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Women in Business: Q&A With Kat Cole, President of Cinnabon

"It wasn't that long ago that I personally worked in the positions that our youngest employees now fill. Because of that, my level of empathy, gratitude and respect for every position in the company is incredibly high."
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How has your journey working from the bottom up made you the leader you are today?

It wasn't that long ago that I personally worked in the positions that our youngest employees now fill. Because of that, my level of empathy, gratitude and respect for every position in the company is incredibly high. That affects how I view what is possible, how I expect our team to view our company's initiatives, and how I treat people with a high level of care and concern. It also allows me to lead with conviction because I have a fairly strong sense of what really can and can't be done in the day-to-day operations. That shapes a leadership style that is grateful, inclusive, collaborative, and rooted in operations.

Why do you think Cinnabon is such a strong brand?

We're global, multi-channel, highly differentiated and disturbingly delicious...what's not to love? High quality products, great franchise partners in almost 1,100 locations in 56 countries who deliver the sensory-overload experience that we are famous for, and we have a high level of differentiation and relevance that drives affection for the brand. The products are made with such unique, high quality ingredients and the flagship bakeries still adhere to the original hand-rolled method of making Cinnamon rolls and blending drinks to order. That protects quality and creates a high level of uniqueness. It's also such a strong brand because of the multi-channel brand presence, where we partner with best in class companies to deliver Cinnabon branded products where they are -- in their home from the grocery store or as a product in one of their favorite restaurants like Taco Bell and Burger King.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as president of Cinnabon?

Highlights are building a great team, seeing our franchise partners enjoy growing success, seeing the brand hit 1,000 bakeries worldwide, knowing we are approaching $1 billion in consumer revenues across our channels, launching of large key partnerships with Burger King, Keurig/Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, International Delight, and Cream of Wheat. Challenges have been the time it takes to find the best talent to help lead our organization, and helping the team make the transition from almost a sole franchise model to becoming a true builder of the brand across channels where franchising is the heart, but other channels are major drivers of growth. Brand management and driving franchise partner profitability are the most important things we do, and if it were easy, everyone would do it well... but they don't, so we are proud of our progress in those areas.

Where do you hope to expand Cinnabon to next in the international market?

We're spreading our sweet aroma and deliciousness all over the world, literally. FOCUS Brand International has aggressive plans for all our brands, including Cinnabon. Cinnabon is already in 56 countries, so the growth will happen in those areas as well as continued growth in Russia and expansion into a few new frontiers like Northern Africa and hopefully Brazil. Our President of FOCUS Brands International, the franchise partners for Cinnabon, and the team that supports them are a triple threat in development and the reason our expansion is so strong globally.

What advice can you offer young individuals hoping to start a career in the food industry?

Get in an operations role; work every job in the building; understand what makes the business tick. It's not a complicated industry, but that doesn't mean it's easy to execute the business well. At its core, it's a brand, service and people management industry. If you are in the franchising side of food, you need to have a strength in the ability to influence building on your credibility in operations and driving financial results. The foodservice industry is the second largest private employer group in the country; it has low barriers to entry and seemingly unlimited opportunity. There are no shortage of executives in the food industry who started washing dishes or waiting tables, so you don't have to look far for examples of the opportunities that exist.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I don't. I do the best I can to be focused and engaged at work and with my team and franchise partners, and spend quality time with family and friends when I can. I don't think there is such a thing as perfect balance. I try to achieve some kind of harmony, and I'm not too hard on myself when things don't work perfectly. I have a great team, and that makes things a bit easier. I love what I do, so it makes it less of a big deal to integrate my work and personal worlds. You just can't do it all, but if you love what you do, it's easier to make time for the things that are important in your work and personal life. It also helps if you focus on priorities and don't try to do it all alone.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

That really depends on the industry and company -- every cultural dynamic is different. For the most part, issues facing women are the issues facing most people in the workplace. However, a general challenge is the fact that many women lack the sponsors and advocates necessary to give them access to new opportunity being a woman has become such a topic women in the workplace -- it can distract from focusing on top talent in some cases and be quite polarizing. Focus on results, developing others, having a point of view, and developing relationships with people who can be your advocate and sponsor.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?

Sheryl's book touches on some important themes for anyone wanting to accomplish goals, defined by whatever success looks like for you. Not trying to do it alone, having a point of view, and not letting that voice in your head hold you back from stepping up for new opportunities are central themes from most people who have been successful. I've seen some criticism of her book based on her having had access to best in class education making her unrelatable, but I think that's wrong. It's a privilege to learn from others who are open enough to share their own stories of mistakes and their perspective on what they learned on their journey to achieve their goals. Even if her background is different from the average woman's, that doesn't mean there aren't meaningful lessons to learn from her experience. There are important lessons around women every day to help them achieve what they want -- from the rich, from the poor, from those with different levels of education, and from both the private and public sector. If you don't feel like her story relates to you, don't read the book -- but you'd be missing out on some good perspective and advice if you made that choice.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Mentorship for me has not been so much of a formal experience as it has been many, many "mentoring moments" where I met someone more experienced than me, asked them about what they've gone through, listen, learn and apply. I have also been privileged to meet leaders who are willing to share their time and opinions with me -- that is such a treasure. There are mentoring moments all around if you are humble enough to see the strength others bring and curious enough to ask.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Wow, there are so many... Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo), because she believes in common mantras I have used for years, like "always assume positive intent," has created a progressive culture and has been comfortable having a range of products that span from "good for you" to "fun for you."

Cheryl Bachelder (Popeye's), because she uses, understands and advocates for service-centered leadership and has a long history of driving strong financial results with that approach.

Mother Theresa, for building one of the largest, most passionate followings in the world, with few resources -- just leading with pure purpose.

Anne Sweeny -- Disney/ABC Television group -- for being such a positive role model in the media industry, her commitment to education, and her laser focus for driving innovation by listening to the customer in more disciplined ways than any other leader I've seen.

Liz Smith -- CEO Bloomin' Brands -- is just a kind, cool woman, successfully transitioned from consumer products to foodservice and has made meaningful, positive changes in that organization resulting in a successful IPO, strong employee engagement, and driving relevance of their brands.

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