Published February 24, 2014
It’s a no brainer: You start from the soft inside and work your way to the outer crunchy shell.
For Kat Cole, president of Cinnabon, eating one of the famous gooey rolls is a perfected art.
After taking a healthy bite of the warm, sugary treat, dipped in an extra cup of sweet cream cheese frosting, she says, “That is what we’re famous for.”
And she’s right. It’s what’s earned the brand a cult following. It only takes a whiff of its famous Makara cinnamon to know a shop – and an indulgence – isn’t far.
You likely know the brand, but do you know Cole, the woman behind the maker of indulgent moments?
Unwinding the Layers
What helps Cole as a leader and shepherd of the Cinnabon brand is her understanding of the service industry and what drives it.
“It’s the end customer who pays your bills – for you and for the business,” she said. “I think that’s a healthy lesson that a business person would be lucky to have early on in their career.”
Cole worked her way up from a waitress at a fast-casual restaurant chain to Cinnabon president all before she was 35 years old.
She began her career at age 17 at Hooters selling the chain’s world-famous hot wings. While many did their daily tasks and went home, Cole said she had a hunger for more. When opportunities arose, she didn’t wait to be asked to fill in. She took it upon herself to learn, lending a hand in in the kitchen – learning to fry chicken, learning managerial roles when she needed to, and having a hand in the franchising business when she was tapped to lead.
Cole said coming from the service industry and having been able to work her way through entry level positions all the way to the corporate offices gave her a “healthy dose” of respect for the end-user experience.
“When you’re a waitress or a server, you don’t get paid unless people are happy with their food and their experience. So you do whatever you can to positively influence that -- it can benefit you.”
The server-customer experience is the simplest form of commerce, she added, and that experience is one she’s benefited from as a leader because it gave her a chance to learn how to manage, lead, and communicate with all different kinds of people.
“That might be the family at the table, it might mean the male guests that have come in, or it could be a tough manager or a great manager, and all those things exist in the business world. The difference is you’re wearing a black business suit and not orange shorts, and you’re not carrying beer, you’re carrying files.”
Icing the Cake
When Cole joined Hooters in high school she didn't expect to wind up as a vice president of the company. But hard work and dedication, she said, propelled her into positions within the company she never could have anticipated.
Cole made the tough decision to drop out of college because of her rapidly expanding career with Hooters. But before she began her career with Cinnabon she went back to earn her MBA, graduating just after starting her role as chief operating officer with the company.
“When I went back to get my MBA, I was part of an executive MBA program which allowed me to go to school at nights and on the weekends over a longer period of time. So, I couldn’t quit my job and commit myself to a full-time MBA program, being in class during the day. I was a vice president for a growing company,” she said.
But she said the flexible format of the program allowed her to participate and took down several barriers to entry in her case.
For others facing the same career challenges, Cole said completing coursework while trying to maintain a full-time, fast-paced job is anything but easy. But there is an array of options to make it work. She points to Kahn Academy, free online education, and the varying levels of academic certification as examples.
“What’s tough for people now is the financing. It’s the cost of an education that can be difficult. And so that’s where I think all of these creative options can really democratize ongoing education for people,” she said.
Starting a career at a relatively young age presented to Cole its own unique set of challenges.
Throughout her career, she was confronted by people who thought she was too young to do her job well, not experienced enough, or not equipped with the right skillsets.
But to her critics, Cole says look beyond the resume.
“I had to learn a lot of lessons on the fly,” she said. “My resume wouldn’t have actually said on paper that I was the perfect candidate to be the president of a growing brand. But when that private equity group and that leadership group got to know the other activities that I led, and most importantly the results that I and my teams delivered, then it was obvious that I was a top candidate.”
Cole’s involvement in leading non-profit groups, industry advocacy organizations, political advocacy groups, and her ability to go beyond the technical jobs, she said, has earned her respect from those in her industry.
“They could have easily dismissed the resume by saying, ‘Oh, she worked at Hooters; she dropped out of college; she’s so young, you know, what can she offer us?,’” she said.
She advises young professionals with a drive to succeed to be able to do the job better than just technically well…because a lot of people can do a job technically very well. Instead, go above and beyond what’s asked of you, give back, and develop a record of helping others.
“That shows what type of leader you can be and also creates an entire community of people over time that want to be on your team,” she said. “They want to see you succeed, they’re cheering fans behind you instead of people who are just waiting for you to fail.”
Cole says if there's one thing she knows well its passion. She acquired a drive that came from humble beginnings and was passed down from her single, working mother. In short, a difficult upbringing she was determined to rise above.
“I always wanted different,” she said. “And even as important, my mom wanted different for us. She wanted us to have a better life. She really sacrificed a lot just to let us have an opportunity to participate in sports, to volunteer, and ultimately was very supportive no matter what we wanted to do.”
She said that created an inner fire inside that drove her to believe she was capable of achieving any dream.
“I do believe I can do anything, and who am I to let my mom down, who has sacrificed so much for me and my two sisters?”