On the Money

Kat Cole reflects on sweet success at Cinnabon and beyond

Sweet success

After a meteoric rise from a Hooters waitress to Cinnabon president, 36-year-old Kat Cole has her own recipe for success.

In her four-year run as president, she built Cinnabon into a bakery brand with more than $1 billion in sales and a presence in more than 30 countries. Just last month Cole was promoted to Group President of Cinnabon's parent, Atlanta-based Focus Brands, owned by private equity firm Roark Capital.

In her new role, she's responsible for five franchise food brands in additions to Cinnabon: Auntie Anne, Carvel, Moe's Southwest Grill , McAllister's Deli and Schlotzsky's. Focus has more than 4,000 fast casual locations worldwide, and is reportedly mulling an initial public offering.

As a key to her success, she credits life lessons her single mother taught her. In an interview with CNBC, Cole describes personal characteristics she has learned that "seem to transcend industries and job titles." She calls it the "delicate balance of courage and confidence, with humility and curiosity."

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In her career, she remembers instances where she vacillated between courageousness and being humble.

"In any case, I have paid the price for it as a leader," Cole says.

Be your own hotshot

Kat Cole
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Cole recounted a story from four years ago, when she first became head of Cinnabon, and an existing project underway with the brand ran into trouble.

"As new president, I didn't ask the right questions, I didn't poke my nose in some things that were going on," she said.

She blamed the misstep on her humility, and trying to avoid ruffling feathers. "Who am I to question these people who have been here before me, been in the industry longer," Cole stated about her thoughts at the time. "I need to trust them."

Yet as the head of a company, "there's no one else when you look over your shoulder, to answer the questions or make the decision," she added.

The flip side, she said, was she stepped forward, acknowledged the mistake and created systems that solved the problem and allowed for more innovation.

Cole also describes an exercise she relies on, called "The Hotshot Rule", that puts a leader in the shoes of an upstart. "It's the concept that if a 'hotshot' took over your job today, they would not be burdened by the complacency that comes from progress," the executive said.

"If someone took over my job…they'd have the fire in the belly to look at the things that I saw as progress and call it unacceptable."

She explained, after being in a role for several years, things have improved in that time. "I may sit in my chair and say it's so much better than it was." The trick, she adds, is not to rest on your laurels. Be "your own hotshot," she said, arguing that it's important to view each problem as if it were her first day on the job and question her own actions.

"[I] Look at the situation as if it's my first day and have the courage to step up and say, 'you know what, I have gotten a little complacent. " Cole says she makes time to do the self-challenging exercise about four times a year.

"It also puts a fire under my butt, to get me to pick up the phone, get on a plane and go do things that maybe I wouldn't have done if I hadn't completed that exercise," Cole added.

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