Inspiring Women Leaders: Kat Cole, FOCUS Brands President

As the year winds down, our team at Leadercast takes this time to reflect on the past year – our challenges, our achievements, what we’ve learned, and how we’ve grown. We also look ahead to set our intentions for the New Year. Where did you have your greatest challenges and growth in 2015? What are some of your personal or professional goals for 2016? If building your leadership or the leadership of those in your community is on your list, we’d love you to consider Leadercast Live. Get to know our outstanding line-up of keynote speakers in our blog series, and discover why 100,000 people tell us year after year that Leadercast Live is the most inspiring event they’ve ever attended!

Today’s blog highlights one of our speakers, Kat Cole, group president of FOCUS Brands, the parent company of some of today’s most iconic food brands, including Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s pretzel company, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky’s sandwich shop, McAllister’s, and Carvel ice cream. (Is your mouth watering yet?) While Kat is responsible for building these brands, innovating their growth and overseeing their success in 65 countries, she is also on a parallel, personal mission: to help improve the lives of others around the world. In fact, Kat’s own story is one of perseverance and positivity. And the way in which she leverages her visibility and influence goes well beyond her role as one of today’s most successful business leaders.

Kat is an angel investor, humanitarian and philanthropist, working to make the world a better place by supporting programs that give people greater access to education, technology and opportunity. Fueled by a desire to connect with others and help them see their best qualities, Kat’s energy and reach is astounding.

“That’s always been my thing: I can see the possible in people and situations. And because I can see it, I can help other people see it, too,” Kat said in an interview with Entrepreneur Magazine. “When I see people, everyone, every human, I understand that I am in the presence of greatness. Maybe potential greatness, or greatness unpolished, but every person has the ability.”

Kat’s ability and willingness to see the positive in people extends to her leadership approach, business relationships and worldwide humanitarian work. One of the things that makes Kat so easy to relate to is her own struggle-to-success story. She explains that her mother raised Kat and her two younger sisters on $10 a week. Kat began working as a way to contribute to the family’s needs, first as a hostess at the Hooter’s restaurant group, then as a waitress, cook, shift leader, and team trainer. Kat says her mother’s dedication to their family taught her to step up, work hard and take her responsibilities seriously.

Kat was also the first person in her family to attend college, but she put her education goals on hold; the restaurant owners recognized Kat’s determination and leadership skills even at her young age, and hired her to be part of the training team that opened the first international restaurant franchises, first in Australia, and then in Central America.

Kat proved herself quickly, and by her mid-20s, she became executive vice president of the restaurant group. Still, understanding the value of education to her career goals, Kat wanted to go back to school to get her MBA. The only problem was, she never completed her undergraduate studies. Her resilience and persistence paid off again: in lieu of a bachelor’s degree, Kat submitted letters of recommendation from top leaders (including Ted Turner) and Georgia State admitted her into its MBA program. Kat juggled work and school, and continued to soar in business.

Following grad school, Kat was hired by Cinnabon; within six months, she was named its president. Kat spent the first year assessing the bakeries and making improvements that ranged from new menu items to renovations to closing underperforming stores. She became known as an innovator, visionary and authentic relationship-builder. By Kat’s third year, she had added 200 Cinnabon stores and expanded internationally. And, if you’re one of the millions of fans who can now get your Cinnabon fix at your local grocery store or in restaurants like Taco Bell and Burger King, you have Kat to thank for extending the Cinnabon brand into these franchises and partnerships; today the brand has more than 60 licensed products, such as creamer, cereal, coffee, and more. Cinnabon stores employ 11,000 employees in 56 countries and sell more than 100 million cinnamon rolls a year!

You may have seen some of those stores when Kat worked as an “undercover boss” on the television show of the same name. On the episode, you can see her leadership ability to connect, motivate and reward excellence. (The last 10 minutes are particularly moving!)

In January of 2015, Kat was promoted to Group President of Focus Brands, Cinnabon’s parent company. Now she drives innovation and growth for the company’s five food brands, and plans to continue building licensed products and partnerships.

Through it all, Kat has never lost her passion for helping others. She donates her time and gifts as a speaker, mentor, contributor, and volunteer. She is the co-founder of Changers of Commerce and chair of the board of the Women’s Foodservice Forum, where her mission is help other women learn, grow and discover their potential. Kat is also a mentor and board member to emerging retail, education and tech startups, and has been recognized as one of Fortune magazine’s “40 under 40” and CNBC’s “Next 25 List of Innovators, Leaders and Disruptors.”

Leadership Lessons we’ve learned from Kat include:

- Figure it out and make it happen!

- Be honest about who you are

- Listen to your employees

- Balance “courage and confidence with humility and curiosity”

- Volunteer and serve others

- Remember that we are all connected – somehow, some way

Kat’s positivity, philanthropy and ability to see the good in others are the cornerstone of her values-based leadership. She is sure to inspire you at this year’s Leadercast Live!

Join us at Leadercast Live on May 6, 2016 for a lively presentation and exclusive interview with one of the most visionary leaders of our time!

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