383 | Authentic Leadership Is Critical to Growth with Kat Cole

Authentic leadership is not new. However, it is something that many leaders don’t understand. This episode has a great definition of authentic leadership and why it is so important. My guest today is Kat Cole, President, and COO of Focus Brands. This company has created food brands that you may know, such as Cinnabon, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Jamba Juice and more. Kat shares stories from your leadership that lead to the power of authentic leadership. Join us in this conversation to be an authentic leader.

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Target Audience: Katrina “Kat” Cole is an American businesswoman. She currently is Chief operating officer and president of North America for Focus Brands. She is a former president of Focus Brands’ subsidiary Cinnabon, an American chain of retail bakeries specializing in cinnamon buns.


Kat Cole: The Transcript

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Leaders in the trenches and your host today is Gene Hammett.

Gene Hammett: Hi, my name is Gene Hammett. I’m the host of leaders in the trenches and today’s episode is really about authentic leadership. Do you know what it takes to be an authentic leader? Are you curious about what is the real difference between who you are right now and who you might be trying to be as a leader? Well, I wanted to bring someone on that I really have connected to through some interviews and some of the work she’s done. It’s Kat Cole, Kat is the president, coo of focus brands. You may not know the companies, but the eateries that are underneath that, the brands underneath focus brands are household names. Cinnabon, MOE’s, Jamba juice, and there’s many more that are mentioned in here. But I wanted to talk to Kat specifically because she brings all of herself to work.

Gene Hammett: She doesn’t try to put on a mask and try to be someone that she thinks that the office or the leaders need to be. And it wasn’t always that way. But she’s learned the value over time of really being herself and about how that saves energy, how the actually creates more growth opportunity, and how that creates more trust inside the culture of the business. And we’re going to talk about that today in today’s interview. So make sure you stay tuned to the full interview with Kat Cole.

Gene Hammett: Hi Kat. How are you?

Kat Cole: I’m great. How are you?

Gene Hammett: I’m fantastic. It’s exciting to have you here at leaders in the trenches.

Kat Cole: Oh, thanks for having me.

Gene Hammett: Well, I’ve already let our audience know a little bit about you, but I want them to hear it from you. So tell us about, you know, not necessarily the whole story, but where are you right now with your, your role and your leadership?

Kat Cole: So right now I run a company called focus brands. Most people have not heard of focus brands and I’m fine with that. What I care about is that you know, the brands that we own. So cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s carvel, ice cream, moe’s southwest grill, Schlotzky’s, McAlister’s Deli and newly added to the portfolio, Jamba juice. And uh, the president and coo role means I basically run the divisions that own the franchises that makes the revenue for the company, bring the deliciousness to the market. I’ve been here for eight years, started as the president of Cinnabon, took over as president of global channels, a large growing division, and then became president and coo of the entire parent company about 60 days before I left on maternity leave.

Gene Hammett: Well, that’s a, that’s a mouthful. And I’m going to take you back way back to the beginning. Your first job was through a brand that we kind of know, and maybe it wasn’t a very first job, but the one that, that you kind of put you on the mark was with a very well known brand. Who was that with?

Kat Cole: Yeah, so my early jobs were working at malls, but the story that people know the best is my first job when I was 17 which was actually my third job, was working as a hostess at hooters restaurants. And I helped open the door and say, welcome to hooters. I cleaned the bathrooms, I bus tables like it was in Jacksonville, Florida. So it was just not a big deal. The concept started in Florida and I was saving for college. I became a waitress at 18 started traveling around the world at 19 opening franchises, got into college, and eventually it was traveling so much for the business that I was feeling college. So I dropped out and ended up becoming a corporate employee at the age of 20 and then growing with that company as the company grew

Gene Hammett: Well that gives the audience a little chance to understand where you come from. And I recently saw you speak being interviewed here in Atlanta, and one of the things that really struck out to me, and I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t understand that well, was authentic leadership. So let me ask you specifically like what is authentic leadership to you?

Kat Cole: I think authentic leadership is this ability to minimize emotional labor, which is the effort you have to make to close the gap between who you really are and who you’re trying to be. And if I’m not spending energy on trying to be a different version of myself than I really am, then more of my energy can go into my people, my business strategy and how we’re performing. And it is a sense of being able to bring my true self, my true, true self to the business and inspiring others to be able to do the same. So for me that means I show my tattoos and people know about my personal life and that I’m a burner and got married at burning man and spend a lot of time advocating for very progressive causes around the country and around the world. That’s me. It doesn’t have to be everyone else. But because I can bring fully me to the business environment, it gives others this informal permission to do the same. And I think that’s quite liberating. It is for me. And certainly as for my team members.

Gene Hammett: That’s a pretty good description. And you went through some details. Not really a lot of details, but like the burner thing, like I didn’t even know they were called burners. I know at burning man is, but that was new to me and I feel like I was little shadowed life. But why is it so important for you to be authentic in your leadership?

Kat Cole: One, because being inauthentic, so again, having some type of effort have to be having to be put into whatever version of myself I would otherwise be. It’s hard work. It’s emotionally draining, it’s unhealthy. And if my company wants to get the highest return on its investment in me than I need to bring my full self because otherwise I’m putting energy into things that aren’t the work. I’m worried about what I’m going to say. I’m worried about how I sound. I’m worried about what I wear, you know, being inauthentic, having to become someone that I’m really not takes effort. And if my efforts going there, it’s not being put fully into the work. And so there is a good, a capitalist reason to want authentic leadership running through the lifeblood of the company because it allows people to give their full selves, which means you are more likely to get a high return on your investment in those people.

Kat Cole: So whether the right thing to do the emotionally bold thing to do or just the capitalist thing to do, there are many good reasons to lead authentically and encourage other students to do the same.

Gene Hammett: I’m really curious, was it always that way because you’ve been a leader since you started taking over maybe training and leading others, maybe. Maybe you’re 19 years old, but has it always been authentic to you?

Kat Cole: I don’t think it was always authentic because I was such a young leader. You know, I was traveling around the world helping to open franchises at night, and I was leading teams of people who were a bit older than I was. And so certainly in the early days, I remember putting effort into acting like the boss right there. I was so young that I thought, they’re not gonna respect me unless I dress a certain way and act a certain way, which was emulating other leaders I had seen and I was worried that they would find out my age and be concerns that I wasn’t capable.

Kat Cole: And so in the early days I put more effort into being someone I wasn’t because I was humble enough to know that that my lack of experience might give people concern, but I wasn’t courageous enough yet to just lead in the way that was authentic to me. So I would, I was more formal in those early days because I wanted to engender respect. But as I learned the amount of effort that that took and when we got into messy situations, which happens in any business, the thing that really brought us out of it was me being real. You know, whether it was dropping f bombs in the moment, which is more me than maybe others, or if it was crying because something was really difficult for someone or with someone. You know, when the real me came forward, there wasn’t energy being put into anything else. And I was rewarded the few times in the early days that the real need was there and I paid attention and I learned, oh, I don’t need to do all this work to try to be someone that I’m not.

Kat Cole: And when I’m actually myself, the results are typically better. And yes, if I’m young and I haven’t learned as much as I could have if I were further along in my career, I’ll make mistakes when I’m the normal me, but then I’m going to learn what the right thing to do is that much faster. So I was rewarded for authenticity over time and these very unique situations. As a young leader

Gene Hammett: now you lead a lot of people now, right? This is part of your job and you’ve done this for many years. What do you say to a leader that you think is, is not being as authentic as they could be and those mountains?

Kat Cole: It depends on the situation. If I notice that someone is working very hard to just be, the average person might describe it as trying too hard, they’re being too formal or they are putting energy into something that you can just feel it.

Gene Hammett: Sometimes if I have a relationship with that person, I might literally say in confidence and private, I feel like you’re trying too hard. I might say something that simple or I will cite a few examples are behaviors and say, I’m trying to understand where this coming from and what you believe it’s addressing. Most people behave the way they do for a reason. They have some set of beliefs that make them think that’s the right thing to do in the moment and maybe it is their authentic style and I don’t know them yet and I’m open to that completely. So if I feel that someone is trying to become someone that they’re not, or there’s some example of where it’s inauthentic leadership where their actions aren’t matching their words or their decisions and their behaviors and their style aren’t matching the way I’ve seen them in more comfortable situations, I’ll bring it up in private and just trying to give people my own examples of my own journey so they feel the permission to evolve, change and and be who they really are.

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Gene Hammett: You know, it’s interesting you, you said private a few times cause I, I think most people would agree that this is best had in a private one on one kind of conversation so that they could be open. Right. Have you ever had those situations where it was, you know, something where it was, you know, challenging who you were?

Kat Cole: I’m not sure if I’ve had something like that, but I will say there are times where, and in authentic moment isn’t just about someone thinking they need to be a version of themselves, that they’re not. Sometimes it is a leader being inconsistent with what they have said or profess. And in those situations, those might be times that it creates a disconnect with me and who I am, where I can’t let a moment go by without addressing it. So if they’re being inconsistent in their behaviors with what I know were previous proclamations, promises, commitments, beliefs, and for whatever reason it violates my values, then I’ll find a thoughtful way to say it. Even if it’s in public with the gold, never to embarrass someone or create now and additional elevated dynamic, but rather simply say, hey, I’ve got an issue with that. I need to think about it.

Kat Cole: Or could we look at this a different way because I’m not quite comfortable with the way that was just positioned,

Gene Hammett: right.

Kat Cole: Simple ways to respond in the moment. Even in a group, if you notice both of those things were not so much about what that person did or said, but then I need to hear it a different way, or let’s think about this a different way because I’m not comfortable, so it makes it fully about me. Even though it might be created by something that is the source of an interest in authentic leader or a leader having an inauthentic moment.

Gene Hammett: I feel like this, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but do you feel like you have more of a coaching style to leadership or directive?

Kat Cole: Yeah. I’ve been more coaching style most of my life because in the early days I was always leading a new team and when the team is constantly new, because I would go to a country and it’s one team, I would go to another country. It’s a different team, but I had to get the same job done regardless, but we didn’t have deep relationships. There was no implied or established trust and when you constantly have new teams, I think it forces you to build a muscle of both highly directive and highly supportive behavior because you’re not sure where people are on the development scale and if everybody is amazing at everything, then you end up throwing people to the wolves. If you assume people know nothing, you’ll end up micromanaging and creating a dynamic where ultimately people don’t think for themselves. And they just wait for your commands. So I learned that over time. I think because of every country I lead a new team. Now obviously I have more tenured teams as an executive in our company, but it’s still my strongest muscle. It’s not the only leadership style I use, but it’s the strongest muscle that I have naturally.

Gene Hammett: Nope. I appreciate you being able to go through this with me cause I, you’ve probably never had these questions before and, and, and many interviews. So I wanted just to acknowledge that. I appreciate you playing along with me here. We opened this up cat with my study of and just complete fascination with fast growth companies that are growing exponentially. So I studied the top 1% of fast growth companies and I asked him the same question and you have agreed to this from your perspective, but I always ask them, is it employee first or is it customer first? Now this is from the focus of the leader. In your perspective, what is it? Employees first always. No question. Why are you so confident about that?

Kat Cole: Well, you know, the simple answer is, unless I want to try to work every job in this business, which is literally not possible, there’s no way the customers get taken care of if the employees aren’t being taken care of. So there’s an obvious sequence that plays out in businesses, especially consumer businesses where it’s so clear when you have the biggest customer problems, it is almost always because of an employee problem. It’s rarely a pure issue with a thing that has nothing to do with the person. So you learn over the years that my biggest customer problems are almost always coming from big people problems. And my biggest customer wins are always when I have bad ass employees. And so you get trained, you sort of see the patterns over time and it’s intuitive. But I think the other piece is that when you, when you have the scar tissue of growing businesses quickly, which I’ve experienced in my own businesses as well as advising and investing in high startups, you see the pain that comes and be expense, pain equals expense.

Kat Cole: You see the pain that comes from when the culture as an environment isn’t conducive to high growth and you end up with not only customer issues because there are employee issues. You end up with turnover, you end up with other employee issues with good employees because there are bad employee issues that haven’t been taken care of. The the ability to quickly fix and control the expenses with employee situations is far more difficult than that with customers. And so all the lessons point to the true north, which is take care of your people, take care of your people, take care of your people, they will take care of each other and everyone else as a result.

Gene Hammett: I love the simplicity of that and that confidence because you know, it is a hard question, right? You know, as business owners, we’re here to serve customers. You have a B to c brand for the most part where you’re thinking about that experience of I grew up eating moe’s here in Atlanta, so I know it very well. Welcome to Moe’s, right? So when I’m talking to people you know that think it’s a different perspective, like they they want to go, well it’s customer first. I think they get caught up with the marketing messages, right? We want to put marketing first customers first. We want, you know, when they really think about service of customers, they think about customer first. But what would you say to them about how to get them to think about it differently?

Kat Cole: Yeah, I would suggest checking in with her current customers today because current customers today and then I talked to care as much about how the employees are treated and what the employee experiences of a company almost as much as they care about their own experience. I think the customer mindset is changing. So I would first challenge them to entertain the idea that the customer first mentality might be a bit dated because the customer and those who are the largest growing segments of customers are much more connected to community and culture and ethos and what you stand for and how you treat your people is a big part of that. So I would just question that theory by encouraging them to talk to more of their customers and seeing how their customers feel about that. And then second, I would just help share stories because often that mentality is either rooted in old school thinking as I just shared, or it’s from someone that hasn’t been through the trenches long enough to see the patterns over time. It’s a bit of an idealistic view and when they get burned a few times, or when they start to see the patterns of wow, the best customer feedback comes from these great employee moments and the worst customer situations come from employee issues that either knew about it and didn’t take care of or didn’t know about and now need to take care of. Once they see that pattern over time, I think they’ll come to a different conclusion. But sometimes being a mentor, a friend helping to share stories helps think about it a little differently.

Gene Hammett: You know, as you’re explaining that to me, can, I was thinking about you, you know, you’re specifically working in a lot of restaurants and employees working in restaurants. And my thought goes, if they’re excited about what they’re doing and how they’re, the company’s growing and whatnot, they’re taking care of cleanliness a lot higher level than someone who collects a paycheck.

Kat Cole: Yeah.

Gene Hammett: And you know, cleveland and s as a customer is a pretty critical thing. We walk in and see that health score. We know that something’s either going way, way off or right. So I appreciate you sharing that with me. As we begin to wrap this up. Kat, I want to ask you as we record this, it’s toward the end of the year. Is there anything special you do from a goal planning at a personal level as a leader that you could share with us?

Kat Cole: Yeah, I have two practices. One is, and they’re kind of a version. One is a version of the other. The first is what I call, they’re both a type of checking, reflection, intention and action. It’s sort of like asking, answering, and then acting on the most important questions and challenges or opportunities. So first practice is what I call the hot shot rule. Done it for 10 years. It’s simply a moment of reflection where I consider a hot shot, someone with complete Badassery, Mr and Mrs. Potato, head of awesomeness. If they took over my job, if they were sitting in this seat the next business day, what is one thing and the first thing that they would look at and immediately say, Oh, I can do this so much better. How dare she let this get this bad? And I think about what that one thing would be.

Kat Cole: I acknowledge it and then I take immediate action on it and then I tell my team what I did. And what’s powerful about that is I’m not making promises. I’m not saying I’m thinking about improving this. I think about it. I acknowledge what the one thing is. I take action and then I come back and say, you know, I thought about what a hot shot would do if they took over my role. I realized there’s this one thing that I haven’t given the attention that I showed. It’s usually a people issue or opportunity or how I’m using my time and hiring someone, firing someone, giving someone feedback, addressing something in the franchise community, making an investment, removing and investment, killing a project that might not be delivering, you know, it can be any of those things. And then I go to my team and said, I just want you to know that I realized I should have done this better.

Kat Cole: And I took action. And what’s powerful about that is it acknowledges I’m never done improving. It demonstrates an openness to vulnerability. What a bias for action and it builds that behavior in the company. And that’s the hot shot rule. And I do it. I do it more often than I recommend for people. I tell people do it once a month. I do it almost weekly because it’s such a muscle for me and I’ve learned to not let it. Yup. And make me feel insufficient or that I’m a failure. It’s just the journey and the more I change and the more I acknowledged it, improvement I’ve made, the more inspiring it is for me. And for other people. The personal version is what I call monthly check ins, so very similar, but instead of asking myself what could I do differently and taking action, my husband and I sit down and ask a series of 10 questions.

Kat Cole: I just did an instagram post and linkedin post on this because so many people ask for our questions, but we asked each other 10 questions and things like, what was the best part of the last 30 days? What was the worst? What’s been your biggest worry? What’s your biggest point of pride? What’s one thing I could do differently to be more effective for you? And we do this every month on our month of bursary and then we reflect on those each quarter we have a little quarterly off site, which might only be a couple hours with a babysitter over coffee, and then annually we have an annual offsite. We take a little holiday vacation and we review how much progress we’ve made as individuals and for each other. I believe change the world, start at home. I’m a much better leader when things are great at home and I don’t ever want to be guilty of putting more energy into my work and I do the most important thing in my life, which is my family. So those are two end of year but ongoing practices that I have that have served me incredibly well.

Gene Hammett: Well thanks for sharing that and thanks for making it something different than than what a lot of people would say cause that that’s always interesting to know what other leaders like you are doing. So

Gene Hammett: I love the fact that you have embraced the real self and being authentic leader and the power that reigns to this. And you haven’t thought about it from the energy standpoint, but I love the fact that you talk about just it’s less energy to be you then to try to be someone else. And energy management is a big part of this and a lot of leaders maybe don’t get that, but they also run around in a hustle mode and a grind mode consistently and forget others around them and forget to really lead. So I really appreciate you sharing that with us, Kat. Thanks for being here. If I audience wanting to get in touch with you or follow what you’re up to, what’s the best place to send them to?

Kat Cole: We are on Linkedin are too easy spots.

Gene Hammett: Yeah. Okay. All right. We’ll put those in the links on the interview, so I really appreciate you being here Kat, and uh, really appreciate your insights.

Kat Cole: Thank you so much.

Gene Hammett: Fantastic. I love this conversation with kat because we talked about some of the things that I really wanted to put a spotlight on authentic leadership. I haven’t really thought much about the energy it takes to be someone that you’re not, but it does take a lot of energy away from yourself, but when you’re, you really are your own self. You can be you, you lease that energy somewhere else. You can apply it to the work that you’re doing. You can bring more of yourself to the work you do. You can get others to bring themselves to work because that’s what it takes. Now, I share all this with you because you probably want to be a better leader. You probably want to improve your leadership and become a visionary inside your industry and really push the business forward. And if you are having any questions whatsoever around how to do that or what we do here, make sure you reach out to me. I’d love to connect with you, see if there’s a fit between my company and your company. And if there’s anything I can do for you, make sure you reach out. As always, lead with courage and I’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

In this episode we’ll cover:

  • Authentic in your Leadership
  • Coaching Style to Leadership and Directive
  • Fast Growth Companies
  • Consumers Businesses
  • Advising and investing in High Startups
  • Employees Issues
  • Marketing Messages
  • Customer Mindset



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