kat cole kicks off shrm17

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With the anticipation running as high as the air conditioning, Kat Cole walked onto the main stage at SHRM17 with a breezy confidence that made the massive auditorium feel ten times smaller. Though her success as both a leader and businesswoman is staggering—rising from a server to the president of Hooters before her 31st birthday—it was her humility and honesty that strike a chord with the audience.

Sidestepping the usual fluff of a kickoff keynote, Cole quickly dove into the details of her success and failures as a budding leader first at Hooters, then Cinnabon, maker of the “disturbingly delicious” cinnamon buns “the size of your face,” as she put it.

One memorable story found her in “a hot mess of a situation” when she first took over as president of Cinnabon near the tail end of the great recession with falling sales and the lending freeze wreaking havoc in the franchise business. But her background in HR (training and development to be specific) allowed her to keep a cool head, “Stepping back and seeing the entire landscape is what makes you a business leader.”

Unafraid to admit (and dissect) her mistakes, Cole told about how she had pushed for a product at Cinnabon that seemed smart, a lower calorie ‘bon that she hoped would address the perception of Cinnabon as unhealthy. It failed miserably, unable to compete on taste and indulgence. So she went back to basics, asking her franchise owners for advice and finding the solution already existed—the mini-bon. Same decadent taste, just smaller in stature. Though it wasn’t offered at all locations, it was already selling well. So she rolled it out at all the franchises and boom, sales went up 6%.

After the tales from her time at Hooters and Cinnabon, and a surprisingly intimate discussion of her challenging childhood and the positive influence of her mother as a single mom, Cole spoke directly to her audience, offering some heartfelt encouragement to the 10,000+ HR professionals in attendance. “You are culture builders . . . HR leaders have to be front and center. You are the group that is supposed to fuel the culture of your organization.” To her, unflappable honesty was key to her success. Not being afraid to speak up and address problems head on, before they became systemic issues. To her teams, she would often say things like, “I love and respect you, but I would be failing you if I did not challenge this.” To Cole, it’s all about creating a culture of openness and innovation, where everyone feels free to speak up and contribute.

Cole ended her talk with a particularly moving quote, a refrain she learned from her mother, who she cites as the biggest source of inspiration and strength in her life: “Don’t you dare forget where you came from. But don’t ever let it solely define you.” We know you won’t, Kat. And neither will we.

By andrew scarcella
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