Kat Cole: Why Resourcefulness is Better Than Experience

Having skills and experiences listed on a resume doesn't mean that an employee is going to be successful. In our quickly changing market were what was in fact only 6 months ago has changed drastically; resourcefulness is far more important to have.

Kat Cole is the COO and President, North America at FOCUS Brands. Focus Brands is an American company that is an affiliate of the American private equity firm, Roark Capital Group, that currently owns the Schlotzsky's, Carvel, Cinnabon, Moe's Southwest Grill, McAlister's Deli, Auntie Anne's and Jamba brands.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

The Transcript - Why Resourcefulness is Better Than Experience

Welcome to the Next Generation Rock Stars podcast. If you are trying to figure out how do you recruit and retain this next generation of rock star talent you are in the right place.

Amanda Hammett: 00:14
Hi, this is mean to him and it at the millennial translator and today I have a super amazing and just chock full of information interview for you. I had Kat Cole who is the COO and president of North America for focus brands on the show and on the show she talks about so much information that I really think that you need a notebook before you started and on this episode or if you're listening while you commute, you're going to definitely want to come back and listen to this one a second, maybe even a third time because it is just that chock full of information. In fact, she might even want to teach a leadership class for MBA students. It isn't that good. So hope you're tuning in and we will talk to you soon.

Amanda Hammett: 00:54
Hi, this is Amanda Hammett and today we have a very special guest for next-generation rock stars. Her name is Kat Cole and she is the COO and president of North America for focus brands. Now you may not be aware of focus brands, but I know that you know their products, things like Cinnabon and Auntie Anne's and Jamba juice just to name a few. So Kat, welcome to the show.

Kat Cole: 01:17
Thank you.

Amanda Hammett: 01:18
All right, so Kat, tell the audience a little bit about yourself.

Kat Cole: 01:21
Sure. I run a large company called the focus that is a franchise or in license or of some of the world's most famous food franchises from the fun for you indulgent brands like Cinnabon and Carvel to the lunch and dinner brands, kind of more family concepts like Moe's and McAlister's and Schlotzky's all the way to the healthier side of the spectrum with Jamba Juice. I've grown up in this business since or versions of it since I was 17 years old. I started out, uh, as a hostess at Hooter's restaurants. I became a waitress at 18. At 19. I started opening franchises around the world. By 26, I was vice president of the company doing 800 million in revenue, help grow the company around the world, which was an amazing experience. And then left to become president of Cinnabon at the age of 31 and helped turn that company around out of the recession, grew it into a really fantastic global multichannel brand, and then moved up as the company grew and became group president of the licensing division.

Kat Cole: 02:34
And then the role that I've had for the last two years, as president and COO of the company. I am a mom of an 18-month-old. I am almost six months pregnant with my second, married the love of my life several years ago. And so just sort of like many people juggling it all. But part of my role is I manage presidents, the president's report to me in the company. But the way we build businesses is by hiring talent that is, it's seriously multigenerational. And so I get to not only have, I typically am the youngest person in the room at almost every stage of my career, but really get to see and experience and mentor and develop people of all generations and certainly the largest influx of those being a millennial and Gen z and to various positions and levels throughout the company. So excited to cover this topic.

Amanda Hammett: 03:34
That is awesome. I'm so excited. So let's backtrack a little bit on your history real quick. You mentioned opening international franchises at the age of 19. That is an awful lot of responsibility for a 19-year-old and a lot of people would probably be like, that was a crazy decision, but I think it worked out well for Hooters. I think that they made a good call there. But you also open multiple, you know, new franchises in new countries and new cultures. And I would imagine that that did something to your leadership style because you were working with one group one month and then six weeks later, a completely new group. What did that teach you in that process?

Kat Cole: 04:17
What's interesting is when you, when you are traveling to a new place with a new culture and a new team, what you learn very quickly, what I learned very quickly is that I was the only common denominator. And so if things went well consistently, I could probably take some credit for those things going consistently well. But if things were not going well consistently in an area, I probably also needed to take responsibility and realize that likely had something to do with me. And the first time I opened a franchise when I was 19 and I was in Australia certain things went wrong, but a lot went right that certain things went wrong. And I thought, oh, well that's just because the concept is new. Well, that's just because, they don't know. And then the next country I would have a similar observation.

Kat Cole: 05:17
And then the third, you know, on the third country, which was actually also the third continent, I realized, you know, there's probably something I could do differently to create a different outcome. So that was the first thing is that that experience was a brutal yet beautiful leadership mirror that most people don't ever experience because they get comfortable. People learn your style. They say, well, oh, that's just her, right, that she doesn't mean that people learn you and you learn them. And so you can get away with having less than stellar leadership behaviors and communication skills. That's awesome because people give you room. They learned that you're pretty much a good person and so they figure it out. But when you have to be amazing over and over and over again with teams you've never met, it really does sharpen the skills of building trust and communication and giving clear direction and building teams.

Amanda Hammett: 06:15
Absolutely. So let's talk a little bit about that idea of building trust because that is something that I see as an underlying issue in almost any company I go into consult with or talk to or anything, is that they take it, they make the assumption that they have it, but they don't always have it. So what does trust look like for you today in a working environment?

Kat Cole: 06:39
You know, I think it's, I don't know that it's changed much over time. Certainly, there are some fundamentals. Yes. One is people feeling safe. Yes. And whether that psychological safety or emotional safety or physical safety, um, but the underlying belief that at a minimum I'm not at risk, you know, that they, that I'm safe is important. And in I think that might be a nuance that is more prominent in today's world than maybe a decade or two decades ago.

Kat Cole: 07:21
And so that's one foundational component. The other is that I understand and can anticipate in general things that are going to happen, set another way. People around me do what they say they're going to do. And so, and that's also connected to psychological safety. Because I believe I'm not putting myself at risk because you've given me evidence that I can depend on or rely on or use the word trust, you or the environment or, or what is said. And so that's the second component. The third is just this element of care. And one of the ways when I was opening stores around the world that I learned to build, to build trust was I would bring donuts and coffee. And that may seem silly and it's not being. It was, it was demonstrating through my actions that I thought of the team, um, first thing in the morning.

Amanda Hammett: 08:27

Kat Cole: 08:27
I didn't have to show up and say, hey everyone, I thought of you today, right? I showed up early, I got the restaurant ready, I brought coffee and donuts. That alone says I care about you. I'm thinking of you. I don't want you to be distracted because you're hungry. I want you to be delighted because there's a surprise for you. So all of those things are incredibly important in building trust.

Amanda Hammett: 08:51
Absolutely. And that one small act actually I'm sure, showed your employees, hey, she doesn't just say she cares about me. She actually does. And this is how she demonstrates it. So I think that's wonderful. So why don't you share with the audience your general idea? You don't have to get into the nuts and bolts of it. But the general idea around developing next-generation talent.

Kat Cole: 09:12
I think there are a few pieces that are important in developing next-generation talent. One is being candid with, um, with them to make sure they see and understand any behaviors that they might be displaying that are distracting from their potential. So it's just, it's candor and that helps someone learn lessons sooner than they otherwise would through longer and more painful processes and mistakes. So that's one way I think about developing the next generation of talent. So it's the, what can you do for yourself and then what can I do or what can we do for you? So on the, what can you do, are you self aware? Yeah. And if you're self-aware, are you then also aware of how to address it? So if something you're doing or saying is, is problematic or suboptimal or holding you back or unintentionally distracting from your professionalism, if you acknowledge it, do you know what the counter behaviors are to address it?

Kat Cole: 10:30
So that's a big first step, helping next-generation talent. The second is on the, what can I do, what can we do? So, giving them exposure to many unique learning opportunities, bring them into a piece of a meeting so they can see it and get perspective. Challenge them to do research on other areas of the business that round out their mindset and their perspective around the business. Put them with new teams regularly so that they have to feel, uncomfortable in a productive way because that builds confidence. Yes. So drives learning. And then the third piece is literally giving people a chance not haphazardly. I have a business to run. I have investors and franchisees and I can't randomly stick people in positions, but certainly when I see potential, if I've given them exposure, if they are very self-aware, if they're good learners and they're comfortable with iterating their behaviors, they deserve a shot.

Kat Cole: 11:39
I mean, I was opening restaurants at 19. I was a vice president at 26. A lot of people gave me a chance and you can't remove that piece from the equation. But I was also a calculated risk. They gave me a chance, but I, so many behaviors that suggested that even if I didn't know something, I would have the grit, the resilience, the resourcefulness to figure it out. So when you see people like that, no matter the generation, whether they're much older or much younger, give them a shot because it's better to have someone like that in a role than someone you just think has the experience but isn't resourceful and isn't scrappy and get stuck very easily. And in today's environment with such dynamic shifts happening in every sector, resourcefulness is a far more valued skill than experience, purely because it's really more important to have the right questions than the right answers. Because if you had the right answers for six months ago, they're not right today, most likely. So those are some approaches that I take to developing the next generation of talent.

Amanda Hammett: 12:49
That's amazing. I mean, that's just, I think that that's what every young employee needs to be looking for is a leader who is thinking the way that you're thinking. And I, I appreciate that and I love that. I'd like to pivot just for a quick second. I still speak at the university and college level frequently. Um, and one of the things that I see and hear and experience from them is this anxiety around their career path and having it all figured out. And I would say that your path has been, nontraditional and I love it and I think that it's something that should be celebrated. But I'd like for you to tell our younger listeners about, about your path.

Kat Cole: 13:36
Sure. So one I agree, I do a lot of speaking with colleges and universities and I sense the same thing from men and women. We're a little more with women but I don't know that it's a new dynamic. I'm assuming that people who have sort of matriculated through college and they're nearing graduation I would, no, I dropped out of college when I was 20, but, that they start to feel a lot of pressure for what am I going to turn this education into, especially if they are in premiere or Ivy League schools. And there is a tremendous amount of the perfection paradox being around people. Um, and so, um, so for me, my story as one of many examples out there of non-traditional pads, you know, I grew up as the child of a single parent.

Kat Cole: 14:42
We left my dad, he was an alcoholic. I helped raise my sisters. I was the first person in my family to ever get into college. I was electrical engineering and computer sciences, major psychology of women minor and then, but I had to work to pay for school debt or loans wasn't even a topic. It wasn't even available. I mean I know some people had them, but I didn't have access to it and so I had to work to pay for everything outright. And that was working in restaurants, as a lot of students do. One out of two actually. And so what was unique is that I really was so proud that I was the first person in my family to get into college and I believed I was going to become an attorney, but I was going to get the engineering degrees and then go to law school and become an attorney, maybe a patent attorney or some type of a lawyer for a large corporation.

Kat Cole: 15:38
That was my fuzzy dream that was inspired by, I dunno, television shows, and teachers and things like that. And, but then I started training new employees as a waitress in my home restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. And then I started traveling to open restaurants and realized I was very good at this kind of complicated thing. Much more easily than others were. And, and so I was 18, I was 19, I was 20, you know, I'm traveling around training teams, hiring employees, training managers, and I, myself had been an employee in those situations. So I had learned from good managers and from bad managers. And I just realized that I was pretty good at it. I didn't think I was perfect. I didn't think I knew everything, but it was obvious that I was naturally good at it. I was fortunate to be put in a situation where I could feel that I did more with less effort than others in this area.

Kat Cole: 16:39
And I think it's important for people to tune in to their energies and to pay attention when they have those moments, no matter what it is, whether it's playing an instrument or being a nanny or you know, working with kids or education or whatever, that you pay attention and you go, wow, I'm, it's not being conceited. It's saying I'm recognizing I'm pretty good at this and I have barely any experience and I love it. Yes. and so that was the feeling I had when I was opening franchises and training employees. And I've got a lot of feedback that also suggested that. And so I leaned into it. I kept saying yes. When the company said, well, you go travel. When they said, well, you go travel to Australia, I'd never been on a plane and I did not have a passport and I had never opened a restaurant in my life.

Kat Cole: 17:28
But I said yes. Not because I thought I wasn't delusional. I didn't think I knew how to do that. I was confident in my ability to ask for help and to take risks. And so I bought my first plane ticket, flew to Miami, stood in line, got a passport, expedited and left a few weeks later to Australia. And I thought it would never happen again. And I made up my classes and then they asked six months later, will you go to the same thing in Central America? And then several months later, will you go do the same thing in South America? And eventually I was leading these teams, not just a member of the teams, but I was also failing college. So I dropped out of college because I was literally failing. I was never there. It wasn't like I wanted to leave college. Right. Mom was very upset.

Kat Cole: 18:11
But I then got a job offer to move to Atlanta and work in the corporate office as a 20-year-old overseeing all employee training. So I said yes to that and I moved up as the company, you know, as the company grew, I grew and joining growing company matters because there is disproportionate opportunities, especially for people who might have less experience. So I moved up. But all through that process of moving up as a young corporate professional, I was volunteering my time for community organizations. I was volunteering my time for industry associations like the National Restaurant Association and the Georgia Restaurant Association. And those things brought me connections, the additional leadership experience in the nonprofit sector, which is an important layer of leadership. And it helped me have confidence because I was dealing with so many different scenarios. At the same time, I was working on fundraising initiatives for the nonprofit that I would come to work and work on training new employees and launching a new menu item.

Kat Cole: 19:14
And it made my skill set very robust, very fast. And that combination of my day job, my nonprofit side hustle, um, really helped round out my skills. And I was a vice president at 26. As I mentioned, the company was doing 800 million in revenue. The CEO passed away. Suddenly the whole executive team almost turned over. We owned an airline. We sold an airline. I mean it was a bananas period. But I was learning and learning. I knew it was my currency and I stayed there and that company for 15 years, but every three years it was like a completely different company. And every two years I had a different job. Yes. So it was, it was perfect for me and it prepared me to be the president of a large enterprise. But there's a lot of things that are non-traditional in there.

Kat Cole: 20:10
And everybody has their paths. And I guess because I, I didn't sit in a college environment waiting until the end with this huge weight of what will I do next? I jumped right into something because I had a compelling alternative. But if you don't have a compelling alternative, stay in school, like finish the degree because it's one of the greatest enablers and privileges in the world. But I had a compelling alternative that happened to come my way to keep opening restaurants around the world. I did later go back and get an MBA. So I have a masters without a bachelor's. It is rare but possible for your executive MBA program. So I have further evidence that I deeply respect higher education, but I also follow my own path and I don't, a lot of people like to say, wow, you're clearly so ambitious. I've never been ambitious. I'm not by the technical or typical sense of the word. I've always been very positive and opportunistic. And so when an opportunity came, I was ready because I was working my ass off and then I jumped in and said yes. So that was a bit more my path. That's not everyone. Some people are big planners and say, I want to be a CEO. And then they work their way back. And that's an amazing way to plan your future as well. Just give yourself the flexibility to make exceptions when opportunities.

Amanda Hammett: 21:30
Yes, I agree. I agree. You know, the one thing that really are the two things I really took away from your story is that you will three, okay? The learning was, was number one for you always, but you are always well willing to take risks, which a lot of people would have shied away from some of those risks that you took. But the third thing is that you might have had some missteps here and there, but you figured it out and you kept on going. And that's important. So that's grit, resilience, it took everything. That's awesome. All right. So Kat, when you think about young talent, so again, millennials, Gen z, what do you really think about their abilities? Because they're in the media. In Corporate America, there's a lot of talk of doom and gloom. It's not what I see and it's not what the numbers are showing me, but what do...

Kat Cole: 22:20
First of all, it's millennials and Gen z, if you put them together, I might have my math wrong, but it's probably close to half of the population. And so I don't know how you could even talk about a group that large as having any defined set of characteristics. Yes. That are any different from hue, like humans. So that's always really interesting. Even the millennial generation alone is so massive that there's clear evidence that um, sort of the younger millennials, that are closer to gen z or the earlier half, uh, and elder millennials to use the fabulous comedian, Eliza's stands up, words elder, millennial, are closer to Gen X. I'm millennial so I'm on the literally, I'm on like some studies, the few studies that include 1978, you know in a millennial. Then I like those cause I get to say I'm a millennial. But I'm a cusper me too and I certainly relate to both. And so that's my first opinion is talking about such a giant swath of the population as, and then trying to define their characteristics is a bit of a fool's errand. What I will say is that, and what has always been true of every next generation coming into the workplace is that they are critical of the generations that have preceded them because they are dealing with the downside effects of whatever their parents and their grandparents as a generation produced. And that's always been true always. And that's not new. And so I don't find it particularly unique or concerning or difficult. I do believe that because Gen z and the younger millennials are true digital natives. I've never known a world without an iPhone at, you know, as even a child or other types of technology have not known a world without the Internet.

Kat Cole: 24:38
They are quite possibly the most resourceful generations, um, that we've seen to date because of the abundant access to information to them. It's just like, of course, I can find that out. Of course, I can research that. In fact, when I meet a younger professional that isn't resourceful, I almost told them to an unfair standard where I'm like, what do you mean send you the link? Google it. Like what, why would you tell? I just had, my husband was telling me a story about a younger person who, you know, was asking for somebody to send a link and they're like, why wouldn't you just Google it? It's so weird to hear a young person asked for that. If it's something a 50-year-old should ask for not a 19-year-old. So they are in general more resourceful. And so the question is how to leverage that. Um, certainly because technology is the first filter. There are other downside effects. Things like low confidence, impostor syndrome because of the Instagram generation and comparing their day to day real life to someones, highlights and posts. So that's very real. It's a very real psychological component and the trade-off for all the upsides. And it, and when I find older generations saying the younger generations or that described them as, what about me, you know, it's all about the that's a bit shaped by the fact that everyone is kind of a celebrity in their own worlds through a social media platforms. And so I just, it is the creation of their environment. And so I'm also not critical of that. I just wonder how to leverage that, how to use that.

Kat Cole: 26:29
So resourcefulness there is a bit of a celebrity, everyone's an influencer in their own way. And so again, how do I, how do I use that? And then yes, there is there does tend to be less experience in deep interpersonal conflict and interpersonal interactions. There aren't the typical coping mechanisms that earlier generations absolutely came about naturally because they did have to deal with everything face to face, voice to voice. And so that's absolutely true. So there are upsides and there are downsides, just like with any generation.

Amanda Hammett: 27:03
Absolutely. That's wonderful. So I would, I would say that you're a rock star. I mean, I'm just going to go out there and say that, but how do you identify someone else who is a rock star or potentially has rock star abilities that maybe have not been uncovered?

Kat Cole: 27:18
I look for grit and resourcefulness. I mean, that is because if someone doesn't have that and they're a rock star right now, they won't be in a different situation. They're just a rock star because they've, um, they, they know the environment so well or everyone, they, they've done one thing incredibly well and there's nothing wrong with that. But if, if the question is what is a rock star? A rock star, it's not someone just being singularly amazing, But rather on the, on the business side, someone who I could put an on four different teams on three different projects and because they know how to ask the right questions, treat people with respect, collaborate, they have the courage to speak out and speak their mind. And these are super translatable. Rockstar attributes that will allow someone to be relatively successful in most scenarios. I don't expect the impossible if anyone, not even of myself.

Kat Cole: 28:24
But certainly, those are the things that I have learned are the hallmarks of someone who could be a rock star. I was just meeting with a team member in our office yesterday who wanted to talk about her career and what she was thinking and what was next for her and truly, and it's such a pleasure when you can give someone this feedback. I said, you I know I could put you in several different situations and maybe even a few different departments and you'd probably be able to figure it out. And that means the world is your banana, you know, you're going to have so many options and that's not the case for people who haven't figured out how to navigate diverse environments. So that's a bit of what I think our rock is, right?

Amanda Hammett: 29:13
That's, that is so right on. Absolutely. I think that's what every leader really needs to be focusing in on is just not looking at the resume, so to speak, but really looking at what are those qualities that this person has. So, all right, so what I have in what I deal with a lot are leaders who come to me and they're frustrated and they are exasperated and they are pulling their hair out. And again, it's back to these, I don't get these kids, these millennials are worst. Bless them when Gen z really hits full force into the workforce for them. But what advice would you give sitting in your office to an older leader who was really struggling in that way with a younger employee?

Kat Cole: 29:56
So I start with the same approach that I would with a younger employee is first, what can you do differently? And then what might they be able to do differently? And so on the, on the look in the mirror, the first conversation is if you are older, gen x or a boomer, you made these kids this way, right? You raised them, they grew up in your environment, you and your people did this. So take credit for the good. Take responsibility for what you don't like. It's the truth. And so I like to start first with empathy. Understand that they've grown up in an era of Columbine and the recession and on the heels of storytelling of nine 11, like they, you know, they're exposed to a lot big corporate enterprises.

Kat Cole: 30:52
I mean the financial crisis. Tumbling their worlds and their parents' world. There is a reason they inherently mistrust and there is a reason that there is a general overwhelming mistrust of larger corporations and more traditional leadership. And so just start there. Like, I get it. And so I have to actually combat that because I can't undo personally as a leader or I will tell this mature leader, let's say they're a baby boomer, you can't undo two decades of programming. You can't. And so you just have to empathize and understand that leads to so many behaviors. It leads to believing that there has to be a better way, which is a positive thing. It leads to them not wanting to hitch their wagon to a company for too long because all things come to an end.

Kat Cole: 31:51
So just understand it's not disloyalty. It's just a belief of the natural cycles of things that they're faster and shorter and they've seen big companies that were prominent in their early years go out of business by the time they're out of college. I'm so all big things don't last. And in fact, they're paying very much attention to why those things don't last and believe that doing things differently will lead to a different result, rightly so, I believe. And so how do you, you know, harness that. So that's my first piece of advice is to take some accountability and have some empathy. The second piece of advice, however, would be now that you have accountability and empathy for them or the behaviors that you're describing how can you educate, inform, support, and develop? So at anytime, I hear older leaders say, well, they just don't understand the business will anything teach them, right?

Kat Cole: 32:52
If they don't understand, you just called out and identified the problem, sit down with them and show them where the breakdown of a dollar goes. [inaudible] but a dollar in sales just come in. What happens to expenses? what is leftover and then where does that need to go and where does it not go that they might think that it goes, use, get them to be on teams where they're dealing with very real problems in the business. So they can't just live in a world of theory. Those are the things that good leaders can do. And so the third is kind of the summary of those two is don't spend too much of your time complaining because then you're not being a great leader. Spend your time doing something about it. And yes, of course. Just like there are boomers and Gen Xers that aren't capable of certain jobs and skills. There are millennials and Gen z years that are not the right fit for certain roles, but don't, don't broad brush, you know, an entire generation or age group. That's foolish. Just as I would never do that to you know, the person who might be asking for the advice.

Amanda Hammett: 33:54
Absolutely. All right. So let's, let's, you mentioned this just a second ago, but let's kind of hone in on it for a second. What have you found to be the benefits of focusing in on developing and educating your team, your workforce?

Kat Cole: 34:09
I mean, development and education do two things. One, it's more and more important to every generation that's younger. So it's a retention tool in and of itself, just ongoing learning and education as a reason to stay somewhere. The second is, of course, you're building capability in your internal team and not having to hire the experts from the outside. That is both a smart financial decision as well as a good cultural decision because you have someone who can grow up within the company and credit the Organization for their learning and development and then demonstrate those the newly honed skills with that learning and development and inside the company to benefit the company. And the third is it just provides perspective and perspective leads to calm, a calm comes across as maturity. Maturity helps counterbalance some of the natural traits that might show up for them as a young person.

Amanda Hammett: 35:06
Thanks so much for joining us for this episode of the Next Generation Rock Stars where we have discussed all recruiting and retaining that next generation of talent. So I'm guessing that you probably learned a tremendous amount from this week's rock star leader and if that is the case, don't keep me a secret, share this episode with the world, but really share it with your friends, with your colleagues because they also need to learn how to recruit and retain this next generation of talent because these skills are crucial to business success moving forward. Now, of course, I want you to keep up to date every single week as we are dropping each and every episode. So be sure to subscribe to your favorite podcast platform of your choice, and you will see the next generation rock stars show up just for you.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.