Welcome to the TR2050 Community, David Buckmaster
Member Interview

TR2050 are thrilled to have David Buckmaster, accomplished author and highly experienced Reward leader, join our esteemed academic and thought leader board.

To introduce him to the TR2050 community, we spoke with David about the more profound questions that fascinate him and what the future holds for Reward.

How do we close the discomfort gap in talking about pay?

“No one likes to talk about pay, but it’s so important to everyone. How do we close that discomfort gap?”

This is just some of the many deeper, near-philosophical questions that have made Reward such an absorbing and stimulating profession for David, and one in which he is thriving. Despite being just 38, he has a CV weighed-down with global, influential organisations: he’s handled Reward at Stability AI, Starbucks, Nike and Yum!. 

Additionally, he is a reputable and respected author. He has been quoted in publications like Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and the Harvard Business Review, while his first book Fair Pay was published in 2021 to critical acclaim.

“I am increasingly interested in the wider, philosophical questions of this function,” he admits, as we talk about the trajectory of his career. “I think that’s why writing has been such a satisfying, interesting aspect of my professional life. I can explore these ideas in my writing – and I hope TR2050 will be a forum for this too, with an eye on the future and what it means for Reward.”

Disney Dreams

As with many a Reward professional, the current preoccupations are far from the childhood hopes and dreams. Growing up in Florida, David harboured the “typical” Floridian-childhood dreams of becoming a Disney ‘Imagineer’ while watching his single mother work hard to increase her earning potential and further her career by completing additional qualifications. 

“If I try and find some link to my career, perhaps it’s learning empathy and seeing how hard some people had to work to afford to live, how much pay mattered” David says. He is quick to add that, really, he had no concrete career ambitions to speak of, getting into college and spending more time on the soccer pitch than in the classroom. “I think I barely attended lectures for the first year! I had to learn the hard way that it was time to grow up.”

Fortunately, he was naturally bright and found the schoolwork came easily once he applied himself. He emerged from the University of Florida a semester ahead of schedule and married his artist wife only a month later. He had an urge to make a difference with his career, which had taken root during a summer spent in India. The economy was not very robust at the time, and so he found a job at a small non-profit organisation where “the only available position was in HR,” he recalls. “I had some experience from college, so that’s where I ended up.”

It’s the usual story of serendipity that is inevitable in a profession “that no one ever dreams of working in because we didn’t even know Reward was a thing people did!” The next role, at a larger non-profit, gave him a start in pay and compensation. “I only had HR experience, but my boss took a shot on me and gave me a job in compensation after I said I would relocate my family 3,000 miles to Seattle to work for her. That changed everything.”

Multi-faceted role

David was quickly absorbed by the world of Reward: “This is the only role in a company where what you do matters to everyone, and it’s such a multi-faceted role because you have the psychology aspect of it – communicating ideas and persuading, as well as understanding human behaviour – alongside the data and the number crunching.” 

It is also, he points out, uniquely challenging. “We do the best job we can in an impossible situation with a finite budget.” To add further complication, the world of work is changing fast and Reward professionals – and their organisations – must adapt to meet the demands of the workforce and remain competitive. 

When asked about key changes he’s ridden out, pay transparency is his first response. This has been driven by policy and legislation, but also by a new generation that has been “forcing companies into accountability because they’re not afraid to talk about pay. Also, older generations are now having to talk about pay because there is so much inequality. We should expect more people to demand more, fairer pay to survive.”  

He welcomes the shift towards pay transparency, but suggests it currently lacks the nuance that would make it truly effective. “We sometimes find that transparent systems still make people still feel underpaid, or perhaps newly realise they are underpaid because ignorance was bliss. In some cases, it’s not made people happier, really.”

There have also been major shifts around gender and racial equality, once again driven by a vocal generation demanding change and national policies that force companies to publish indexes that detail their wage gap. “It’s so much better than it was, but it still lacks the nuance we need. For example, when it comes to pay gaps, there is still such a lack of diversity in the executive roles at companies. Perhaps the women make up most of the middle managers, but you can’t just pay them more to make the Index look better. That doesn’t solve the problem.”

Future predictions

He is more generally positive about technology, one of the largest, continual changes in Reward. He predicts technology will have an increasing impact on work in the years ahead, but perhaps in ways many are not considering: 

“They used to say, ‘learn to code and you’ll always be fine for a job’ but that isn’t the only path anymore. We have AI tools to write code based on natural language. What we need are people who can give the right prompts. Communication matters more than ever; we need high levels of comprehension skills. This could be the rise of the humanities and I’m curious to see how this may impact society more widely.”

David points to the fact that technology has always completed the menial tasks, even in the earliest days, and the same will be true with innovative technology and AI. “We may start to prize the things that humans are good at, that machines are not; we can persuade, anticipate, tell stories and interpret.”

He also welcomes the proliferation of data on employees and the increased access to such data that has allowed smaller companies to approach Reward in a far more nuanced, effective way. This will only continue in the years to come. 

This is, perhaps, the closest David comes to making a firm prediction about the future because he can see the drawbacks in every so-called ‘solution’ or direction. He also recognises the impossibility of accurately predicting what future generations will value or what the social, political and cultural pressures will be in a changing world. 

Fundamental questions 

David is clearly happiest when he is pondering the broader, more fundamental questions about Reward and its function. “I’ve always been intrigued as to whether pay really incentivises people to work at their best,” he explains. “Does it really have any effect outside of sales teams? And when do incentives become counter-productive? There is a tension between individual incentives and team incentives, plus it could all be undermined if it proves we aren’t actually good at assessing merit – and is merit-based pay effective at driving behaviour change even when it’s accurate, or will employees trust that the decisions were made objectively?”

While he can explore some of these ideas through his research and writing, he is also keen to hear the views of the esteemed professionals and academics that make up the TR2050 Membership. “When I first met Dominic and some of the TR2050 Committee Members, I got so excited. These people are legends and I felt so privileged to be invited into the room. I’m really intrigued to see where this might go.”

His scholarship, experience and enquiring mind will surely make him an asset to the TR2050 community as they work together to identify and overcome the potential challenges of the Future of Reward. “My daughter is 15 and I want to make sure that some of the issues that we experience in the workplace today are outdated ideas by the time she gets there,” David says. Hopefully his involvement in TR2050 will start to move the dial and build the future that the cohort would like to see for future generations.

Welcome, David

Find out more about David and his writing work on his website:

David Buckmaster (davidbuckmasterbooks.com)

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