From Undercover Boss to COO to Argentum keynote speaker- Kat Cole shares experience and lessons in this week’s episode!
Watch this episode here.
Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas, The Senior Living Podcast. We are rounding out our Argentum tour with a huge keynote speaker. We want to welcome to the show Kat Cole. She is the COO of Focus Brands North America, former President of Cinnabon, an Undercover Boss, LinkedIn influencer and mentor, a mother, and a wife and a mother of one and a half. Welcome to the show.
Kat: Thank you.
Josh: What a mouth full. So glad to have you with us, Kat.
Kat: Yeah, likewise, glad to be here.
Lucas: Well your speech today, your talk really captivated us and you were brought here as a part of a leadership that Argentum is doing. That a 40 Under 40, which Josh was a recipient of.
Josh: I barely made the cut. Hanging onto that 40 number.
Kat: That’s right.
Lucas: Yes, just under the line and Kat, you really, I think that the topic that you went over today, I mean everybody was taking notes. It was just a very captivating, very practical, you’ve obviously been doing this a long time. Give us your background and how you were able to be so awesome.
Kat: You know, I think like all of us, I try to draw on my personal experiences and lessons and be on a journey of continuous improvement. And that is a super high level summary. You know, I grew up in a really tough environment, a child of an alcoholic single parent, started working in restaurants to pay my way through college, first person in my family to get into college and just experienced a really unique career trajectory as a result. Being very scrappy, not a lot of resources or pedigree or legacy relationships and ended up actually dropping out of college because I was traveling so much around the world, opening franchises that I was failing. And then I took a corporate job at 20 and was vice president of a company doing $800 million in revenue by 26 and then president of Cinnabon by 31. The path has been very different than what most people would think a business or career trajectory looks like and I love that. I love it because I think it’s the way of the world. I love it because it’s authentic to me, and I love it because it gives me a form to draw on very personal experiences, as well as incredibly varied business situations that allow me to translate lessons to other people who are dealing with very similar things in business. Whether it’s talent or driving sales or deploying resources or acquisitions, you know, whatever it is. I’ve been through a lot, and I love sharing those lessons.
Lucas: One of the topics that you went over today, you said that the answers to the problems in your business are in the building. Tell us what you meant by that.
Kat: Yeah, you know just over time I’ve learned that when I look too far outside for the answers, it’s expensive, it takes time and it’s only sometimes right. I think I learned that because I was an hourly employee, and I remember knowing what could make the business better. And I remember knowing the things that were broken that should be fixed. And I remember the manager’s that paid attention and asked us, and I remember the manager’s that didn’t. And it was that service hospitality restaurant experience that really taught me that there are a lot of people who always know some piece of what could make the business better. They might not know everything and they certainly don’t have the authority to make the change, but certainly they know a piece and if I could just capture that somehow, if I could crowdsource real time, I would be more informed and I could make smarter bats with limited resources. And I’ve been rewarded every time I’ve looked within for the answers, but I have to be honest and authentic about looking from within. Sending out a survey or popping in to see a shift is not going to give me the answers. I’ve learned I have to live the life of my employees, I have to live the life of my customer, meaningfully for enough time where I can see the truth and then I end up with a list of things that it would take a long time for a survey to tell me, you know from the outside.
Josh: So Kat, we obviously don’t have time on this podcast to go through all the in-depth details that you shared with the audience here. Many of our audience couldn’t make it today or had to skip out of town early because of the storms that are coming in but help us identify, what are some of the key takeaways for our audiences? It’s a pretty diverse group in senior housing. From what you shared today, that if you just had only a few minutes and you could give them some nuggets of your wisdom, what would you tell them?
Kat: One of the things we talked about which was informed by my discussion with the Argentum team was this industry is facing a very similar challenge to what my industry is, which is attracting and retaining talent. And although my talk was about building resilient brands and businesses, certainly, you can’t do that without talent. You can’t do that without good people. I shared a few examples of how a dollar spent and improving your existing business for your existing employees can actually encourage your existing employees to recruit talent to come in. That is a better investment than a dollar spent on a recruiting ad because that person is going to respond to that recruiting ad, come in and see the business you haven’t invested in. So I ended up talking which is unique, I don’t always talk about that but it made sense for this group to talk about how much the experience in a facility actually determines the success of that business and their ability to recruit and retain talent. And sometimes the best way to improve employee morale is not to hold a meeting or have a pizza party but it’s to fix the piece of equipment that’s broken. To have a regular muscle for checking in and listening to employees. Someone in the audience asked a fantastic question, which is well people always ask for things, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for me to do. How do I know which ones and how do I make sure they don’t get frustrated because they do speak their mind and then I don’t react? And you do have to manage expectations, that I can’t respond to everything but I’m looking for patterns. I’m looking for the things that affect most people and that’s what I’ll go after first. So that was one big topic that we spent time on today that I typically don’t cover in my YouTube talks or other forums.
The next was just the power of building a brand in that the brand itself is not the banner ad or the billboard or the sign outside, those are pieces, but it is the experience that your guests and your customers have every day. Again, spending a dollar on marketing is not going to convince someone to go tell their family member that they should place a loved one with you. Having a good experience with that family member is going to make them rabid recommenders. We talked about other things but I think those were two big buckets.
Josh: Those were, those were huge points and I wish our listeners would have had an opportunity to be here. But something else that kind of struck me, it kind of tied in Lucas, with a couple of our other podcasts from the show, people making the same point, but you talked a little bit there at the closing about the, I don’t know how to refer to it, but life at home balanced with life at work and the kind of direct correlation of that. We’ve talked with some people that say “work-life balance” or “work life harmony” or “life harmony” and all these different terms, but kind of, I have a feeling just getting to know you a little bit here, you’ve probably got some pretty strong instruction on that. So what can you tell our audience about that?
Kat: Yeah, the first thing I would say is just don’t be too hard on yourself. We’re all human. We’re only one being, sometimes I’m a better mom or wife then I am a leader at work. And sometimes I’m much more engaged and would be evaluated as a better leader at work than that week I would be evaluated by my husband or son. A lot of that has to do with the amount of time that I can spend. So I’ve learned not to be too hard on myself. That being said, I don’t want to be so easy on myself that I’m lazy, that I don’t value my personal relationships, that I don’t put the effort in that my family or my team deserve. And so I try to be kind of in the middle of those two things, not on either extreme. I don’t want to be so easy on myself that I’m like, I don’t need to make an effort. I don’t wanna be so hard on myself that I’m like I’m a horrible person, and I’m a terrible wife. Neither of those are really productive.
So I try to have a regular practice of checking in, so I know my values, and values do evolve for people over time. So give yourself permission for your values to evolve, certainly my values around family looked different before I had kids. It’s not that family wasn’t important, but I can stay in touch with my sisters and my mom on Facebook and text. I didn’t need to make the time a priority and now with a 19-month-old and another on the way, that’s very different for me and it certainly affects the ranking of how I spend my time. So for me at work, it means if I can be doing calls on my way home at 4 or at 5 instead of in the middle of the day at 2. That’s how I do my schedule. I just become resourceful so that where I spend my time reflects my values and my husband and I check in every month on a regular basis. What’s one thing I could do better to be a better partner for you? What’s been the best part of the last 30 days, what’s been the worst part of the last 30 days? I did, I’ve done a few posts, a medium post, some Instagram posts because everytime I share this practice with people they go home and apply it. Even if it seems scary or weird or awkward, they’re like it’s changed my relationship. Whether it’s a new relationship or a very seasoned one. It is game changing when you start treating a relationship like you do your business.
Josh: That’s fascinating.
Kat: In a positive way, I mean it is a game changer, where you’re like “wow!” Especially if you haven’t done it in the past, the feeling of being seen and loved and acknowledged and the things you might learn or the safe place to share something that’s on your mind. Cause of course checking in every month doesn’t keep you from dealing with things in the moment, or sharing something you’re happy about in the moment, but it’s a place to really say this is important when I reflect on the last 30 days, this is what’s important. It definitely makes you a powerful unit and couple.
Josh: Yeah, so and obviously in our business, I don’t know how different it is than yours, everybody has families, right? So how has that transparency or has that been…do you encourage leaders to be transparent with that, not only evaluating theirs, but being sensitive to the values of your team members?
Kat: Yeah, very much. I mean, at some point, again like the woman’s questions from the audience, you can’t respond to every single person’s need at every moment. It’s literally not possible, but having valuing people’s personal situation as a core tennant in a culture is incredibly important, especially in this business.
Kat: The one you guys are in.
Kat: That is, it is the product.
Kat: The care for the family and the experience is the product. Mine is, the care for the family and the experience in my world is the vehicle to serve the product. But the care for the family and the experience is literally the business you’re in.
Lucas: Well, Argentum has a big initiative of women in leadership and you hit on this during your talk. And you said, there’s a question that leaders have tripped over before, and it’s something to the tune of, “who am I to ask?” Unpack that for us.
Kat: Yeah, so when you are the “only” in the room, the only person of color, the only young person, the only person who didn’t grow up in the industry. Whatever it is, you are the diversity in the room, the diversity of thought or diversity of other types. It is natural when I’m the only. It’s very obvious that I’m the only. I walk in, I’m the only woman, I’m the youngest by thirty years. I dropped out of college, these people all have, you know, fancy degrees. I am so aware of the differences, almost to a fault, you know we put things in our heads that are more dominant than really what people are thinking. I just saw a quote, it was so, so powerful and I can’t remember who it came from. So I don’t want to plagiarize, so it came from somewhere. Which was, “people would worry less about what other people thought of them if they knew how seldom they did.”
Josh: Oh, wow.
Kat: Bam, right.
Josh: In the face.
Kat: So, one, know that if someone is unique in the room, they likely have a lot of self talk in their head about how they are so different, and that that might even alone keep them from speaking their mind or bringing their full selves. Not to mention, if they then are actually treated differently and made to feel excluded. Certainly being the only woman in the room or one of the few or one of the early ones, because of that dynamic, one of the common questions, which comes from a place of deep respect and humility, is who am I to question you? Who am I to question them? They’ve been here so long, they know what they’re doing, they’re so mature. They’ve been in this business for thirty years. Who am I to question them?
And I love that there’s something really beautiful that someone would ask that question because it demonstrates humility and not just, “I’m going to come in I’m the boss even though I’m the youngest and the woman” but there’s also something very dangerous about that question if it is not also answered. The answer is, “I am,” fill in the blank. I am the President. I am the director. I am the person that they’ve hired and if I don’t question them, no one well or maybe I have a unique perspective part of the benefit of diversity that they’re not seeing.
So that’s the dynamic that’s at play. And so as an individual if you’re the “only” or you’re the diverse one, you should know that and really watch out for quieting yourself because you’re so worried about being humble and respectful. If you’re in the group of the dominant group, you should be sensitive to the fact that someone might be holding back and specifically ask them what they think or what they would do if they were making the decision and those two things moving together can help make the most of a very, what is typically a very multi-generational workforce.
Josh: What a very relevant conversation, right Lucas. We could sit here all day, obviously, and ask you questions and dive into your discussion. I know you don’t have a lot of time. Lucas is going to share with our audience he might have a couple of closing remarks. I don’t want to cut you off but we’ll connect you to our audience.
Lucas: Absolutely, Kat you have literally millions of followers out there on social media and just to round out this discussion, it was actually something that I raised my hand and asked about. I’m seeing an emerging movement between the C- suites actually starting to leverage social media with their own voice, not someone else’s voice, which is what it was done years ago. They had somebody else doing it for them. Maybe they have some help, but I think people can tell that there’s an authentic voice and you’re definitely one of them as a LinkedIn influencer. Talk to us about how leadership teams can leverage that to drive culture.
Kat: Yeah, I think you hit on a very important point, which is if a leader is going to put themselves out on any social media platform as a thought leader, it needs to be authentic. It’s super obvious if it’s not, and especially younger audiences have a majorly accurate BS meter. So it’s got to come from a place that’s either genuine to them, or super authentic to the company they lead, where they have demonstrated in believable expertise. So that’s one.
Second is because it is a professional platform, it’s actually a place where many professionals are starting to feel safer to engage. As I’ve shared, doesn’t mean there isn’t the occasional creepo on there, but truly it’s a professional form and platform. It’s funny when you say people used to have people do it for them, some avoided it all together, because I was so young as a President, I was an early adopter; I was out there as Kat Cole, not the president of something, sharing my thoughts on business and talent and leadership and innovation. And that was so unusual where the lawyers were like, I don’t know if you should be doing that because that’s officially the perspective of the company. I’m like I get it people are going to think that, but that’s not the way the world works online and it’s changed now. You know more people are more comfortable. There’s more precedence, there are these professional forms like LinkedIn and influencer and mentor forums. So, be a thought leader, be a thought leader in one or two things where you have unique credibility, certainly recognize that not only does that help attract talent because people view you as a thought leader, but it actually might help bring business to your business. I mean, I’ve talked about leadership a lot on LinkedIn with my platform, but certainly there are people who read that and sometimes go in an airport or like I just read that I’m going to have an Auntie Anne’s pretzel. That’s not why I do it.
Lucas: That’ll be me later today.
Kat: That’s not why I do it, but it is absolutely, you know I’m giving, I’m giving of my expertise. I’m giving of my time. I’m giving of my experience in a way that says, if it helps you I want to share because I’ve clearly made the mistakes or learn the lesson and this is a platform for me to do that and I’m spending my time doing that. Not with my family or not with my team, to share thinking with the world and that’s a choice, but it has been on the whole incredibly beneficial.
Lucas: Incredible. This has just been a pleasure, with both of you leaders to sit here. It has been a great day and exciting time to celebrate what is taking place in the senior living industry. Kat, we are so grateful that you’ve given your time and your talents to our industry that we love so much. It’s hard work. It’s a complicated business and you’ve got a great mind and a great heart behind it. It’s just been a lot of fun. So we’ll connect to Kat in our show notes. All you would have to do is a simple Google search and you will see her Wikipedia page along with her Instagram and social media and Linkedin and all these other things. Kat, thank you so much and safe travels today.
Kat: My pleasure, thanks.
Josh: Thanks, Kat.
Kat: Yeah, thank you.
Lucas: And thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.