When word got out last year that Google had a secret “bench” program — in which veteran executives are put in limbo or in advisory roles for brief periods before being reinserted into formal leadership positions later — some observers likely wrote the practice off as Google being Google.
Here’s a company with deep pockets that can afford to pay its executives extraordinary salaries to do nothing; then, when it’s ready, can put them back in motion when their astute leadership skills are needed. It’s no wonder that roughly one-third of Google’s first 100 hires still work at the company, as its HR boss, Laszlo Bock, wrote in his 2015 book, “Work Rules!” Why leave when a company will pay you to stay and do nothing?
As Business Insider initially reported in May 2015, Google’s bench program is viewed as a way for the company to keep its highly talented executives off the market or from leaving to start their own companies — some of which are likely to end up as competitors. Certain executives at the firm have been reported to rotate out of an active role for months or even years at a time, while continuing to get paid until they’re needed again.
But is the perceived cost associated with benching practical? Or is Google enjoying a luxury others can’t afford?
David Doltich, president of Pivot Leadership, a boutique strategy and leadership consulting firm acquired by executive recruiter Korn Ferry last year, leans toward the latter. “The practice in my experience isn’t that widespread,” Doltich said in an interview with Talent Economy.
Doltich said that most CEOs he works with have the opposite problem: they’re so stretched with work that they don’t have enough qualified people to complete it. Forget paying people to do nothing; most executives need their best people to do more.
Then there’s the talent perspective. Why would a high-performing, hard-charging executive want to be benched? “Most people look at their career as something dynamic where you have to keep going,” Doltich said, “but if you’re working for the richest company in the world, you can sit around and wait for something different to happen.”
That isn’t to say some executives aren’t in need of a break. Executive burnout is real, as shown in a 2013 Harvard Medical School study. It found that 96 percent of senior leaders reported feeling burnt out to some degree, with one-third describing the burnout as extreme.
Of course, benching isn’t the only way companies can address executive burnout. But for companies with financial flexibility, providing top talent prolonged time to recharge while still contributing to the organization could be beneficial to their continued engagement and productivity, said Russell Clayton, an assistant professor of management at Saint Leo University in Florida. “You’re not necessarily giving them a vacation,” Clayton said in an interview with Talent Economy, “but you’re just putting them off to the side as they’re recharging.”
Executive benching may actually help companies save money. “Turnover is expensive, so companies don’t really want great executives leaving their organization,” said Tamar Elkeles, chief people officer of Mountain View, California-based mobile-technology firm Quixey.
According to a 2012 study by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank, roles at the senior executive levels tend to have disproportionally high turnover costs as a percentage of salary. The typical cost of losing someone making $50,000 or less annually, for example, is about 20 percent of that person’s salary, according to the CAP study. Meanwhile, losing a highly specialized executive could cost a company up to 213 percent of that person’s annual salary.
Elkeles, who previously served as chief learning officer at technology firm Qualcomm, said benching could help business leaders stem such high executive turnover costs. Instead of letting highly prized people walk out the door, companies can move them around to less-intensive roles for short periods of time, a practice she said she often observed at Qualcomm.
Elkeles said this is now common in Silicon Valley, where founders often start as highly involved employees who later pull back into more of an advisory role once the firm grows. Oftentimes company founders aren’t fit to lead large teams; having them act as advisors allows them to continue to add value through their product expertise while others take on the task of managing the workforce.
“I was at Qualcomm for almost 24 years,” Elkeles said, “and in order for me to stay engaged and compelled with the work that I was doing I was constantly managing new projects and new opportunities and new experiences. That’s a way to keep talent, is to move talent, to rotate talent, and to enable [people] to contribute for an entire career.”
Indeed, for business leaders keen on remaining competitive, taking on the short-term costs associated with executive benching may ultimately be worthwhile. Those unable to afford it may consider creative alternatives. Not doing anything and letting highly coveted leaders leave the organization may, in the end, be the most costly option.