to Point B.

But it really never got me on the road to my career.












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