Kat Cole has moved up the corporate ladder at an exceptional rate. At age 17, she began her career as a Hooters hostess to save for college, and by 19 was asked by the company to trot the globe and help open foreign markets. Four years later, she was in charge of global training and helped lead Hooters' growth from 100 to more than 400 locations internationally. At the age of 32, she became the president of the Cinnabon franchise and led its growth to a billion-dollar brand. Now, as group president of Focus Brands, she is rapidly growing not only Cinnabon but also Auntie Anne's, Moe's, Carvel, and three other brands through global retail channels.

Cole's path to success has been no accident. If you saw her on Undercover Boss, you know she is fun, charming, and extremely approachable. An active member of the Young Presidents' Organization, she is deft at managing not only employees but also the delicate relationships with strategic partners, and the entrepreneurs who run individual franchises. This combined with being an investor and adviser to startups has taught Cole that the key to building great working relationships is extraordinary communication. Here she shares the 12 communication habits that allow her to maintain her meteoric and influential rise.

1. "Focus on trust first, then results."

So many executives are results driven at the expense of their customer and employee relationships. Cole insists the approach should be the other way around. "Having many different teams in many different countries taught me to build trust fast. That starts by giving, and demonstrating that you are there for them, not for you. Something as simple as bringing coffee, tea, or treats demonstrates you've thought of them first. Or asking a question about how they got there, their biggest challenge, or greatest success not only gives you insight into the person with whom you are communicating, it begins to build a relationship: the foundation of most effective and open communication."

2. "Go to the frontlines!"

Cole insists that too many executives stay in the ivory tower and become unintentionally insolated from their employees, customers, and operations. She is adamant. "Find the action and follow it! Few actions give you as great of a return on effort as spending time where the transaction happens," Cole explains. "Whether that is at the call center, in the store, or on the road, the emotional and environmental drivers for successful business are felt most directly during the customer experience around the sale. If you only look at aggregated research or listen to the feedback of those closest to you, that reality moves farther away from the real world today."

3. "Have repetition on every level."

When working with many companies, employees, and even countries, it's important to communicate efficiently to keep the information consistent. Cole says, "Ask the same questions, to every level and every stakeholder, in a compressed amount of time. This will help patterns, issues, and opportunities emerge quickly." Once you're able to identify the issues, you can use the time you saved to problem solve and follow leads.

4. "Say why."

Often executives maintain a sense of intimidation by barking orders or suddenly changing process and simply expecting everyone to just willingly execute. Cole takes a different approach: "If I come in and ask an employee, 'What time did you get in today?' I could send many different messages. Instead I would say, 'I’m working on making sure the schedule is meeting the needs of the business. Can you tell me what time you typically come in, and if that gives you enough time to set up?' It removes most opportunity for negative misinterpretation and allows the energy to stay positively focused on work and the topic at hand."

5. "Assume positive intent."

A cynical outlook can be detrimental for executives wanting optimal productivity. Cole insists on assuming the best but being prepared for reality. "Of course, I know there's a chance intentions aren't always positive, and on more than one occasion I've had to share, 'Don't confuse my kindness for stupidity or naiveté.' But when you view people, a situation, and the world for what they can become, individuals tend to rise up toward the expectation."

6. "Trust your Spidey senses."

Cole understands that many people won't naturally open up with issues, especially with senior management. She is hyper-aware and always looking to make difficult communication easier. She explains, "When I see a confused, pensive, or frustrated look, I ask questions like these:

1. I would love to know your thoughts.

2. I can tell something's on your mind. I value your thinking--what's up?

3. It doesn't look like you're loving this idea. What are you thinking?

It's better to call it out and get past it than let someone's questions or lack of alignment become a distraction."

7. "Speak the truth."

Many executives struggle to give straightforward criticism, particularly to valuable employees. Cole defends the need for real feedback to achieve the best performance. "People so rarely get honest, in-the-moment feedback. Then when they do, they totally break down, defend, rebel, or often they thank you profusely. I have noticed that by having a reputation of giving feedback--real time, heart-centered, in-honor-of-the-person and for-the-good-of-results--everything else I communicate falls on more open ears, willing hearts, and committed minds, and that is a big ingredient in the recipe for turning communication into commitment and then into action.”

8. "Realize that you're never as clear as you think."

Many executives communicate one way without consideration for retention or understanding. Then they express frustration when the message wasn't received. Cole suggests a different approach. "Ask a question and you convey a point at least three different ways or to three different layers of stakeholders. Example: I say, 'We are canceling the meeting.' Three different people hear the following different versions:

a) The meeting is canceled.

b) There must be something exciting going on.

c) Did I do something wrong or am I getting fired?

But if I share to an assistant, a manager, and an executive, 'We’ll be canceling the upcoming meeting. Any questions?' I’ll learn right away if there are common or core reactions, and I can inform my communication to be more thoughtful and effective."

9. "Ask for help."

Cole explains the value of engagement for gaining consensus and cooperation. "Several years ago, I took over a franchise operations business. Many people warned me, 'They won't listen. They don't get it.' Instead of adopting that negative point of view, I approached a combination of the more sophisticated and also more entry-level franchisees and operators, and told them I needed help. I was very clear in these discussions that I was asking for their input, which was a 'voice' in the discussion and not a 'vote.' While they didn't all love that point, they appreciated the clarity. I benefited, because I now had the collective thinking of the community. They benefited by being a part of the thinking and process. We all benefited by creating a culture of inclusion and participative decision making.”

10. "Stay graceful."

Cole has a simple way of dealing with uncomfortable communication. She explains, "I've observed the occasion where someone in the audience disagrees, is controversial, or simply asks a question with some 'energy' around it. There is a fork in the road as a speaker or communicator in these moments. You can respond with grace … or not. Berating the questioner, becoming flustered, or getting defensive are all acts that literally transfer the respect, energy, and authority to the audience from the leader. Responding with grace and assuming positive intent not only keeps the momentum going, it reinforces that you as the leader have your act together."

11. Crush the wall

Cole relates a great story of purposefully breaking barriers. "I remember being in a meeting with a new team when I became president of Cinnabon. Here I am, former Hooters executive, young chickadee, coming in to lead a new team. There was still a ton of unknown. I kept noticing this really distanced body language from one executive. I didn't know if he was cold, mad, hungry, or late for another meeting. Let's just say he appeared less than enthused. In fact, it was distracting to me, and I noticed a few others in the meeting occasionally glancing over. His energy was becoming a wall.

I could have stayed the course with the agenda and just let it go like many execs, but communication is about getting through and connecting, not about just getting stuff out. So I called a quick break, took him aside, and just directly said, 'You look like you are freezing, have to pee, or have somewhere else to be, but I could be reading that wrong. What's up?'

He said, 'I heard you weren't happy with how I led the last meeting you sat in, and if I'm not appreciated, I don't know why I'm in this meeting.'

I thought, WTF? I had no idea where that had come from and only had a few minutes to deal with it, so I quickly addressed the issue, clarified my point of view, thanked him for his candor, and asked for his support with the topics I had coming up. He was very influential with the group, and his support and engagement allowed us to accelerate the initiatives we discussed with the team. If I had not paused to call him out and deal with his issue, the whole meeting would have been far less effective."

12. "Show some love."

Ultimately, Cole succeeds because she truly cares about people and openly shares from her heart. She insists it's simple to make people feel valued. "Say 'I like that' or 'Tell me more about that' or 'Great idea' when you hear good stuff. I recommend giving high-fives, hugs, positive notes; whatever is appropriate for your environment. Humans are social animals and respond to love. Few things increase inputs and communication more than people realizing that what they share matters."

Each week Kevin explores exclusive stories inside the Young Presidents' Organization, the world's premiere peer-to-peer organization for chief executives, eligible at age 45 or younger.

Published on: Sep 25, 2015
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