Kat Cole is a retail executive, investor, humanitarian and advisor. That sounds fancy, but her early years were anything but. Her mother escaped a toxic relationship, only to find herself on her own with three daughters and had to take on three part-time job to support them. As a high school student, Cole started her part-time job waitressing at Hooters. She took initiative and showed leadership, started opening franchises around the world at the age of 19, rose up the corporate ladder to vice president by age of 26; by the age of 32, she was president of Cinnabon, running the international billion dollar brand.
Now 38, she’s Group President of FOCUS Brands, a company with billions in global branded product and franchise sales; portfolio brands include Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill and Schlotzsky’s. Below she describes her astronomical rise, talks about finding her voice, and shares valuable lessons learned.
Allie Hoffman and Ally Bogard: What would you say is one of the most adventurous or riskiest moves you’ve made professionally?
Kat Cole: When I was 19 years old, I was offered the opportunity to go open the first Hooters franchise in Sydney, Australia, and I said “Yes.”
I had never been on a plane. I’d only left Florida twice in my life. I did not have a passport. They said, “Would you like to go to Sydney to be a part of this team to open the first ever Hooters franchise?” and I said, “Absolutely.” After, I stopped and realized, “Oh, I don’t have a passport and I’ve never opened a restaurant before.”
I just knew how to do my job well and train others to do their jobs well and that’s what made me qualified. But it didn’t necessarily make me capable. At least not in my own mind. I stayed there for 40 days, opened the first ever franchise, and turned what I thought was a once in a lifetime experience into a complete pivot of my career.
Hoffman and Bogard: What have you triumphed over?
Cole: Triumph to me is about not only breaking through but pride in breaking through. I have triumphed over years of judgment because of the company that I worked for.
People never expected that my business card was going to say “Hooters” on it and the amount of judgment that followed – it was actually something that I found a way to honor, respect, address, be comfortable with and eventually completely reframe.
I am quite certain it helped set a positive example for tens of thousands of women that were in that organization, so it gives me a great sense of pride that I triumphed not just over it – but through it. I love the phrase, “Sometimes the only way out is through.”
Hoffman and Bogard: Is there one person you could attribute a big piece of your success to?
Cole: My first manager at Hooters. She had been a Hooters’ girl and became a manger and she hired me when I was 17 to be a hostess. She was very quiet and incredibly small in stature.
When I was 18, I’d be late for shifts. I was working three jobs, and one day she sat me down and said, “I need to know I can depend on you. This business doesn’t operate with people not doing their part.” It was so calm and so clear, yet it didn’t make me feel small. It made me feel that I needed to be bigger. I had not experienced that level of leadership and coaching, and it gave me an example of how I always want to come across, even though my natural style takes up a lot of space.
Hoffman and Bogard: What would you say would be one of your biggest professional failures?
Cole: I was newly President of Cinnabon. I was running this multi-million dollar brand with businesses in 68 countries around the world. I was 31 years old, and there was an ongoing initiative that had started before I got there. I doubted the initiative.
I had this ironic over-indexing of humility. I said to myself, “Who am I to question them?”
I did not poke around and ask the questions I should have. The reality is if I had actually answered my question in my head, “Who am I?” then the answer would have been “you are the freaking President!”
I minimized my role to such a degree that the initiative ended up going off the rails, creating massive business issues, horrible trust issues that affected my leadership, and I paid a very dear price. I went home in tears every night for weeks, but it also gave me the opportunity to acknowledge a massive failure in leadership and the ability to step up and demonstrate quite the opposite. So it was my greatest failure, but also created an opportunity for what employees would describe as one of my finest moments.
Hoffman and Bogard: If you could go into the subconscious mind or the main frame and turn off quality, a learned behavior, an emotional reaction that does not serve you professionally, what would you erase?
Cole: I tend to be described as an empath, but almost to a debilitating degree, and I didn’t learn fast enough how to filter it so that I could serve the greater good without allowing someone else’s difficulty to become my difficulty. This has weakened me at certain points in my ability to be the best for what the person needed or the company needed.
Hoffman and Bogard: If you could travel back in time, to that young version of yourself making it up as you went and just finding your way through the darkness maybe with just a little candle flame – what would you tell her just to ease her heart?
Cole: I would tell my younger self on that journey to think less about the concern around speaking up.
And to those times where my humility over indexed my courage too much – it played out often exactly as I feared. I learned over time not to let that happen. Speak up more quickly. Yes, you’ll be wrong. Yes – you’ll have problems. Yes – you’ll ruffle feathers, but there’s a way to speak up without being disrespectful.
Very simply: speak up more.