How to be a Reward Manager

By Mark Goodlake, Astellas Pharma EMEA

I realized this weekend that I have been working in reward (with occasional sojourns into generalist HR and talent) for the best part of 25 years.

That made me wonder – firstly how I ‘d managed to survive that long but also – what does it take to be an effective reward manager? What competencies do you need not just for today, but also for the future challenges ahead?

Certainly the skills I had to use 25 years ago are different from the past – so here are my top 10 skills I think you might need to survive and thrive ...

  1. Know your craft – it’s not enough to be skilled in market data and pay benchmarking alone. To be credible, you need to understand how all the aspects of reward fit together. You don’t need to be a deep expert in everything but you need to know enough to offer advice and guidance.
  2. Know the business – you need to know the key drivers of success for your business and how reward can support those drivers. You also need to be able to work out what reward approaches best fit your business circumstances and needs.
  3. Know how technology can help you – maybe this is the biggest change I’ve experienced in recent years. And I don’t just mean being an excel black belt. Increasingly, the reward cycle activities will be managed by cloud solutions integrated with performance, talent management and HR systems. You’ll need to understand how these solutions can support you and be comfortable working with your IT department, vendors and the like. A different skill set entirely!
  4. Know about talent management and engagement – reward doesn’t sit on an island. High employee engagement comes from an attractive employer value proposition of which reward is a part – knowing how the other parts of the jigsaw fit together is key. 
  5. Know people outside your company who can help you and tell you what is happening externally. Having knowledge of external practice really helps your credibility and influence when making proposals or advising others…..
  6. Be accurate and efficient – we are all human and errors and mistakes happen ... but too many pay review or bonus errors will damage your credibility and ability to influence.
  7.  Know what fairness really means in your company environment and become skilled at balancing the needs of the employee, managers and the business as a whole. Being able to make independent judgments is a very key skill.
  8. Keep it simple – I look back on some of the reward designs I have proposed and they are simply too complex. If the bonus participant can’t understand the plan within a short time, it’s probably not going to impact behavior.
  9. Find the sweet spot between strategic and operational work – this is really one of the most difficult skills. “Business as usual” activities can easily take up a huge part of your time but you need to make time for reflective thinking. Network and attend relevant conferences – that time away from the operational work can help you think whether your reward strategy is still relevant.
  10. And finally keep calm! Reward is a very emotive subject and you will come under pressure from employees and managers at various times. The ability to look beyond the emotion and work out whether what is being demanded is fair and reasonable is a key skill. Keep analytical even while others are losing their heads.

I hope that helps someone out there and that it strikes a chord. I’d be fascinated to hear other peoples’ views on what skills the reward manager will need in the future.

Attend the next Reward Forum on 30 September: Executive pay: why is it still so high, what’s the impact and how should it change?

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Mark, when I read the title I thought you were going to unleash incentives on the world! Knowing that these, on occasion,  effectively create in-house fighting, gaming and other less productive practices, I am so pleased to read you keep the focus on the key elements that drive employee well-being. Good leadership, and management, requires all you have mentioned; great blog.


  • Anonymous

    Thanks Ian I'm glad you found it useful. The older I get (reward managers seem to be getting younger), the more I see reward as an (important) part of the jigsaw that is employee engagement....and not just a technical function.

  • Anonymous

    I have worked across many sectors in my consultancy time now and it is interesting to see the differences in approach to how reward is managed. The public sector is in a world of its own having been driven by union persuasion on pay systems to adopt, though it did seem to be changing with their big HR change project across government departments. The education sector where I am now again has been dominated by union influence on pay structures. Gove, however, has made significant change here for the better. Pay policies are complicated and admin systems to support them are industries in themselves. I have the privilege of redesigning reward for a large body in the independent sector applying performance pay and simple job evaluation in an environment which expects change but is reluctant to move on with the longer serving employees. One thing I have had success with is employee engagement - focus groups of teachers (a first); close working with the key management stakeholders, once respect has been gained (not easy to achieve).

    So, a lot of what you say is true. The big change for me is marketing what we know and can do to large audiences. We  number crunch as many of our colleagues do not have that skill and we continue to do so but discussing alternative approaches/solutions is far more rewarding!