Kat Cole is the President, COO, and board member at Athletic Greens. She was previously President and COO at Focus Brands, the parent company of Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Moe’s, Schlotzsky’s, McAllister’s, Carvel, Seattle’s Best Coffee International, and Jamba. She oversaw all businesses, their 6,000 operations globally, and the multi-brand licensing and CPG business with 90,000+ points of retail distribution. She has more than 20 years of operational, brand, and executive leadership experience and has an MBA from Georgia State University and an honorary Doctorate from Johnson and Wales University. This episode was recorded at the Insight Global Headquarters in Atlanta, GA as part of the Women’s Leadership Council “Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Voice” event. 

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  • pragmatic optimist: When Kat was 9 years old, Kat’s mom decided to leave her dad. Her dad was an alcoholic. Kat has two younger sisters. Kat was in multiple car accidents with her dad while he was driving drunk. At the age of 9, Kat looked at her mom and said, “What took you so long?”
    • She learned that “the people who are closest to the action know what to do long before the senior leaders do. But they lack the language to articulate the problem and the solution. And they lack the authority to do something about it.”
    • “I learned to stay incredibly close to the people who are close to the action from that moment.”
    • “With all that he did, my mother never spoke ill of my father. I remember in all of those years, we were super poor. Taking meat scraps from the butcher. I remember one holiday season we were driving around looking at holiday lights. We went through the fancy neighborhoods and she said, ‘isn’t that beautiful, they must work so hard.’ There are these things I absorbed that I started expecting from leaders. I learned to be grounded in the practical (the pragmatic part), but still optimistic because a whole lot is possible with very little, especially if the leader stays close to the action.”
  • I am a learning leader. Learning is my currency.” Oh! I get to do something new and I can help people, and I can make money doing it. And money is freedom because it’s independence.”
  • “When we left my dad, my mom only had one goal, all she wanted was to raise three independent girls. Our willingness to be independent was her north star.”
  • Kat got a job at Hooters and quickly set the record for “close-opens.” The shifts where you close the restaurant and open it the next day. She did it for 22 straight days.
  • She was then asked to travel to Sydney, Australia, and open a new restaurant. She had never left the country and didn’t have a passport. She said yes anyway.
    • She went on to open restaurants on four continents before she was twenty.
  • How to build trust:
    • It’s important to lead through action, not just words.
      • Something as simple as when we get together in person, take time to buy the donuts and coffee or some AG1. Just that effort to find a way to do something that shows you care about their experience. I don’t need to say ‘I thought of you.’ It is obvious.”
  • “In my role, my success is your success. Your success comes from me removing friction for you.”
    • Vulnerability – Lead with vulnerability first. Share your story.
    • Holding people accountable – A-players do not like seeing B players, C players, and people who don’t give their best being given equal opportunity. Someone needs to be in control, expectations are communicated and managed, and the leader is keeping us on the tracks. You have to hold people accountable.
  • Conflict resolution – On Friday night a regular patron would go to Hooters with his friends and order 50 wings… “After finishing the wings, he would call me over and say, ‘there was only 40 wings.’ He did this 4 weeks in a row. “The 4th Friday, he comes, orders 50 wings, and while they were finishing, before he finished, and I on my own waitress discount ordered 10 wings, and brought them to him. And winked. And his buddies busted out in laughter, and he said, ‘good one’ and tipped me 100 bucks.” 
    • “Don’t confuse my kindness for weakness or stupidity. I’m generous. I’m thoughtful. I’m caring. I assume positive intent first, but I’m not going to be taken advantage of.”
  • Confidence is not an old-school overly masculine swagger, I know what I’m doing, I’ve got this. It’s humble confidence. It’s not I know what I’m doing, it’s I know I can figure this out. My confidence is deeply humble. I have screwed up so many times. I spent 10 years doing humanitarian work on the border of Ethiopia. I know what bad actually looks like. Which keeps western world business bad equally in perspective. That helps me chill. And that translates as ease. And ease translates as calm. And calm translates as both maturity and confidence. But it’s actually from perspective.”
    • “Confidence is built doing many new things where you are repeatedly uncomfortable.”
    • Humble confidence is like from The Mandolorian, “This is the way.”
    • “Traditional confidence, that swagger, can be successful. And can drive outcomes, but the teams don’t last very long. But the humble confidence is a learning leader. Any leader who suggests they know the way will be wrong at some points. Teams won’t last as long if they don’t have humble confidence.”
  • Productive achievers: The behaviors of the most successful humans have these four qualities:
    • Courage & Confidence + Curiosity & Humility — They must be equally balanced.
  • Speaking up – “If you are speaking up with the expectation of a specific outcome, you will always be disappointed. Period. That may be part of the problem. But if speaking up is about contributing and pushing the conversation forward, you’re sort of lowering the expectation of the outcome. So I have very low expectations on the impact I make, but I don’t expect one hand raise or one memo to change the world. But I do believe in participation.”
  • As a first-time vice president at Hooters, Kat was 26 years old. She was at the table and every one of her peers was in their 50s. They had been in business longer than she had been alive.
  • Kat’s “Hot Shot Rule.”
    • The Hotshot Rule is the act of thinking of someone Kat admires, then pausing, reflecting, and asking what they would do in her situation/shoes/role, then answering what that one thing is and acting on it. The answer tends to appear quickly because it seems to be clear when you think about it through someone else’s lens. That alone doesn’t create change – the trick is taking action on it right away and then telling someone – the person it benefits, the person you envisioned who inspired you, or just someone you know will appreciate the change you’ve made.
      • “Every time I tell my team, husband, or friend about the one thing I’ve done differently after the exercise, they say, ‘What took you so long?’ Or ‘Finally!'”
  • Kat’s Monthly Reflection Questions:
    1. What has been the best part of the last 30 days?
    2. What has been the worst part of the last 30 days?
    3. Tell me one thing that I can do differently to be a better partner/teammate?
    4. What has worried you the most in the last 30 days?
    5. What is one thing you are most proud of in the last 30 days?
    6. What have you been most grateful for?
  • Apply to be part of my Leadership Circle

More Learning:

Episode 078: Kat Cole – From Hooters Waitress To President of Cinnabon

Episode 216: Jim Collins — How To Go From Good To Great

Episode #300: AJ & Keith Hawk – How To Instill Work Ethic & Curiosity In Your Children

Episode #303General Stanley McChrystal – The New Definition Of Leadership