LinkedIn CEO offers $14 million stock bonus to staff

Jeff Weiner is the latest struggling startup leader to show support for employees with a generous gift, in keeping with his leadership generation's focus on community.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/ AP/ File
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner speaks during the company's annual "Bring In Your Parents Day" at headquarters in Mountain View, California in this November 2014 file photo. Mr. Weiner has announced he will forego his $14 million stock bonus and distribute the shares to employees.

Big Tech generosity, such as the "Giving Pledge" by billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, who have reshaped charity from charter schools in New Jersey to anti-polio efforts in Pakistan, often makes headlines. But a new wave of tech moguls are giving closer to home, sharing their wealth with their own employees in stock options, bonuses, and raises that capture the startup ethos, where transparent, co-owned culture is key.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner announced he would forego his annual stock bonus, valued at $14 million, and distribute the shares to employees, a company spokesman confirmed to Mashable this week. Mr. Weiner joins the likes of fellow tech VIPs Jack Dorsey, at Twitter and Square, and Lenovo's Yang Yuanqing, who have given their own bonuses or stock holdings to workers.

Such kindness can help the bottom line. LinkedIn posted an $8.4 million loss last quarter, sending investors scuttling, and the leadership team may be worried that employees will move on, too. Twitter also suffered major losses before co-founder and CEO Mr. Dorsey announced he'd give a third of his company stock to the employee equity pool this fall to "reinvest directly in our people." 

Dorsey is also CEO of Square, a digital payment company, where he previously gave back about $200 million in shares.

But the give-aways are also indicative of startup culture's determination to be different than traditional corporate America, and to prove that doing the "right thing" can benefit the bottom line, as well – or is the bottom line. And while corporate philanthropy and socially-minded projects are part of that vision, so is an office culture that thrives on teamwork and transparency: "co-ownership," whether that's casually trading ideas with the CEO or literally owning shares.

"Culture beats strategy every time," Wiley Cerilli, then the CEO of the SinglePlatform startup, told Mashable in 2013, quoting finance guru Brad Feld: "You can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated."

At the extreme is Gravity Payments CEO Dan Price, whose decision to pay all employees at least $70,000 sparked fierce debate about whether a "Robin Hood" business could survive. The "rich" Mr. Price stole from, in this case, was himself: he cut his $1 million salary down to about $70,000, using company profits to cover the remainder. 

It was a "moral imperative," he told the New York Times in April, saying it "eats at me inside" to hear about friends and employees struggling to make ends meet in Seattle. "The market rate for me as a C.E.O. compared to a regular person is ridiculous, it’s absurd."

Employers are betting that a company where employees feel not just valued, but part of an open team effort, will pay off, particularly among the Millennial generation that powers so many top-performing startups. About half of Millennials say leadership is about "empowering others to succeed," a friendly premise reflected in startups' physical and organizational setups, designed to prioritize collaboration and information-sharing in ways that might have horrified their parents' generation. 

"Millennials grew up in glass houses," Bersin by Deloitte founder Josh Bersin wrote for Forbes in 2013. "They are comfortable with transparency.... When asked what they look for in their leaders, they look for openness, inclusion, and diversity," whether that's pitching a new idea to the CEO, or making data on hiring and pay available to all. 

Community-focused culture is also evident in the college campus-like workspaces pioneered by companies like Google, where a casual vibe, snacks, and gyms help foster the "in this together" feel, despite the intense hours.

But many startup visionaries also hope the "perks" for employees, stocks, bonuses, and all, will also show more than productivity. 

"I want the scorecard we have as business leaders to be not about money, but about purpose, impact, and service," Mr. Price, of the $70,000 salaries, told Slate as he reflected on the experiment's seeming success. "I want those to be the things that we judge ourselves on."

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