Dave Wichmann will make a lot of money as CEO of UnitedHealth Group, although maybe not as much as his predecessor did.
A surging stock price swelled the value of what was paid to just-retired CEO Stephen Hemsley. But for a sense of what the company thinks is fair, it explained this year that just 9 percent of the CEO’s target compensation should come as a base salary.
Do the simple arithmetic on an annual salary of $1.3 million. The answer to a question anybody would have about a new job — “what does this job pay?” — is about $15 million. Hemsley, by the way, made twice that last year.
Wichmann formally took over on Friday. Hopefully, he’s already read and reflected on what it means for one person to be paid so much to take over a thriving company. If asked for ideas, I would have pointed to this nugget from the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible.
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant — then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
No reason to overthink it, it’s just a way to remind ourselves that we all benefit from things we didn’t build. We all drink from wells we did not dig. And we get to work in organizations we did little or nothing to get going, some of us even as CEO.
Maybe that’s the best way for a new CEO to approach the job at a big company like Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group. Dave Wichmann doesn’t have to run UnitedHealth. He gets the rare opportunity to do it.
He’s inherited a legacy he needs to pass on.
This kind of teaching about gratitude seems to be part of a lot of spiritual traditions, because the problem it’s addressing comes from a little hiccup in the way people think, a so-called cognitive bias.
This human default setting leads people to give themselves credit for all the good things they have received while attributing the setbacks to external factors.
Putting this idea into a business column is admittedly one reaction to watching all the money big companies shovel to their executives, so much in the case of UnitedHealth that an annual salary of $1.3 million can almost seem trivial.
But the point is that people would be happier, and not to mention a lot easier to work for, if they really grasped that it’s far too easy to give themselves credit for good fortune.
One executive who seemed to have really understood that was Douglas Conant of Campbell Soup Co. In 2011, he estimated that he must have sent more than 30,000 handwritten notes of gratitude and encouragement in his, at the time, 10 years running the company. Everyone from maintenance workers to senior executives heard from Conant personally.
Short-term thinking is a chronic problem for big companies, too. Board meetings ought to start with the reminder of how everybody in the room has benefited from the work of others. That’s one way to drill into a CEO’s head that it’s part of the job to make sure trees are planted for the next generation to harvest.
Please understand that this is not meant as a criticism of Wichmann. He’s been part of the UnitedHealth growth story, worked at the company since 1998, led critical functions and served as chief financial officer. His promotion announcement quoted him referring to the honor of being chosen and the good fortune of leading a company as capable as UnitedHealth. Sure it was just a canned quote, but no doubt he got to decide what it said, and he chose well.
He could have also learned from the example of his predecessor, too, because the same thing about inheriting a legacy could have been said about UnitedHealth in 2006, when Hemsley stepped in for longtime CEO William McGuire.
That transition followed a leadership crisis, yet the business was doing well. That year, UnitedHealth saw a huge jump in revenue and it earned in excess of 22 percent on its shareholders’ equity.
The issue that led to a leadership change was an improper way of issuing stock options on McGuire’s watch. When the mess was tidied up, Hemsley was in charge and the company was still a market leader.
Hemsley built a track record so enviable that Fortune magazine called him “the most successful CEO of his generation.” UnitedHealth Group’s 2016 revenue of $185 billion was well more than twice its revenue in 2007, his first full year as boss. And the shares of UnitedHealth Group appreciated about 300 percent these past 10 years, crushing market benchmarks like the S&P 500.
Yet the shareholders of rival Humana have done pretty well over the last 10 years, too, with their stock also up about 300 percent. And, while Humana didn’t grow as fast as UnitedHealth, its revenue more than doubled, too.
So maybe it’s a closer call than the Fortune writer realized on who was the most successful CEO of this generation. Health insurance turned out to be a very good business to be in over the past 10 years.
UnitedHealth unquestionably performed well under Hemsley. Yet it’s not easy looking at its achievements and know for sure what were his and what were harvested from the leaders and employees who came before.
With bonuses and incentives, Hemsley last year made more than $31 million, the Star Tribune calculates. As outgoing UnitedHealth CEO, he can put that kind of pay into context for Wichmann — along with gratitude for the chance to drink from a well he didn’t dig.