Saying Yes to Success: A Q&A with Kat Cole

From Hooters waitress to C-suite executive, Kat Cole is not afraid of taking chances.

By David Ward April 18, 2017

​Kate Cole

​Despite being raised by a single mom and experiencing what she describes as a “Jerry Springer” childhood in Northern Florida, Kat Cole is a modern-day version of the Horatio Alger success story.

Cole began working as a waitress at Hooters while she was a teenager. She was the first in her family to get into college, attending for 2 years before dropping out. Through hard work, she quickly moved up the corporate ladder and at age 20, she took a pay cut to join the restaurant chain’s HR department. By her mid-20s, Cole was vice president of training and development at Hooters of America’s headquarters in Atlanta.

She eventually went back to college and earned an MBA from Georgia State University, even while continuing on a meteoric career path. In 2010, she left Hooters and was named president of Cinnabon. Five years later, she was appointed group president of FOCUS Brands, the franchisor and operator of Cinnabon, Carvel, Auntie Anne’s pretzels, Schlotzsky’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill and other restaurants.

Cole credits her success not just to hard work but also to supportive leaders who gave her a chance and to her willingness to take well-informed risks at the right times. Along the way, she’s ensured that the employees around her are supported and share in the rewards of a growing business. Cole will be a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in June in New Orleans, where she’ll share her inspirational message.

What lessons did you learn early in your work life at Hooters?

The value of incredible customer service. It’s something I take with me even today—the connection between the customer experience and business performance. When you’re in a position on the front lines, you can directly see the things that drive satisfaction and, therefore, sales. You also see what causes dissatisfaction and ends up hurting business.

Where did you get your strong work ethic?

It came from watching my mom, who worked three jobs while she was single and taking care of us. In many ways, I grew up as a normal kid. But I also had to look after my sisters, so I had to develop a great work ethic early in life.

How were you able to advance at Hooters so quickly?

First, the company was growing, so the opportunities for advancement were there. Next, the keys were having humility and curiosity, balanced with courage and confidence. When I was asked to go to Australia to open the first Hooters franchise there, I was 20, didn’t have a passport and had never been on a plane. In fact, I had never been out of the state of Florida, save for two cheerleading competitions. Yet I was brave enough to say yes and to believe that I could do it. At the same time, I had the inquisitiveness to research the business and the market. I retained that mindset even as my experiences grew and I was given the opportunity to build new teams and launch new franchises.

What’s your advice for someone who wants to rise to a senior HR position?

Learn every part of your company’s operations so you can speak the language of the business. Whether you’re a generalist or you have an HR specialty, you need to spend the time and energy taking on cross-functional tasks or leading multidepartment teams. I’d even recommend taking a detour into operations or marketing so you can truly understand how that people dynamic fits into the overall operations.

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What unique challenges did you face because you are a young leader?

Some people questioned my credibility because I looked very young—and, in fact, I was. So I had to find ways to earn that trust very quickly. I did that by becoming a partner that people could count on. I also made sure I wasn’t sabotaging myself with behaviors that might be understandable for a young person but weren’t reflective of my role as an executive. Many of those had to do with body language, presentation style and physical presence. I was curious and a hard worker and made sure I was using all the tools in my toolbox to give my audience and my partners confidence that they could trust the business in my hands. And, frankly, I worked my ass off to make sure that I was delivering on what was expected.

What advice do you have for young managers?

The most important thing is to let your team members know that you’re there for them and that your success is theirs. First and foremost, your goal is to help them clear their hurdles and enable their success.

How can people—and businesses—differentiate themselves in the marketplace?

First, authenticity is vital. Be who you are; it’s a mistake to try to be something you think others want you to be. It’s exhausting, and it will certainly affect your work performance. And it’s no way to stand out. Second, build meaningful relationships both inside and outside of the workplace. Volunteer in your community and for cross-functional tasks and projects.

What’s the biggest staffing issue at FOCUS Brands, and how is HR responding?

The greatest ongoing challenge is not only the war for talent that everyone is facing, but also the fact that we have big brands that break down into midsize entrepreneurial companies. So we attract candidates who want to work for a large company but we are often looking for a more entrepreneurial mindset. So, we need a good mix of people who are promoted from the inside along with outside talent. We strive to find creative ways to promote from across all our great brands. When a person joins a traditional company, they’re only joining that one organization and are often limited to the opportunities within that business. But at FOCUS, we have six brands, corporate, our licensing group and the international group, so we have to make sure we are constantly cultivating the next generation of talent and communicating the multibrand, multifunctional opportunities that allow people to grow and develop.

How do you see the role of HR evolving?

When you look at successful companies, everything their brands stand for permeates every aspect of their business. If some marketer comes up with a great brand position but HR is not a partner in that, the idea won’t live through the organization’s people practices. So, in addition to traditional, functional HR, the department’s role is to fuse the brand promise and culture into those practices.

What’s the top skill young workers need to master?

Collaboration and great communication skills, including listening well, will enable them to work effectively across generations in the workplace. It’s up to executives and management, along with HR, to actively help young workers build those skills.

You describe yourself on LinkedIn as a “Connected-Creative-Conscious-Communitarian.” In that vein, tell us about your volunteer work in Africa.

The classes, workshops and team-building events I do include an element on volunteerism in the community, because giving back builds teams, drives humility and is inspirational in a way that few other activities can match. That practice of continuous community service led me to expand my humanitarian efforts beyond the U.S. to Eastern Africa, where I work with the United Nations Foundation on issues related to women’s development and village transformations. 

David Ward is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina.

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