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Leading in a Challenging Market with Kat Cole

January 23, 2023

"Failure isn't going through a tough time, and failure isn't layoffs. It's failing to make the most of the moment. There is opportunity in the moment.” —Kat Cole

When it comes to leading in a challenging market, Kat Cole has navigated a few global crises from the C-suite over the course of a career that has spanned 20-plus years. 

As president of Cinnabon during the Great Financial Crisis, for example, she was responsible for overhauling the iconic mall-based brand. About a decade later during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, she experienced the demand shock of running restaurant businesses as president and COO of Cinnabon’s $5 billion parent company, Focus Brands. 

“I felt the weight—the weight of the hourly employees, the weight of customers who were, once we got back open but barely, literally fighting over masks,” Kat recalls. 

Now as the president, chief operating officer, and board member at Athletic Greens (and as an angel investor in 70-plus early-stage companies and as a fellow board member at Slice, a GGV portfolio company), Kat speaks openly about the importance of “leading with a heavy heart.” 

In our heartfelt conversation with CEOs and executives at GGV portfolio companies, Kat reminds us all that “you are human, you’re feeling it, and [as a senior leader], you're probably feeling it in heavier ways than most, if not all.”

For founders, CEOs, and other leaders who are facing headwinds and grappling with tough decisions, here are some of Kat’s tactical tips for leading in a downturn:

“Know thyself; know thy audience”

To create an environment that consistently encourages and motivates a team, Kat follows two rules: “Know thyself; know thy audience.” In practice, this looks like:

  • Understanding your own tendencies: How are you coming across? Kat makes sure that she’s “being the best version of myself, especially if I’m feeling extra stressors.”
  • Meeting your team where they are: If 70% of your team has never been in a management role during tough times, Kat says it’s possible for your communication style to come across as tone-deaf. Take the time to find out if any of your teammates have previously gone through a correction, and consider drawing on their relevant experiences. 

Manage your own well-being 

As part of steering a ship through stormy waters, Kat shares how she embraces her humanity and looks after her own mental and physical well-being.

Feel the feelings: “If I’m in a meeting and feeling uncertain, I might say: ‘I have my own sets of questions and uncertainties.’ I’m naming that it’s not perfect … We need to be able to hold two things in our mind at once: Uncertainty and decisions.”  

Let out the emotion: Whether it’s relying on a therapist, partner, quiet time, or walking, Kat believes “in going deep so I can come out sooner.” Especially in times of grief, loss, and stress, Kat uses a set of questions to decide: “Do I ask for help? Do I delay the meeting? Do I ask someone else to step in? Do I share with someone that things aren't OK and I need a minute?” 

Kat’s 3 questions when dealing with challenges

  1. “Am I physically OK?” If the answer is “No,” the meeting is off. Ask for help. If the answer is “Yes,” go to the next question.
  2. “Am I emotionally OK?” If the answer is “No, but I will be” or “Yes,” go to the next question.
  3. “How will I show up?” Be honest: Can I interact in a way that’s net positive? Can I be present?

Otherwise you may need to temporarily take yourself out of the game until you can be net positive, Kat says.

Rethink your leadership style in a hybrid world

Rallying people can also trickle down to how you lead even before a crisis hits. Athletic Greens is a fully global, fully remote company with an executive team spread across Europe, China, Australia, Central America, and South America. To make the most of the four cross-functional hours, Kat has some fundamental strategies for increasing efficiency and engagement:

  • Pick a time zone as a grounding mechanism: For Kat’s team, all employees understand that they can “live where you want. Work is where your laptop is, [but] we operate off the Central time zone.”
  • Unplug, and respect established rules for communication: “If you wouldn't walk into the office at 9 p.m., don't open Slack at 9 p.m. Slack is our office hours. WhatsApp is for emergencies or optional ideation chat."
  • Align on in-person meetings: To help solve for the challenges of working virtually and across time zones (which Kat calls the “remote tax”), the Athletic Greens executive team gathers once a month for in-person meetings over three to four days. 
  • Reevaluate your onboarding: Onboarding for remote teams must be best in class; yet, if you’re noticing a decline in employee engagement and feedback after 90 days, consider implementing additional check-ins. 
  • Document processes: Rather than needing to start over with every new hire, make it a point to capture and archive critical information for future hires.

Help your team appreciate speed

“Time is not your friend—ever,” Kat says. That may include pausing to paint a picture for your team of what can happen if you don’t move faster. 

Consider acknowledging things like: “We’re in a season of tough decisions. We may need to make tough decisions in less time or with less information than we’re used to.”

Another phrase that Kat uses—“I would be failing you (and this business) if I did not do X”—instantly redefines that failure isn't something uncomfortable but “a deep reminder of a greater obligation and my responsibility to make decisions.”

Remember: “If you're in a situation where people are nervous, what they do not want or need is blind positivity,” Kat says. “They need someone to show them what is possible … Don't forget to find moments of joy and gratitude in a way that celebrates the little moves that the business is making.”

As we all cope with unprecedented challenges and wade into uncharted waters, founders, CEOs, and executives benefit from hearing from experienced leaders like Kat who have weathered multiple cycles—and have come out even stronger on the other side.