A Recipe for Leadership

“The question is what do you stand for? How do you deliver value that matters to your customers?” —Kat Cole, Cinnabon Inc. president

“The question is what do you stand for? How do you deliver value that matters to your customers?”
—Kat Cole, Cinnabon Inc. president

A Recipe for Leadership

When named president of the giant bakery chain Cinnabon Inc. in 2011 at the age of 32, Kat Cole was fighting an uphill battle. The impact of the country’s recession had badly hurt earnings in the franchise industry. At the time, morale for Cinnabon’s employees was slipping. So was confidence in the company’s brand among its franchise owners.

Since then, under Cole’s leadership, Cinnabon’s sales have shot up. New products have added value to its stores. Franchise owners also have more confidence in the company’s leadership.

How did Cole pull it off?

Cole used her more than a decade of experience in change management, customer service, employee training and sales, and brand and organizational leadership to turn the company’s circumstances and future around.

ICBA Independent Banker spoke with Cole about her vision, leadership style and brand-building. She will be a general assembly speaker at the ICBA Community Banking LIVE national convention in Orlando, Fla., March 1-5. Other general assembly speakers at next year’s convention include journalist David Gregory and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina.

IB: When you were promoted to Cinnabon’s president, what were your initial plans for the company?

Cole: My first focus was around really getting to know more about the (management) team … hearing their background and variances would help inform more of a clear vision of what the brand could become.

IB: What makes your leadership style so effective?

Cole: It’s a fact-based leadership style. It’s a way to cut through the noise and get to the facts. It doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that drives my decision, but it’s a grounding approach to leadership that every key member of our team does on a regular basis.

The speed of change is so great that there are few alternatives to gathering real-time information.

IB: What internal changes did you make to positively influence Cinnabon’s culture?

Cole: My first 60 days … most of my time was spent working in our bakeries at malls, airports, 4 a.m. openings … asking the same questions to employees, guests and franchisees, and managers. We listened first, applied some of the lessons quickly that were not costly to accomplish, and created short wins.

Sales went up 10 percent. It built [employee] confidence in their new leadership. They could see a short win where there had been nothing but losses.

IB: What’s changed about today’s business environment, and what lessons can community bankers learn about effective change management?

Cole: Consumers have more choice. Their definition of value has changed because there are more options and considerations. So it’s harder for you to stand out as having more value.

Don’t define value by dated definitions of what you think consumers want. The only way to stay grounded in reality is to insert yourself deeply into the business, as often as possible, as close to the transaction as possible, so you have good, solid anecdotes that are recent of what people want.

IB: You’ve succeeded in business in part because of your “think big” attitude. How can community bankers incorporate a similar philosophy?

Cole: Cinnabon has had headwinds with governors outlawing sugar and … activists saying we’re fattening America and killing people on a regular basis. The question is what do you stand for? How do you deliver value that matters to your customers? There are so many ways to build your business over time with great strategic alliances and partnerships.

IB: In business you’ve embraced change while, in some cases, straying from traditional practices. For example, you worked on your MBA at Georgia State without finishing your bachelor’s degree. What can community bankers learn about your approach?

Cole: Follow the advice my mom gave me many years ago: Don’t ever forget where you came from, but you do not have to let it solely define you.

What it means is honor your roots and acknowledge the things that have made you successful, but do not be confined by the belief that it must define your core business or ways of working.

IB: While moving up the ranks in business, what did you learn that you still apply today and that community bankers can benefit from?

Cole: I’m constantly redefining myself as a leader. … There is nothing wrong with standing up and saying times have changed, and I want to change with them so we can all be successful.

IB: How do you see the role of leaders evolving in corporate America?

Cole: There’s no question that leaders need more of the skillset of influence and collaboration versus command and control than ever before. The sheer speed of change and communication requires them to be more adaptive and have empathy as a key leadership characteristic and a healthy dose of respect for what communities online can teach you and how they want you to engage as a leader.

IB: As a professional speaker, you address the importance of brand-building. Tell us about that.

Cole: Building your brand is the way you interact in and outside of the brand—where you choose to invest your money and time, and how you show up in the community. It doesn’t matter how much you market or advertise, if the people who represent your bank do not live up to your branding, it’s a waste of time.

IB: What should community bankers be learning to better define their role and responsibility as leaders?

Cole: Learn what [employees and customers] are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. Who are the brands, companies or leaders they look up to and why?

We have reverse mentoring in our company where we bring in young leaders from our community to talk to our executives. I’ll also have coffee where we share some of our stories. … But you have to have a great deal of humility to believe there are answers to be found in places other than in your own head and organization.

It doesn’t matter if it’s creating cinnamon rolls, financial services or other products. There are a lot of common truths that can be shared and learned.