The Biggest Mistake I Made At Work: Kat Cole


*In which we ask successful women about their most upsetting workplace disasters. Today, we’re talking to Kat Cole, a group president at Focus Brands. She was formerly president of Cinnabon — a position she attained at just 32. Cole has been working since she was a teenager to help support her single mom and two younger sisters. Before her time at Focus, she worked her way up the corporate ladder at Hooters without a college degree (though Cole managed to get an MBA without it — a rarity).*

The biggest mistake was without question the worst time in my career. It was when I took over at Cinnabon. There was an existing initiative in place — a new product launch — and that initiative already had momentum. I was new. For me in the workplace, two qualities that are important to have are humility but also courage. If you over-index one or the other, you get in trouble. But because I was so new and a first-time president, I thought, These people have been here so much longer than I have. They know what they’re doing. I had this classic moment where I said to myself, “Who am I to question them?” ​

If a young person with a lot of responsibility in the workplace is reading this, they’ll get what I’m saying. You deserve to be there, but they’re twice your age. They’ve been working as long as you’ve been on the planet. So you over-index on humility. You say: “Who am I to question? I’m sure it’s fine.” But you should really be saying, “Who am I? I’m the effing president, and I should be questioning it!”

So evolved in a way I wasn’t aligned with, and it really hurt my credibility to my franchisees because it played out in a way I hadn’t communicated. I had to say to the franchisees, “It’s my fault; this isn’t the way we do business.” The reality is I didn’t stay close enough to the launch and own my role or authority. ​

The good news is my company stood behind me. And I got my credibility back through my actions: owning the mistake first, moving through it very quickly, and being very transparent about what I could have done differently and acting accordingly. Ultimately, it helped me build those franchisee relationships because they saw how I handled the situation. It created more trust.

*—As told to Jessica Grose* ​