Applying the KISS Principle to Executive Development

There’s an inherent paradox in the development of CEO succession candidates. On the one hand, the developmental degree of difficulty is high at the executive level. But at the same time, the capacity of top executives to invest in their professional development is inherently limited given the intense demands on their time. There are simply too many priorities, meetings, and initiatives to attend to.

So how do you help executives who can benefit from deep development insights, yet are trapped in the “ADD” world of today’s business climate?

In our practice of preparing C-­Suite executives for the CEO role, we employ the “Keep It Simple Stupid” (KISS) principle. We use a rigorous and intense process of assessments and qualitative 360 degree feedback, but we keep the net development message simple. We call out a short, impactful phrase that serves as a mantra of sorts for executives to think of as their development plan. Essentially it’s a one-­line development strategy.

It’s working—it resonates with executives in companies large and small—from a CEO successor at a Fortune 50 global consumer products corporation, to general managers in a building materials company, to C-­Suite executives in a regional bank, to executive directors of nonprofits.

These are very different people leading very different organizations. But they each have a one-­line development plan that gets to the core of what they can work on for their benefit and growth. More importantly, they have a plan to provide more value to the people they lead. As management guru Marshall Goldsmith rightly points out, “What got you here won’t get you there.” The intense assessment process combined with a simple development theme is a good way to progress on a new path.

So what does the KISS principle look like in the context of intense executive development work? Here are a few examples.

Sample one-­liners and the prototypical executive development challenges they represent

  1. “Chill!” (aka “Dial it Down!”). This is for the executive who provides too much of a good thing. Energy. Drive. Passion. Ambition. Overused strengths become a limiter of effectiveness with others (usually peers and bosses). Assessment results will show off-­the­‐chart levels of ambition and change agility. 360 feedback for these executives will be chock full of pleas from weary colleagues to relax a bit and not be so intense. Kevin Cashman, a best-­selling author and highly recognized CEO leadership coach, has written an entire book on this subject—it’s called “The Pause Principle.” These driven executives would benefit from this—too much of a good thing is still too much.

  2. “Shields Down, Captain!” You know who this is—this is the defensive executive who is very hard to level with. It is tough to get a word in edgewise and even tougher to have a point land on them, especially if there’s bad news in the message. They are simultaneously proud, yet insecure. Tough yet very brittle. Impenetrable yet deeply emotional. They will score low on measures of emotional balance and adjustment, high on measures of strategic thinking, and low on interpersonal sensitivity. Their 360 feedback will be dripping with comments from frightened subordinates and exasperated peers. Their bosses think of them as “high maintenance,” “dangerous,” or both. The key is to help them listen without judgment and to ask more questions before reacting. Essentially, put the gloves down…

  3. “From direct control to remote control.” These are the executives who do not leverage the skills of those around them, particularly their direct reports. They are extraordinarily personable, engaging, and visionary. But they have trouble converting strategy into action beyond their own personal will and direct involvement. They interact primarily through 1:1 interactions (hub and spoke) rather than through team process or management systems. They score high in self-confidence and measures of independence. People like them personally but are frustrated with their inability to delegate and empower their people. Roger Nierenberg, a fabulous orchestra conductor and founder of The Music Paradigm, effectively dramatizes the failings of this leadership style on an orchestra. Controlling conductors make musicians anxious and irritated, thus they under-­perform. People want to be guided, not micro-managed.

  4. “From critic to coach.” This is the executive who never met a stinging comment they didn’t like. They will use words for effect, typically to point out what was overlooked or not accomplished by another. They feel responsible for teaching others about the business and sincerely want their people to perform better. But they do not see the impact of their words. The communication gaps are usually wide. What they intend as off-­the-­cuff comments are interpreted by recipients as career-­ending indictments of incompetence and lack of trust. These executives score high in measures of dominance but typically low in empathy and self-awareness. The question we ask executives with this developmental need is something like, “What might you do to make someone feel more capable leaving your office than when they entered it?” Credit for the critic to coach label goes to John Lily, a unique CEO coach who tells it like it is.

There are of course many different models of executive development, but in our experience what today’s executives need is a succinctly delivered set of insights based on rigorous data collection and analysis. They need to be shaken up—but not hit with a fist. They will read the report with all the assessment results and feedback themes once you have their attention. But you have to feed the ADD beast. Give them a one-liner with meaning.


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