Fred Kiel: An interview by Bob Morris

KielKRW International co-founder and principal, Fred Kiel, brings years of experience in leadership consulting from Fortune 500 companies and large, privately held organizations. He has advised individuals who have become CEOs of complex businesses, most with multi-billion-dollar top lines. Fred understands that business success starts in the heads and hearts of leadership—creating an enthusiastic, creative, retained talent pool. Helping CEOs gain alignment of their vision all the way to the front-line worker can create immediate bottom-line results.

Prior to focusing on business advising, Fred founded a successful private practice in Minneapolis which became the major employer of professionals in that market. His interest in business advising eventually won out, and a bit over two decades ago, he sold his practice and co-founded KRW International.

Fred has served on the boards of several philanthropic organizations, including Augsburg College Youth and Family Institute, Graywolf Press, Walk-In Counseling Center, and the Lyra Concert. He currently serves on the board of the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center. He also served on the adjunct staff of the Center for Creative Leadership for nearly ten years and served two terms on the Board of Psychology for the state of Minnesota. He earned a B.A. in psychology and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from the University of Minnesota.

His latest book, Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win, summarizes seven years of research on the connection between the character of the CEO and return on assets. It was published by Harvard Business Review Press (April 2015).

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Fred.

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Morris: Before discussing Return on Character, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Kiel: My wife and life partner, Sandy. We met when I was thirty-nine and that began the most significant period of personal growth in my life. We joke that although I’m quite a bit older than she is chronologically – emotionally she was much older and more mature!

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Kiel: T^hat would be Norb Berg, the Vice Chairman of Control Data Corporation. He had the greatest impact on my professional development. Over thirty-five years ago, when I was just at the beginning of my career, he threw me the challenge to help him develop the leadership and interpersonal skills of several high level computer engineers. As a psychologist, I was forced to abandon the medical model of diagnosing and treating a mental or emotional disorder to instead view these individuals as people who were simply unskilled in interpersonal skills but were unaware of their deficit. Thus, they had no desire to change. It was an interesting challenge – but it’s what prompted me to create a process that worked. Thus, I became one of the pioneers in the field that later came to be called “executive coaching.”

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Kiel: The turning point for me (actually it was an epiphany) came when I was in my mid-forties.

At that time, I was the CEO of a public company. My private practice in psychology had grown to multiple offices and I had the vision of rolling out behavioral health clinics across the country by contracting with managed care companies. I launched an IPO and raised a million dollars. The first thing I did was rent a somewhat lavish headquarters office complete with top of the line furniture for my office. This should have been a big hint of what was to come!

I was a big-shot. I drove a red Cadillac and wore a diamond ring on my right hand. And, my car had a telephone! Not too many cars had telephones in the 1980’s.


After a few months, I began to sense that not everything was going well. In my personal life, my wife told me that even when I was at home, emotionally I wasn’t really there. I was thinking about work. She later told me that she felt trapped – she didn’t see divorce as an option, yet she was lonely and carrying the whole parenting load by herself.

One of my friends sensed that I needed help. He suggested I go to a weekend spiritual retreat for men. I reluctantly agreed to go. The first morning, the leader asked everyone to rate the order of priority in their lives for these three – God, your family, and your career. Well, I had recently started going to church so I ranked God as number one, my family as number two and my career as number three. Then he said, “Now take out your calendar and your check book – I want you to see if how you spend your time and your money matches that rank order. Of course, he “got” me. I was spending almost all of my time and money on my career. My wife and kids got maybe 5% of me and God got what was left over – maybe a half percent. My career was my identity – it was my total focus.

My house of cards was getting pretty shaky. After about a year as CEO of this public company and flying all over trying to make my business plan work, it became clear that we were undercapitalized and the company needed to change course. So I went to my board and told them that I thought we should revise our strategy. I was confident we could get back into a profitable situation in a few months. And then I said, “Once I’ve achieved that, I’d like to have us think about finding my successor – I’m getting burned out.” A week later the Chairman came to my office, sat down and said, “The board talked it over and we’d like you to leave now. We already have your successor!” So, I was fired from the company I had founded!

You can imagine that this was quite a wake-up call for me. Up until that time, I had experienced continuous success at whatever I did.

Over the next few months, I engaged in a lot of self-reflection and soul searching. I slowly realized that I had become very much like the self-focused CEOs in our research.

As I struggled to find my way out of this dark period, I found myself remembering some of my experiences from my childhood. My dad would often talk about men who were the kind of person I’d become – he described them as having a “big hat but no cattle.”

I realized that I had become that kind of a guy – a guy with a big hat and no cattle.


At some point, I realized I didn’t want to be that kind of a guy. I wanted to get rid of the big hat and find some cattle!

Actually, I wanted to find my self – the person I was when growing up was not the self-focused person I had become. When I was young I honored the principles my parents lived. You see, they almost always told the truth, owned up to their mistakes, showed forgiveness and clearly cared for people as people – not objects. They weren’t perfect, but all in all, I was dealt a good hand when I was born to them.

Luckily, I came to a point where I abandoned the trappings – I got rid of the Cadillac, the big hat, and the diamond ring.

And I repurposed my life. I rewired my brain! I ditched the self-focused habits and concentrated on becoming the person I wanted to be. With the help of many lengthy discussions with close friends and my wife, I found that I was able to connect my head to my heart.

And it was during this time that I decided that what I was good at and felt passionate about was helping other people like me to transform their lives – to connect their heads to their hearts. So, I set it as my purpose to do that – to help leaders of large organizations connect their heads to their hearts. That has been my focus for over 25 years.

Everyone’s journey is unique. There are however, some tried and true ways to go about changing one’s character habits. As I said earlier, the first step is find out how others experience you – to pop the bubble you live in. I devote a whole chapter in my book to personal change – and provide a road map for changing your character habits.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

Fred cordially invites you to check out the resources here.

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