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Tips From The Top: One On One With Kat Cole

I spoke to Kat Cole, President of FOCUS Brands including Carvel, Cinnabon and Auntie Anne's, about her best advice

Adam: What is something about you that would surprise people?

Kat: My personal love story: I met my husband, we had a one night stand (so we thought), fell in love, tattooed our rings, got married at Burning Man and made a baby 6 months later in Africa.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Kat: I became the leader I am by being a giver my whole life, which built relationships and a reputation that brought opportunities my way. I said yes to opportunity long before I was technically ready, but had the #hustlemuscle to figure things out along the way. My biggest setbacks have come from over-indexing on humility and not owning the responsibility of my position fully. When I have been the “only” or the “-est” in the room, only woman, youngest, least experienced, etc. I questioned whether or not I had the right to question those I respected and those who came before me, many of whom had been in business longer than I’d been alive. In that hesitation, I failed to lead as I should and made mistakes. I had the humility to ask the question, “who am I to question them?”, but I lacked the courage to answer – the answer was – “I am the leader, and if I don’t question things, who will?”. I have since learned that even if I’m new, the youngest, etc., that it is my role to step up and speak up. Said another way, I’ve learned to not confuse having a seat at the table with having and using my voice.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Kat: I think it boils down to two sets of qualities - humility and curiosity harmonized with confidence and courage. Have the humility and curiosity to learn from your customers, employees and your competitors, and to see the things you need to fix. Because people will stick with you if they know their advice matters and they can help shape the future of you or your initiative. Effective leaders also need to have the courage and confidence to make the tough calls or take certain risks. Finding that blend between both sets of qualities has always seemed to be the common thread in those who are most effective over time.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Kat: Stay close to the customer and employee and make sure to ask the right questions. Seek the “true” truth of their experience, and serve them in the way you claim you will. The answers leaders need always lie with those who are closest to the action – the front line worker, the call center, the delivery team, the family I the community.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Kat: Don’t forget where you came from, but don’t you ever let it solely define you. We always want to honor our roots, but our roots should not be our anchor. This advice is about giving yourself and others permission to change.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?

Kat: To change the world, start at home. Look for ways to give back and help others right in your backyard, your office or your community. Not only is there tremendous need there, but when you give and it benefits that person, it’s also likely to come back and positively contribute to your immediate environment.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Kat: I’ve mentored small business and start up founders for the last 10 years. I take a few hours each week to grab coffee and hop on calls. As my business gets larger, it keeps me grounded and connected to the hustle that founders go through and helps me maintain my deep level of respect for those in the trenches starting at zero. It makes me a different kind of corporate leader. I’m also the mother of a one year old, so my new hobbies are spending time with my son, reading to him and playing games. My husband and I also share the hobby of travelling the world, breathing fresh air together and having deep conversations with the people we love. These things help me stay grounded in what really matters, health, love, family and friends.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share? How I drive my own growth and development:

Kat: There is enormous power in self coaching through reflection, intention and action. I have learned that despite a lack of resources (I was the child of an alcoholic and eventually raised in a single parent household, having to work from a young age), that here are practices anyone can use to drive progress in their life – in particular setting aside a few moments to ask, answer and act on a few important questions. Two of my favorites: The Hotshot Rule: If someone I admire, a hotshot, a Mrs. Potato head of awesomeness, took over my job tomorrow. What is one thing they would immediately see and impact - as they see my world through their fresh eyes and energetic approach to making an impact? Why can’t that be me? Then I take action on that one thing immediately. I do this every month, and each month, for almost 10 years, I have found something I can do better or faster or something I should start or stop – and have taken action on it. Checking In: My husband and I have monthly check-ins where we ask each other things like: what is one thing I could do differently (stop, start or continue) to be a better partner for you? What is your biggest worry of the last month? What have you been most grateful for? What has been the best and worst moment in the last month? We ask these questions of each other, answer candidly, and commit to taking action.

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