CEOs who make big money often find it difficult to talk about their hefty salaries in public. In fact, they’ve been known to make things worse by coming across as arrogant and tone-deaf to the average person.
Talking about one’s wealth is by no means easy. And while acknowledging how difficult it is, this column is not intended to make readers feel sorry for rich corporate executives, but rather to better explain the pitfalls that wealthy corporate executives may face when communicating in public about their deep pockets.
Consider the recent comments of Hillary Clinton who talked publicly on her book tour about how she and her husband Bill Clinton were "dead broke" when they left the White House. She then said in an interview with The Guardian that she and her husband were not among the "truly well off" because they had earned their millions "through dint of hard work."
Her comments about the Clinton’s wealth are a perfect example of how not to communicate in public about being rich. It’s defensive. It’s apologetic. And, yes, it’s tone deaf.
When you get $14 million for a book advance, and your husband gets $700,000 for one speech in Nigeria, why would you say you are not "truly well off?"
The Clintons made about $110 million from 2000 to 2008. They earned it. CEOs often make big bucks because their board compensation committee decides they are worth it. It’s called the marketplace. Is baseball’s Alexander Rodrigues worth $20 million a year? It’s what the marketplace decided. It’s the same way the marketplace decides how much to pay someone for a speech or a book advance.
So here’s the deal when it comes to CEOs and wealthy business people communicating about this issue — never try to defend and explain your compensation in detail. Why? Because to the average person, after $1 million, your salary seems inflated and overblown. Simply put, it’s so much more than what most people make that they will resent you for it.
Here’s the answer for the CEO who gets paid several million dollars because his or her company has done well: "I’m proud of our company’s performance and our bottom line. Our board decides my compensation. I look forward to our company continuing to do well and serving all of our shareholders."
If pressed on whether you’re paid too much as a CEO, because you did not set your compensation, an appropriate response would be: "That’s a question for our compensation committee to answer."
As for Hillary Clinton, she would have been much better off saying something like this: "Bill and I have been very fortunate in private life to do things we love to do like write and make public speeches, and to be paid very well in the process. We have been blessed that people have responded in such a positive way." No need to explain, be defensive or apologize, unless you feel that you don’t deserve it, or you feel that you want to give some back, beyond your charitable contributions.
This is not about arrogant communication, but rather about being confident and comfortable with your stature and standing in the marketplace. If you are not, then you can’t communicate in public about your wealth in a way that will cause anything but resentment and anger. In the end, no matter how you communicate, those who don’t like you for making big bucks will feel the same. The others will appreciate your candor.
Finally, no need to feel sorry for rich CEOs and others with very deep pockets if this is the biggest problem they’re facing. But being rich does not guarantee that you are an effective communicator under pressure.