Boards are cultivating a more diverse slate of directors that includes different backgrounds, experiences and skills. In 2021, over 45% of new directors in the Russell 3000 were women. Directors of different ethnic groups also made steady gains. Moreover, bank boards are seeking specific skill sets such as risk, cyber and financial markets expertise to supplement traditional CEO and CFO disciplines.
Attracting and retaining a new breed of diverse directors, many of which are younger than traditional directors and may still be working, requires forward thinking. Boards with compensation programs that are unclear, overly restrictive or developed as a “one size fits all” program may encounter recruiting and retention issues. Just as director experience needs to be more diverse to oversee modern banking, director compensation practices must adapt and change to address varied perceptions and needs. Banks can take five actions to position themselves for greater success.
1. Ensure Compensation Programs are Up-to-Date.
Director pay has continued its upward trend after a brief hold during the pandemic. Furthermore, banks are adopting practices more consistent with general industry practices:
- Consider a retainer-only approach. Eliminating meeting fees creates greater clarity around the total compensation a director receives while streamlining administration.
- Grant restricted stock. Governance advocates and regulators alike consider full-value shares to be more appropriate for director pay, compared to stock options, since shares provide ownership without the potential for leveraged gains. The most common vesting period for equity retainers range from immediate up to one year after grant.
- Eliminate “old school” practices. Certain practices may carry the perception that a bank board is out of touch with market practice and governance norms. These include director retirement and benefit programs, meeting fee reductions for committee meetings held on the same day as the board meeting or for meetings held “telephonically,” reimbursement of spousal travel and paying executives board fees.
2. Consider Pay Mix and Timing.
- Coordinate cash and equity vesting. Governance advocates encourage companies to pay a minimum of 50% of board fees in the form of equity. In most cases, equity compensation is welcomed by directors but taxes can be an issue. Timing cash, such as board and committee retainers, alongside equity award vesting is helpful; this is especially true if open window periods to sell equity are limited throughout the year.
- Consider immediate vesting. Even a one-year vesting can create unexpected tax consequences with share price movement. If a bank’s share price increases substantially over the vesting period, the tax liability at vest may be substantially higher than planned. This tax liability can create a burden on directors, especially when combined with ownership requirements and sales restrictions.
- Rethink long holds and other restrictive policies. Stock retention and ownership guidelines are the market norm. And while welcomed by shareholders, less prevalent practices such as mandatory deferral policies and other stock retention provisions that defer stock vesting until director retirement may receive pushback from candidates and reduce the potential pool of directors.
3. Review Equity Grant Levels, Stock Ownership Guidelines.
Banks should model stock ownership requirements to ensure that directors can reach the guidelines through the compensation program within the prescribed timeframe and on an after-tax basis. Rarely are directors expected to pay out-of-pocket to serve on a public company board. If the annual equity retainer alone is deficient, banks can grant sign-on awards to give new directors a head start in achieving the ownership guideline and to support recruiting efforts.
4. Provide Programs That Let Directors Manage Cash Flow.
Board diversity may lead to varying financial objectives, which banks can address by implementing choice programs that are flexible in form of payment and tax timing.
a. Stock programs that allow directors to receive cash retainers in stock. These programs typically allow a bank to pay cash board retainers as shares. Some provide a “kicker” incentive of 10% to 20% to directors that opt for stock over cash.
b. Voluntary deferral programs. These programs may include voluntary deferrals of cash retainers and/or equity awards that may be held in company stock, an interest bearing account or in diversified investments.
5. Employ More Mindful Recruiting Efforts.
Executive recruiters and board-directed searches often resort to drawing from the same limited pool of sitting board members to fill new seats rather than broadening to other sources of talent, such as women executive groups, ethnic chambers of commerce and affinity groups. A larger recruiting pool places less pressure on the board compensation program.
Board compensation programs can act as an enticement or deterrent when banks are recruiting diverse candidates. Banks put themselves in the best position when compensation programs are clear, market-based and provide flexibility for varying life stages and financial positions.