When leaders are rock stars: lessons from business mogul Kat Cole

March 20, 2019 Lauren Brown

Kat Cole’s keynote

Certain people have been called “the voice of their generation,” and today, after hearing Kat Cole’s keynote at Workhuman, I feel like I’ve been witness to the voice of modern leadership. Kat Cole is a true rock star of the business world – someone who quickly rose to executive-level status through a combination of innate intuition and tenacity, and who now, as the president and COO of FOCUS Brands North America, continues to propel her teams to success with connection, community, and creativity. And the hallmark of this new, modern leader is how she’s used self-reflection in her journey, turning formative personal experiences into business lessons that paved her way.

In her role, she’s responsible for the collection of iconic brands like Carvel, Auntie Annie’s Pretzels, Cinnabon, Moe’s, and Jamba Juice that employ upward of 100,000 people globally – and in most cases, it’s their first job. Leading this deeply complex mosaic of generational and culture clashes requires true grace under pressure, a lot of courage, and even more humanity. And the lessons – some failures, some successes – that led her to this pinnacle in her career, are all deeply personal.

Lesson 1: Connect with humanity.

As a 31-year-old, Kat began her tenure as president of Cinnabon when the brand was at an ultimate low. It was the height of the recession, so humans weren’t frequenting either malls or airports where Cinnabon makes its money, and there was no money or marketing budget to be had.

“The only thing left was to connect with humanity. I had to lead by emotion, for emotion, because nothing else was available.”

So she worked in the bakeries for 60 days, connecting with employees and asking them these three questions: What do we have to throw away? When do we have to say no? And if you could change one thing in this business to make it work better for you, what would that be?

“When we don’t ask the questions, we’ll be forced to change. I like to be in control of my own destiny and reveal the truths even if they’re uncomfortable.”

Lesson 2: Do the right thing.

In their quest to answer the customer demand for smaller portions, the Cinnabon marketing and culinary teams had come up with a lower calorie option. In doing so, they’d traded real ingredients for artificial ones. Kat saw the problem with transparency and an even bigger crisis in the making. And when she asked them their goal, they responded with “to reduce calories.” She asked again and got the same answer.

“Sometimes the work becomes the goal. We’d failed to lead and have the entire organization growing in the direction of driving sales and transactions.”

Unburdened by the legacy of processes, one of her first directives as their new leader was to kill this project. “I had to explain why it was headed toward doom, and I used a phrase that I learned from my mother: ‘I would be failing you if I did not ask and answer these questions. If didn’t challenge this. If I let this go on. If I didn’t counsel and give feedback. My job isn’t to make everyone happy, my job is to make sure we do our best work together. I would be failing you if I let this go on, and I know it’s frustrating, but we’ll figure this out.’”

In another scenario, they were releasing a retail product to grocery stores that wasn’t going to work, mainly because the way it was being represented posed a threat to franchises. Kat didn’t panic, she reflected. There had been a string of telltale signs she should have noticed and questioned.  

“I remember asking myself, ‘Who am I to question them?’ I was more worried about questioning people who I wanted to build a relationship with as a young executive. One of my many lessons is to have the humility to ask those questions. This is especially true if someone is the only or the first. You’re so sensitive to being the only that you don’t come with full force.”

She ended up killing the new retail product even though it was a painful and costly process. “That moment of doing the right thing redefined my leadership legacy.”

Lesson 3: Stay close to the action.

When Kat was 9, she got one of the best business lessons of her life. Her mother had come to the realization that she had to leave Kat’s father, then suffering from alcoholism, to carve a better life for her and her three daughters. When her mother told her this, Kat did not cry or get upset, but instead said, “What took you so long?”

“The lesson here is that the people who are closest to the action know what the right thing to do is long before their leader does. But they don’t have authority to create change or the language to articulate a solution. So how do you build a culture of transformation? Stay close to the action. The answers are there.”

Lesson 4: Do more and better.

At the end of the day, Kat leads with her humanity first. “I’m in it every day with you, trying to build a workplace where they can bring their whole selves to work. I’m a human reacting to what’s going on in the world.”

When the Kavanaugh hearings were happening, Kat wrote an open letter to her son saying: “We don’t do that here.”

“I’m thoughtful and diplomatic. But I’m me. I had a line of employees at my door the next morning coming in to say how much it meant to them that I would share my perspective because that was risky. Then many shared their own stories of sexual abuse. I wondered, if I were male, would this still be happening? Representation matters. It allows employees not to be burdened and feel those shared experiences.”

When audience member and fellow Worhuman speaker Sally Thornton asked Kat how we can help her (and if she’ll consider running for president), Kat answered:

“We are all members of a community, serving common customers. There is a collective and growing distrust in businesses because they’ve followed an old way of thinking. I would say be bold and use the phrase, ‘I would be failing you if…’ This goes for recruiting, talent, consulting, too – we won’t have businesses to be in if we don’t start taking care of people. I implore you to use your influence. Give CEOs and visible managers the courage to change. Do more and better.”

Lesson 5: The Hotshot Rule: Be your own badass.

How do we all just keep getting better as humans? Kat swears by the Hotshot Rule. “I imagine that if a Mr. or Mrs. Potato Head of badassery takes over my job, what’s the immediate thing they would do differently? And then I ask, ‘why can’t that be me?’ Use that Day 1 perspective and ask what would you do, why can’t that be you? And every time I share the action of what I did with my team, they respond with the exact same words that I said to my mom – what took you so long?”

About the Author

Lauren Brown

Lauren Brown is the senior copywriter at Workhuman, writing everything from emails and landing pages to all the signage at Workhuman Live. In her free time, she writes novels, shops vintage, and throws epic dinner parties.

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