Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys

For 15 years of my career, I had the tremendous good fortune to work for a brilliant, disciplined and tough businessman. He was the chairman of our parent company in New York. His name was William F. Reilly. He was a self-made man. Harvard MBA, military paratrooper and a corporate executive who rose through the ranks and to the top of several major companies.

Sadly, he is no longer with us but he lives on in spirit, through guiding principles and in the approach to business that he lectured on, cajoled, directed, mandated and taught to so many from his management team.

He had many amazing theories, philosophies and business practices. He was known for certain sayings and business axioms. He had absolutely no tolerance for smoke and mirrors, BS and obfuscation. He could see through it and cut through it all with the precision of a surgeon with a scalpel.

When you went into a meeting with Bill, you damn well better know your business inside and out or be prepared to be skewered with questions and follow-up assignments. In fact, working for Bill was like going through an MBA program on steroids with the equivalent of pop quizzes and essays presented at any time.

In my experience his approach to business was insightful, to the point and often brilliant its practicality. He dealt in reality, not pie-in-the-sky theory as contained in so many business books.

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One of his pet business principles related to people. I.e. talent. He would often dig deep into the performance of your managers and their teams. This was the case for business units and brands that were doing well. It was an even deeper dive and grilling when there were business challenges. He wanted to know about the team. He wanted to know if you knew about your team. Were they the right people? Were they in the right job? Were they motivated? And, among many other criteria, were they properly compensated? At least within the scope of similar positions in the industry. Oh, and you were expected to know that answer so one had to stay up-to-speed on all the industry salary surveys and be prepared to benchmark your people against the data.

On the topic of compensation, his theory was “pay peanuts, get monkeys”. To Bill, it was not a badge of honor for a manager to have hired an employee for a bargain. He believed that, within reason and reflective of market dynamics, you had to pay for top talent. When you didn’t, you got what you paid for. If you had a manager who was underperforming and he/she was underpaid, it was you, not that person who was on the hot seat. Essentially, he figured that you had received the performance that you paid for.

Bill’s theory on compensation and talent have resonated with me throughout my career. From time-to-time, I see or hear situations in client businesses that validate Bill’s theory. I readily share it with them. With full attribution, of course.

Note: If you have an interesting and/or educational CEO story of Head Noise caliber, write to me at I’d love to speak with you and share your story in my Head Noise blog. You can tell your story either on the record or, without attribution.

Cameron Bishop is a partner with The Capitus Group. The firm provides comprehensive business value enhancement and transition strategy solutions. Partners and Advisory Directors comprise an experienced team of business professionals who have successfully owned, run, grown and sold companies. Capitus utilizes proven value enhancement and risk reduction techniques to enable superior transition options.






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