Insights from category creators and the investors who believe in them.

Unscripted with Kat Cole: Upleveling Your Leadership Style

August 5, 2022
By Jeff Richards

Building a high-growth technology company is really, really hard. Scaling yourself as a leader—whether you’re the CEO, a CXO, VP, etc.—is just as hard. Doing so in today’s market, which is one of the craziest we’ve seen in awhile, is even harder. 

I reached out to Kat Cole, who is the president of Athletic Greens, the former COO of Focus Brands (a multibillion-dollar restaurant entity that owns Cinnabon, Jamba, Annie’s, and many other great brands), and a generally great advisor and thought leader on leadership, teams, and personal growth. 

  • At 19, Kat was opening Hooters franchises around the world (and dropped out of college a year later). 
  • By 26, Kat was one of the company’s vice presidents. 
  • Fourteen years later, she was recruited to become president of Cinnabon during the heart of the Great Financial Crisis.
  • She ended up as the president and COO of Cinnabon’s parent company, Focus Brands, with nine presidents reporting to her. 

In reflecting on her own ability to scale as a leader, Kat says her ascent at Focus Brands required “a lot of leadership, a lot of change, a lot of challenges.” Today, Kat is the president, chief operating officer, and a board member at Athletic Greens, the high-growth brand bringing comprehensive and convenient nutrition to the world. She is also an angel investor in more than 70 early-stage companies, and I’m lucky to work with her as a fellow board member at Slice, a GGV portfolio company empowering 10,000-plus local pizza merchants to modernize their businesses.

It’s worth watching our 30-minute “Unscripted” video chat:


Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

Ask these 3 questions to keep learning

Kat: “If I look back on the moments of leveling up and transformation, they were the moments where I've learned to bucket these characteristics into four groups of behaviors or personality traits: Humility, curiosity, courage, and confidence.

In order to bring those traits forward, to build them and then to have command over them, I just had to learn to be insanely self-aware … and learn a methodology and a frequency to reflect, to ask questions, [and] find questions that scale. 

So I have a short list of questions that I ask every single stakeholder I talk to in every company I've ever run [and] founders who I advise and support:

  • What's one thing we should stop doing? 
  • What's one thing we should start doing?
  • What's one thing you would do differently if you were me?”

Create a culture that helps identify problems

Kat: “[At Hooters,] I used this MMDD log: Made My Day Difficult. It was literally a clipboard in the restaurant. Before they left, they had to write what made their day difficult—one thing. 

And then it was my job to look for patterns, right? The No. 1 and No. 2 most mentioned thing, and fix it. And if I couldn't fix it, have a conversation: ‘What are we doing about it? Why is it not fixable? Or why do I disagree that it should be fixed?’ 

[This MDD log] can be a Slack channel or a clipboard. If you're in a physical business, it can be an email list. The point is to ask the people doing the work to look for patterns, create a culture where people know it is safe and desired to speak the truth, organize it, share it, act on it, and keep doing that as a culture… [Over time as a leader,] there is something I can do to literally make that never show up on the list again.” 

Look for opportunities to innovate

Kat: “[With Cinnabon,] I had a lot to protect and a lot to transform at one time. And I was fortunate to be able to do that in a recession because it's hard for people to argue that whatever you're doing is not working. People are pretty desperate for innovation and change. And so I was unfairly advantaged to implement a lot of risks and a lot of change that ended up paying off.” 

Avoid “cocoon”-style communication

Kat: “Remember that everybody is human. Every initiative and headline around mental health—and giving people the space to question and to express—cannot be overstated. You have to create that environment.  

This idea of the tough things—the hairy conversations … Once a month in that 90-minute session with leaders of leaders, give broader updates to ensure cross-functional communication.

  • Cover the macro environment: How does it affect us specifically? How might it affect you?
  • Leave lots of time for the questions: Have the space for people to just pause and ask.

If you “cocoon,” remember: In the absence of alternative information, people come to their own conclusions … A lot of leaders say, ‘Well, I don't know the answer. I don't know what to tell them.’ So I stand up in front of a group and say, ‘This is a question I have right now. This is a question we're asking. This is something we're wrestling with. We'd love to know your questions. I want you to know it's on our mind, and we're going to come back and have deeper discussions about what it means for us.’

Sometimes that's all you can say, but at least you're not hiding something.” 

Check out more episodes of “Unscripted with @jrichlive"