Salary least important driving force for CEOs

CEOs consider the non-financial aspects of their job much more important than their financial reward. This is according to a study by Vlerick Business School and Business Leaders, among almost 1,000 Dutch and Belgian CEOs.


CEOs are mainly driven by ambition and non-financial factors, such as the challenge the job brings with it, the feeling of achieving progress and the pride of working for the organisation. The study also looked specifically at differences in work satisfaction between male and female CEOs. Notably, female CEOs obtain most motivation from the work climate and cooperation with other members of the top management.

Recognition and job security have the least impact on satisfaction for CEOs. CEOs are less satisfied with the clarity and feasibility of targets set, the amount of travel their work entails and organisations’ willingness to change. What does score very well is the pride that CEOs feel about working for their organisation, the ethical standards of their company and cooperation within the management.

On the basis of a number of scenarios, Vlerick Business School investigated the importance that CEOs attach to ethical business and sustainability. On average, 69% of the CEOs surveyed chose the ethical solution and 31% the non-ethical solution in the scenarios given. One of the central conclusions is the fact that Belgian CEOs attach less value to ethics than those from the Netherlands. It is also notable that female CEOs act more ethically than male CEOs (70% vs. 64%). Difference in age also plays a role here: 58% of the CEOs aged up to 45 solved the scenarios in an ethical way, whilst the percentage for CEOs aged 55 and above was 68%. Finally, we can see that CEOs who are shareholders take ethics less seriously. Only 56% of this group made ethical decisions, in comparison with 73% of the CEOs who were not shareholders.

Unprofessional benchmarking unnecessarily forces up pay for top executives

Study leader Professor Xavier Baeten from Vlerick Business School believes that Boards and remuneration committees incorrectly estimate the importance of financial reward for CEOs. “This study shows that higher salaries for top executives have almost no impact on CEOs’ level of commitment and satisfaction. CEOs feel strongly committed to the organisation and are generally satisfied with the financial reward. They mainly look at market conformity here. Boards and remuneration committees do not seem to be aware of this and should pay more attention to the perceived fairness of the pay, both by the CEO themselves and by the broader social field. More attention should also be paid to performance management”. According to Xavier Baeten, the functioning of the Boards and remuneration committees could also be looked at closely: he previously concluded in his 2012 thesis that having a remuneration committee drives up pay for top executives.

Largest CEO study in Belgium and the Netherlands

This study, led by Professor Xavier Baeten at Vlerick Business School, was conducted in cooperation with Business Leaders. Joël aan ’t Goor, CEO of Business Leaders: “This is the first time that motivation, driving forces and satisfaction have been studied in a group of CEOs of this size from medium-sized and large companies (515 CEOs from companies with 50-500 employees, 282 CEOs from companies with fewer than 50 employees and 153 with more than 500 employees), with a distinction made between financial and non-financial factors. We are very pleased with the cooperation and insights, which we want to share to benefit the business world”.
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Business Leaders’ mission is to speed up progress. They do this by inspiring and connecting progressive leaders on the basis of a holistic vision of leadership. Business Leaders believes that organisational and human potential can only be fully realised when economic, technological, sustainable and spiritual development are not seen as separate from each other. With 500 top entrepreneurs, CEOs and general managers, Business Leaders is the largest cross-sector network for managers in the Netherlands and Belgium. In addition to CEOs from large and medium-sized organisations, it also counts relevant thought leaders, universities and start-up accelerators among its members.

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Xavier Baeten

Xavier Baeten

Professor in Reward & Sustainability