Recently, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Kat Cole, President of Focus Brands. There are few people that I've met that have a true presence in a room and Kat is one of them. During our conversation she enlightened me with several nuggets of practical knowledge based on her journey as a successful leader and being an all-round good person.
Kat has an inspiring story where she started working as a Hooters waitress and quickly rose through the ranks to company Vice President in just a few years. From there she was recruited into leading Cinnabon, a Focus Brands company and has most recently taken on the role of President for overall Focus Brands.
To give context to the breadth of Focus Brands, it is a the franchisor and operator of more than 4,000 ice cream shops, bakeries, restaurants and cafes in the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 60 foreign countries under the brand names Carvel, Cinnabon, Schlotzsky's, Moe's Southwest Grill, Auntie Anne's Pretzels and McAlister's Deli.
I was interested in learning more about what she did to achieve such growth in a short amount of time and how she instills these principles into the teams that she leads today.
"When you have a genuine desire to learn, that is evidence that you recognize that you don't know everything and have a deep level of humility - this is incredible disarming for people"
Kat revealed that she will be a lifelong student. She attributes her success to helping others and by doing so, learning from new experiences. For example, Kat described taking on many different roles during her time at Hooters and as a result, learned every aspect of the business.
Many of these roles started by simply helping people when they needed it. One day while working at Hooters, the cooks walked out on the restaurant and Kat decided to get in the kitchen and start taking food orders. She had never done that before so she wanted to know for herself that she could do it, and after all, it needed to be done.
By being humble enough to listen and being willing to learn all aspects of the business, Kat believes that she is able to see and identify opportunities that others may miss. One example she gave was when evaluating an investment in a restaurant. While others were speaking with the management, she went straight to the dishwasher and asked what he saw being thrown away most often.
"People need to ask the right questions and to the right people." Often the most insight can be gained from the output or end of the process. This may be how the frontline employee interacts with a customer and the experience that the customer has at that moment."
Another point that Kat emphasize is the importance of ‘thinking big'. She urges people around her to think beyond their current situation and what they think they can achieve. I liked the idea of this but wanted to learn more specifically how can one do this. Kat explained that the best way to teach people to think bigger is by putting a person in a brand new experience where they are forced to learn new things and interact with people and in way that they have never done before.
One example Kat told me about was her time volunteering in Africa where because the people in the village her group was attending to had such limited resources, it forced them to pick the single most important thing they could do to help and have the largest positive impact.
This forced her group to look at the problem in a new a way and prioritize to the most extreme level what they could do for the people they were there to help. It turned out that the number one thing that they could do was to help the people in the village have a more accessible water supply. All else would not matter if this single thing were not done.
When Kat got back to Cinnabon after her trip, her team was in the middle of selecting new menu items and doing a massive amount of research to make sure their new products would be a hit. Kat put a stop to it all right in the middle of its tracks. She asked her team what was the single most important thing they could do for their customers and brand. They ended up implementing new digital menu displays that were visible from afar so people passing by in stores, in malls and airports, etc... could see the existing menu options that Cinnabon offered.
Cinnabon did not need a new menu option but just a way to increase awareness of the variety of options they already had. Kat feels that by putting herself in a completely new experience she was able to look at a problem in a different light and think bigger than their current environment. The franchisees that implemented the new digital signage showed an increase in sales by over 400% compared to those franchise stores that did not implement the digital menus, in case you were wondering.
Meeting Kat inspired me to be better. She inspired me to think about how I can personally grow, to be humble, and willing to learn from every person and situation. Kat is successful because she pushes herself everyday to think bigger. She encourages those around her to push themselves to greatness. I know now to trust my ‘internal compass' and know when I hit roadblocks and need to find a new path, I'll be going in the right direction.