From Hot Wings to Sweet Rolls, Brilliant Leadership Drives Success

Kat Cole

What would you do if you were in charge of sales and distribution and suddenly supply dried up because of a labor issue? That’s essentially the situation that Kat Cole faced when working as a Hooter’s server, when the kitchen crew walked out in mid-shift. Kat was an 18-year-old attending the University of North Florida and working to earn her tuition and expenses.

Kat’s mother, on her own since her alcoholic husband had taken off, was working three jobs in order to make ends meet. That left Kat to help run the household. Doing so helped her to appreciate the concept of hard work. She also grew to appreciate teamwork and empathy.

When the crew abandoned the kitchen, Kat quickly assessed the situation, determining that if there was no food, there would be no sales – no sales meant no tips. In no time, Kat and a few fellow servers were in the kitchen frying chicken wings to fill orders. Her motive was more than just the money – it was her nature to be helpful. Curiosity was another of her traits – she wanted to see if she could handle the cooking.

Not only could she handle the cooking, she also demonstrated leadership skills, bringing organization to the situation. Kat began to learn the operation of the restaurant and to train other employees, all while continuing her server duties. Her talent and the results she achieved did not go unnoticed. She was offered the opportunity to help open a new Hooter’s in Australia. Kat accepted the challenge. At the age of 20, she dropped out of school when named the Global Employee Training Coordinator for Hooters restaurants. 

Six years later, she had become a vice president, reporting directly to the CEO. She considered leaving Hooters for a position at a Roark Capital, a private equity firm, but decided to stay when she learned Hooters had been sold. Kat didn’t want to leave her ‘family’ at a time of change. That turned out to be a terrific decision. Shortly after that choice, Roark called her again, asking her to interview for the President position at one of their companies, Cinnabon. 

Having determined that an MBA was necessary for her career advancement, Kat had enrolled at Georgia State University. She accepted the interview assuming that it would be great experience – she was convinced the position would be filled by someone who already had their degree, as well as more experience. Instead, they offered the job to Kat. She was 32-years-old when she became the President of Cinnabon.

Over the next four years, sales would grow form $600 million to nearly $1 billion and Kat was promoted to CEO. A key to that success was the result of a calculated risk directed by Kat. Facing an increasingly health-conscious public, Cinnabon wanted to offer a lower calorie bun. The use of artificial sweeteners changed the product’s taste which Kat deemed unacceptable – she killed the concept. Known for big rolls, the company rolled out a new smaller roll they named the Minibon. The smaller buns offered a lower calorie choice while maintaining the renowned Cinnabon taste. The strategy was highly successful.

Currently, Kat Cole, 39, is the President of Focus Brands, the parent company of Cinnabon, as well as Carvel, Schlotzsky’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Auntie Anne’s, McAlister’s Deli, and Seattle’s Best Coffee. The results she’s generated and the success she’s achieved is impressive by any standard. When Cole’s age and gender are factored in, her story is nothing short of overwhelming, since youth and females aren’t typically afforded these opportunities. Kat Cole has earned every position she’s held. Kat Cole is a fearless brand.

Fearless Brands create opportunity then take full advantage

Kat Cole encompasses the 3 P’s of personal branding – she is fueled by her passion, has clarity of purpose and is certainly persistent. As the saying goes, Kat Cole is ‘wise beyond her years’. Cole is smart and savvy; successful yet humble; grateful but driven – traits common in fearless brands.

There’s a great deal to learn from Kat Cole about building – and maintaining – a powerful personal brand.

Build trust – Cole is supportive, empathetic. Importantly, she has never been hesitant to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. Her willingness to do so has been evident since she first jumped into the kitchen to cook wings. Kat knows that trust leads to results. People that feel supported, understood, and cared for will perform at greater levels. A brand built on trust will be successful.

Empower your team – Empowerment requires listening – genuinely listening – to one’s team. Of equal importance is clearly communicating strategies and their purpose. A fearless brand is secure enough to accept input from their team and confident enough to allow people to do their jobs. An empowered team is a productive team. A fearless brand is committed to empowerment.

Be human – Employees – team members – are the single most under-utilized element of most businesses. Showing kindness and understanding – appreciating employees and team members as humans – valuing people before profit – are all traits which help to create a productive, loyal, and high-performing brand. Kat Cole understands this concept and strives to instill this mindset throughout the business. 

Kat Cole has accomplished more in business – and at a younger age – than most people. She achieves the results she does because she’s a fearless brand – a brilliant leader. She’s discovered and embraced her why; has continuously improved her knowledge, talent, and skills; and she is consistently relevant. It’s really very simple – it’s just not easy. As we strive to build our value – to become a fearless brand – we need look no further than Kat Cole. Our results may be measured on a different scale, but the basic approach and principles required are the same for Kat Cole as they are for us. 

Friday's Fearless Brand Personal Branding

Coach, International Speaker and Thought Partner - Bill’s mission is to add value to the world – one brand at a time. Bill guides individuals and companies alike in building what he refers to as a ‘fearless brand’. This is the process of discovering, embracing and delivering their greatest value – which allows them to realize greater profit. Read More

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