Executive compensation during the ‘War for Talent’


Grant Thornton’s seventh annual Proxy Survey of Executive Compensation in the Russell 2000 Index explores business leaders’ compensation during a year underscored by an exceptionally tight labor market.


The report was prepared by Grant Thornton’s Human Capital Services practice and includes the most recently reported compensation data broken out by Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) sectors. As one of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind, this report includes all the companies surveyed in the Russell 2000.


The report tallies and compares salary, total cash compensation, total direct compensation and short- and long-term incentive level data for prominent C suite positions at publicly traded companies. The survey report covers data in 11 GICS sectors: Communications, Consumer Discretionary, Consumer Staples, Energy, Financials, Health Care, Industrials, Informational Technology, Materials, Real Estate and Utilities.


This survey report also provides compensation data for each GICS sector grouped into three revenue categories:

  • Emerging/Growth: under $500 million
  • Mid-Size: from $500 million to $1.5 billion
  • Stable/Mature: more than $1.5 billion



Key findings


Grant Thornton’s analysis found that median CEO salaries were between 14% and 16% of total direct compensation, while short-term incentives ranged from 12% to 23% of total direct compensation. Long-term incentives, however, represented more than 63% of total direct compensation across all revenue sizes. The study found that the median CEO total direct compensation ranged between 2.0x and 4.8x the levels of total direct compensation for other executives. These compensation ratios differed depending upon the organization’s revenue size and level of the executive.


Since the data presented in this report generally include proxy data for companies’ 2021 calendar year, this report includes compensation levels during a time many have described as the ‘war for talent’ or the ‘Great Resignation.’ Temporary reductions in executive pay during the COVID-19 pandemic were almost universally lifted as normal business operations began resumed and competition for top talent accelerated.




Executive compensation in 2021 across nearly all sectors in the Russell 2000 included an increased emphasis on long-term incentives. As companies endeavored to attract, retain, and motivate key leadership during one of the tightest labor markets in history, it comes as no surprise that equity awards were used in an unprecedented fashion. The Information Technology and Health Care sectors were among the most significant users of long-term incentives in executive compensation, with LTI awards exceeding more than 800% of salary for many executives.


In the spring of 2023, most public companies will file their proxy statements for fiscal year 2022. Grant Thornton expects executive pay to have leveled off in 2022 as the global economic outlook darkens and the labor market cools.





Eric Gonzaga

Eric Gonzaga is a Principal and practice leader for the Human Capital Services (HCS) group in Minneapolis.

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