3 Questions From Kat Cole To Make Your Bank Better


For her sheer authenticity and clarity in thinking, Kat Cole remains one of our favorite corporate leaders in America. We met her at the ICBA a couple of years ago and just saw her last week at the ABA Marketing Conference. She did not disappoint. She gave us three questions to ponder as well as a methodology for a roadmap of things you need to fix at the Bank. The lessons were particularly germane to strategic planning and can serve to boost your bank’s performance immediately.


Her Story


For those of you that don’t know her backstory, its chocked full of grit. She worked as a Hooters waitress in high school to help her single mom of three pay the bills. Kat was the first in her family to go to college here at the University of North Florida, but when Hooters asked her to go to Australia, she dropped out of school, much to her mother’s dismay. To Kat, in addition to a job opportunity, it was not only a chance to see another country for the first time in her life but the first time to fly.


While others on the Australia team partied, Kat focused on finding the right people to work at the restaurant. Seeing her hard work, Corporate asked her to come aboard to help them open other locations worldwide. While it meant a pay cut from waitressing, she jumped at the chance. No surprise, that her passion, leadership, and intelligence got her promoted quickly to EVP by the age of 26.


Kat Cole


Waking up one morning, she figured she needed an MBA to be taken seriously but didn’t want to go back to school to finish her bachelor's. Getting creative, she sought and received, recommendations from 10 CEOs to include Ted Turner of CNN. She completed her MBA at Georgia State and then got hired on as President at Cinnabon that was headed for bankruptcy in 2010 at a depth of the recession.


On top of a racked economy, declining mall/airport traffic, in the middle of the Atkins, low-carb craze and with more than half of her franchisees going bankrupt themselves, she faced an insurmountable task of turning the Company around.

How did she do it? She used three questions and one clipboard.


Question 1: When do we say “No”?


Kat started by asking about all the times Cinnabon had to say “no” or “sorry” to a customer. She wanted to know what customers were asking for that they didn’t have? While she received lots of answers, one rose to the top that customers wanted smaller portion sizes instead of a cinnamon roll the size of your head.


Question 2: What do we throw away?


What do we spend on that is not being valued? It turned out that the Company had packaging, processes, rules, and rituals that made very little difference. The answers helped Kat streamline operations not only cutting cost but delivering better customer experience.


Question 3: If you were me, what is the one thing you would do to improve performance?


What Kat learned is many of the employees knew exactly what to do; they just didn’t know the right channel to raise the idea or didn’t bother to tell anyone because no one ever asked. As a result, she put many of the suggestions in motion including lowering calorie counts, shifting to all-natural ingredients, changing the packaging and doing more social media marketing.


The Clip Board


In addition to the three questions, she had each manager place a “MMDD” clipboard in every location. All that she asked was that one an employee found something that “Made My Day Difficult” that they write it down.


Kat Cole 


The Process


From the questions and the list, Kat developed a long list of ideas to work on. From there, she applied two filters:


What will our competition do if we don’t?


Kat wanted to put a minimum threshold and use this question to prioritize the immediate initiatives. She asked her team, what do we need to do now that if we don’t, our competition will come up with shortly and render the idea worthless.


Just because we can do this, does this make sense?


While Kat had many good ideas, she wanted an upper bound in order to limit the initiatives and to help her prioritize. She then applied some rigor and analyzed of all the ideas, which ones were too costly, contained too much risk, or were going to take too long to render a suitable return.


Along with cleaning up operations and better marketing, Kat pushed into partnerships with Taco Bell, Burger King, International Delight creamer and others. She ended up turning Cinnabon into a $1B revenue brand using 100% of ideas generated from her methodology. “If you listen to the customer and to the employee, they will tell you where you need to go, ” Kat remarked.


Kat is now the President and COO of Focus Brands of North America, the private equity firm that not only owns Cinnabon but Carvel ice cream, Schlotzkey’s sandwich shop, Jamba Juice, Auntie Anne’s pretzel company, and Moe’s Southwest Grill.


The “Hot Shot” Rule


Her final tip for bankers – use her “Hot Shot Rule” to drive action and create a sense of urgency. In fact, Kat tries to employ the Hot Shot Rule once per week and it helps her keep the forward momentum going. She told bankers to imagine a new hotshot executive coming to take over your job. This executive has all the best qualities available in a leader – “ a Potato Head of badass-ery,” is how she described it. What would the first thing this person would do if they were tied into politics, worried about ruffling feathers, or anchored to tradition? Once you answer the question – just do it.


Kat is an amazing individual and an inspiration to bankers looking to implement new ideas and promote change in their organization. Use the above techniques, and it will move you quickly closer to becoming that true Potato Head of badass-ery.