Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Executive Compensation as "Legal Corruption" - and the Continuing Example of the Troubles of Wake Forest Baptist

"Legal corruption" was the description of current executive compensation practices appearing, of all places, in the Wall Street Journal.  The arguments, by Henry Mintzer of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, apply to health care, and provide a counterpoint to the usual talking points that are trotted out whenever a top health care manager, or his cronies, feels the need to justify his or her compensation. 

A Rigged Game with Other Peoples' Money

Prof Mintzer's arguments start with the assertion that executive bonuses are hopelessly rigged in favor of the managers who receive them.  In particular:
  •  They represent gambling with "other people's money," in this case, "the stockholders [of large public corporations] not to mention the livelihoods of their employees and the sustainability of their institutions"
  • Bonuses are given just based on the appearance of winning, for example, when a company's stock goes up short term, regardless of long-term results.
  • Bonuses are given even when the company may lose, for example, the "golden parachute," or severance package that even executives forced to resign or retire may receive.
  • Bonuses are given for actions that at best only provide potential gains for the company, for example prior to a merger, but before it is known that the merger will be successful
  • Bonuses are given just for showing up, that is, "retention bonuses."

Thus he contended that bonuses inspire executives to be gamblers in a game rigged in their favor.

Based on False Assumptions

Furthermore, he argued that the current system of executive compensation is based on false assumptions.  These include:

"A company's health is represented by its financial measures alone - even better, the price of its stock." 

However, as Prof Mintzer noted:

Companies are a lot more complicated than that. Their health is significantly represented by what accountants call goodwill, which in its basic sense means a company's intrinsic value beyond its tangible assets: the quality of its brands, its overall reputation in the marketplace, the depth of its culture, the commitment of its people, and so on.  

I would note that this applies especially in health care, and more especially to organizations that provide direct patient care.  No hospital system, for example, could function at all without a corps of dedicated health professionals, physicians, nurses, therapists, etc. 

Furthermore, Prof Mintzer wrote,

All too often, financial measures are a convenient substitute used by disconnected executives who don't know what else to do—including how to manage more deeply.  Or worse, such measures encourage abuse from impatient CEOs, who can have a field day cashing in that goodwill by cutting back on maintenance and customer service, 'downsizing' experienced employees while others are left to 'burn out,' trashing valued brands, and so on. Quickly the measured costs are reduced while slowly the institution deteriorates 

This is obviously particularly pernicious in health care, a field in which institutions are complicated, and dependent on the efforts of some very highly trained and specialized people well beyond the management suite. 

"Performance measures, whether short or long term, represent the true strength of the company." 

Prof Mintzer pointed out the lack of accurate measures of the overall performance of a company or organization. 

"The CEO, with a few other senior executives, is primarily responsible for the company's performance."  

Prof Mintzer asked,

In something as complex as the contemporary large corporation, how can success over three or even 10 years possibly be attributed to a single individual? Where is teamwork and all that talk about people being 'our most important asset?'

More important, should any company even try to attribute success to one person? A robust enterprise is not a collection of 'human resources'; it's a community of human beings. All kinds of people are responsible for its performance. Focusing on a few—indeed, only one, who may have parachuted into the most senior post from the outside—just discourages everyone else in the company.

Again, this is obviously particularly the case in health care organizations, especially those that provide direct patient care.

Leading to the Worst Possible Leaders and Leadership

Finally, Prof Mintzer argued that the current system is designed to promote the worst possible leadership, leading likely to the worst possible outcomes.  He opened with

 Executive bonuses—especially in the form of stock and option grants—represent the most prominent form of legal corruption that has been undermining our large corporations and bringing down the global economy. 

Our argument has been that the current leadership of health care is similarly bringing down our health care system.

He later noted that current compensation practices mainly function to select out the worst possible leaders:

 executive compensation these days reinforces a class structure within the enterprise that is antithetical to its effective functioning. Because of its symbolic nature, executive compensation as currently practiced sends out the worst possible signal to everyone in the enterprise.


bonuses can serve one purpose. It has been claimed that if you don't pay them, you don't get the right person in the CEO chair. I believe that if you do pay bonuses, you get the wrong person in that chair. At the worst, you get a self-centered narcissist. [Or even a full-fledged, if non-violent, psychopath, as noted here - Ed] At the best, you get someone who is willing to be singled out from everyone else by virtue of the compensation plan. Is this any way to build community within an enterprise, even to foster the very sense of enterprise that is so fundamental to economic strength?

Accordingly, executive bonuses provide the perfect tool to screen candidates for the CEO job. Anyone who insists on them should be dismissed out of hand, because he or she has demonstrated an absence of the leadership attitude required for a sustainable enterprise.

Of course, this might thin the roster of candidates. Good. Most need to be thinned, in order to be refilled with people who don't allow their own needs to take precedence over those of the community they wish to lead.

It will be interesting to see if anyone attempts a logical refutation of Prof Mintzer's arguments.  My guess is that we will see little response, based on the usual public relations dictum that it is best not to acknowledge one's detractors, even if they are right.  Furthermore, I predict that what responses there are will partake heavily of logical fallacies.

Finally, it is worthwhile to think about Prof Mintzer's points when assessing the arguments made in favor of particular executives' outsized remuneration. 

An Example - Continued Riches for Wake Forest Baptist Executives

Outsize Executive Compensation Continues

A few weeks ago, we noted that the leaders of this large medical center, while previously proclaimed as visionaries, and enjoying enlarging compensation, seemed to have lead the institution to a financial crisis due to difficulties with a poorly chosen or implemented electronic health record system. 

One follow up story updated compensation information and provided the official management rationale for the ongoing largess.  The redoubtable Richard Craver wrote in the Winston-Salem Journal,

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center provided its top executive, Dr. John McConnell, an 11.9 percent raise in salary during 2011 to $983,777, although his total compensation dropped 18 percent, the center reported Wednesday as part of an annual regulatory filing.

McConnell was paid $2.04 million in total compensation, compared with almost $2.5 million for 2010. Although Wake Forest Baptist operates on fiscal years that end on June 30, the pay for its top executives is required to be listed on a calendar-year basis.

The main difference between the 2010 and 2011 compensation totals for McConnell was $461,575 he received as a one-time payment that replaced the retirement benefits he forfeited upon leaving the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. McConnell was required to work at Wake Forest Baptist for two years to receive the one-time payment.

Keep in mind that in 2008-9x, Dr McConnell made a total of just over $700,000, so his compensation in 2011 was about three times that.

The benevolent board of the medical center saw to it that Dr McConnell got money for all sorts of reasons:

McConnell received $384,203 in bonus and incentives in fiscal 2010-11. The center said the amount reflects the achievement of clinical quality, academic and financial goals set by the board of directors. The bonus was down $115,797 from fiscal 2009-10 primarily because the center reduced the potential percentage of the incentive compensation from 75 percent of his base salary to 53 percent.

McConnell received $38,511 in other reportable compensation, which the center listed: as $8,797 in annual dues for Forsyth Country Club and Rotary Club membership, defined as for business purposes; $16,500 qualified deferred compensation; $3,612 in after-tax life-insurance deduction; and $9,602 in an automobile allowance.

 He also received $619,002 in contributions to retirement plans, including a supplemental executive retirement plan solely for McConnell’s benefit.

One wonders why, given his salary and bonus, Dr McConnell could not afford to pay dues to the country club and rotary on his own, or for his own car expenses, or to provide for his own retirement, for that matter?

Other executives also continued to do very well:

Donny Lambeth, former president of N.C. Baptist Hospital, received $2.47 million in total compensation. Lambeth served as president of Davie County Hospital and Lexington Medical Center before retiring last year. He is now serving as an N.C. House representative.

Lambeth’s $495,595 in base salary represented an 8 percent decrease related to his reduced job responsibilities. His bonus and incentive compensation was down 2 percent to $181,988. The bulk of Lambeth’s compensation was $1.62 million related to a fully vested deferred compensation upon his retirement.

Dr. Thomas Sibert, president of Wake Forest Baptist Health and chief operating officer, received a 14 percent increase in total compensation to $1.13 million, including $631,297 in salary (up 15.7 percent) and $234,540 in bonus and incentive compensation (up 41.3 percent). Sibert took over his role in September 2010.

Edward Chadwick, chief financial officer, received a less than 1 percent increase in total compensation to $979,420. His salary rose 4.6 percent to $527,216, while his bonus and incentive compensation fell 5 percent to $189,929.

Russell Howerton, chief medical officer, was paid $295,714 in salary, $300,786 in bonus and incentive compensation and $657,025 in total compensation. Doug Edgeton, former president of Piedmont Triad Research Park (recently renamed as Wake Forest Innovation Quarter), received $490,485 in salary, $162,367 in bonus and incentive compensation and $710,729 in total compensation.

The Chief Information Quietly Departs, with Some More Money

Meanwhile, Mr Craver also reported the quiet departure of the executive who presided over the troubled implementation of the EHR,

The chief information officer for Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is stepping down, effective May 31, the center confirmed Friday.

Sheila Sanders has served in that role, as well as vice president of information technology, since being hired in 2009 to direct the center’s overhaul of its IT system.

She is leaving at a time when the center is struggling financially and operationally with implementing the Epic electronic health records system — one of the largest overall projects Wake Forest Baptist and most health care systems have undertaken in recent years.

Note that Ms Sanders was well rewarded for her questionable efforts,

Sanders was paid $333,961 in salary, $89,145 in bonus and incentive compensation and $464,543 in total compensation in 2011, according to a regulatory filing that Wake Forest Baptist made public Wednesday. The center’s executive-compensation data typically is about 18 months old when released.

In terms of salary, Sanders ranked sixth among the center’s 27 listed management officials. 

It was clear that Ms Sanders ought to have been directly responsible for the EHR implementation,

 The center said Sanders’ duties included clinical information, administrative, business, academic and research support systems, as well as core IT functions that include a central IT help desk, email, computer desktop support, IT security and telecommunications.

Nonetheless, the extremely well-paid top leadership did not seem to have hard feelings.

Dr. John McConnell, the center’s chief executive, said in a statement that Sanders decided in January to take 'a brief career break' after completing major portions of the overhaul. He said Sanders is relocating to Florida to spend more time with her family.

Wake Forest Baptist spokesman Chad Campbell stressed it was Sanders’ decision to leave her positions, and it was not related to Epic, which went live in September on the center’s main campus.


'We are deeply grateful to Sheila for her numerous contributions that will serve the medical center for years to come,' McConnell said. McConnell said senior IT officials will manage day-to-day IT operations with his oversight while the center conducts a national search for her replacement.

But to reiterate,

 The center said May 2 it had launched another round of 'multi-million dollar' cost-cutting measures that will last through at least June 30, the end of its 2012-13 fiscal year, related to fixing Epic revenue issues.

 Perhaps any attempt to saddle the chief information officer with responsibility would point out the lack of responsibility imposed on even higher level and better paid executives for apparently approving and authorizing her previous work.

The Usual Talking Points

Instead, the official statement from hospital system management about top executives' compensation trotted out the usual talking points in defense of all this lavish pay,

Wake Forest Baptist said in a statement explaining its executive compensation packages that as an academic medical center, it requires management with 'a special set of skills and experience to manage relationships with physicians and researchers, the university, its patients and community. … It takes proven talents possessed by a small group of health care executives.'

'Compensating executives, as we do all of our employees, competitively and appropriately, is crucial to the success of Wake Forest Baptist and to Northwest North Carolina.'

In addition,

 Baptist said its executive compensation is based primarily on comparisons with 32 academic medical centers, including Duke University Hospital and UNC Hospitals. 

With regard to Dr McConnell's special retirement plan,

'This is a common benefit for executives at academic medical centers and health systems to encourage retention and provide competitive retirement benefits,' the center said in its statement.

We first listed the talking points here, and then provided additional examples of their use here, here and here.   The official administration discussion above does seem to include: 
- We have to pay competitive rates
-  We have to pay enough to retain at least competent executives, given how hard it is to be an executive
-  Our executives are not merely competitive, but brilliant.

Left out was any evidence about the executives' performance, much less their degree of responsibility for their institution's performance.  Why the few top paid executives should continue to get credit for the institutions' supposed, but unspecified successes, while escaping any accountability for its failures (including the looming problems with its commercial health care information technology) was of course not mentioned. 

So here is a great, current example of how top health care executives are gambling with other peoples' money, in a game rigged so that they always win.  As long as we continue such perverse incentives in health care, they will continue to inspire leaders to line their own pockets at the expense of our health care institutions, and ultimately to the detriment of patients' and the public's health. 


So let me conclude with Prof Mintzer's conclusion,

All this compensation madness is not about markets or talents or incentives, but rather about insiders hijacking established institutions for their personal benefit.

Too many large corporations today are starved for leadership—true leadership, meaning engaged leadership embedded in concerned management. And the global economy desperately needs renewed enterprise, embedded in the belief that companies are communities. Getting rid of executive bonuses, and the gambling games that accompany them, is the place to start.

1 comment:

InformaticsMD said...

It's becoming clear to me the vast majority of hospital CIO's lack the expertise to implement health IT well. They usually lack medical and medical informatics expertise - they are merchant-computing specialists with no business in the clinical domain, implementing tools that affect clinical matters.

I am raising the issue with the Plaintiff's Bar that adverse patient outcomes due to IT problems need involve the CIO and perhaps other IT officers as possible defendants.

If they want to be 'part of the clinical team' - as they often tout - it has to be all the way.

-- SS