Monday, May 27, 2013

Lessons from Unexpected Places

Lessons from Unexpected Places

Kat Cole

President, Cinnabon, Inc. at Focus Brands

Coworkers, students, peers, media and friends often ask me, "What advice do you have to help others be successful?" My response is, "success is something that you have to define for yourself, and it is almost completely up to you whether or not you achieve it."

I went from growing up in a divorced family & single parent household, being in high school, working at Hooters, going to college, traveling globally for work, dropping out of college, getting promoted to the corporate world all by the age of 20. I remember becoming a serial volunteer, painting, traveling, living and loving life to the fullest, being in and out of relationships, seeing my sisters grow up, becoming a speaker, taking big professional risks, and becoming a Vice President of a large, multi-national company by the age of 26. I recall moving up in the for-profit corporate world, leading non-profit groups, getting into a serious relationship, traveling internationally, getting involved in global humanitarian work, spending time in Rwanda, getting my MBA, changing jobs to become President of Cinnabon at 33, and most recently working with friends to help villages elevate themselves out of poverty in Ethiopia.

There are so many lessons applicable to my personal life and business from that journey so far, and I'm still learning...every minute. Those lessons have helped me realize that my definition of success is about helping people, communities, brands, businesses and even countries realize they are capable of more than they know, so they can make a positive difference in their world. Success for me is also about expressing gratitude and making people proud, especially the many who have given me chances, coaching and opportunities along the way. The definition of success is incredibly personal and should be set by you.

Looking back, I realize that some of my most powerful influences and inspirations on this topic as well as leadership, living a fulfilled life, and building a strong business came from the most unexpected places in life – from villages in Africa, from little sayings my mom had, from listening to others' successes and mistakes and definitely from making my own.

Pay attention as you go through life; the most powerful lessons to help you and your company succeed are around you every day. Here are a few that have helped me, and I hope they can help you make the most of opportunities as you move through business and life.

If Not Me, Who? If Not Now, When? Ask yourself this; it helps you step up and speak up when you need to. This has guided me through business and personal life – just as it did my mom.

You Define You. Never forget where you came from as a person or as a company, but remember, you are not solely defined by your circumstances or your history. You can reinvent yourself many times over if needed. Nothing about my background would suggest I would have ended up where I did, and where our company is today is notably different that where we were headed just 3 years ago. Write your own narrative, or someone else (or the competition in business) will write it for you instead.

I am constantly inspired by so many stories out there of people and companies doing great things despite the odds not being in their favor. I believed my mom when she said, "you can do anything". Not only did I believe her, but I helped others believe it too. Bringing that mindset to a company, that we can achieve big things, has been a powerful tool that drives real results.

No Borders, No Boundaries. When I was 19, I was asked to go open the company's first restaurant in Australia. I had never been out of the state of Florida, had never been on a plane (or any other type of mass transit for that matter), and of course, I did not have a passport. But none of that stopped me. I said yes, and then figured it out. The only boundaries to your growth and experiences (or that of your company or brand) are those you mentally put up, or those you allow others to put upon you.

We use this mindset at our company, just because we haven't been in a certain channel or showed up to the market a certain way, is not reason enough to miss taking a chance on something new.

Be Curious. Have a Constant Pursuit of Education, and Have a Bias for Action. The most creative and accomplished people and companies I know have this in common. They are constantly learning at every opportunity; they know they don't know it all. They ask, "why, how, why not?" And, when they get the answers, they share what they learn and do something about it. Your mind and your organization's intellectual capital is something others can never take away – feed it.

Volunteer. Give. …for the job, for the community, for those in need. We all need a hand up some times, and giving of yourself and your company is one of the best ways to learn, grow, see new opportunities and make a difference. The reason I was asked to open that first international restaurant was because I raised my hand to help with jobs others didn't want. After about a year, I had worked every job in the building. Who knew that would make me the top candidate for international travel, which ultimately would change my life.

Companies can get built the same way; they raise their hands and give of their strengths to their communities and step up for unexpected opportunities. They end up having more meaningful connections with their consumers, building brand credibility and loyalty and creating new growth vehicles over time.

Life is most about relationships – if nothing else. It doesn't matter how smart you are, how much money you have, what a great school you went to or how long your business has been around; if you can't build meaningful relationships with peers, strangers, new customers and your communities and work well with others to influence them, your other attributes can only go so far.

Even the coolest inventions and biggest companies founded by one person only grow because of the team they pulled together, and you can only lead when others want to be on your team. Be kind, take pride in helping others, and keep your word - as a person and as a company.

Life is full of surprises (and karma), so try to be your best self as an individual and as a brand or company at every opportunity. I know I wouldn't be where I am without relationships with so many great people who have helped me along the way. 

There are many other lessons to share, but I'll save those for another post. So keep this final point in mind.

You have to live, love, work and build your business and brand like there is no tomorrow, because there are no guarantees in life. If you want to change something, say something or do something, do it. Don't wait for someone else to do it for you, allow someone else (or a competitor in the market) to do it instead of you, or simply miss the opportunity. The world needs awesome, ambitious, kind, curious, creative people and companies to step up and speak up to continue to make it a better place to live.

The great lessons from the most unexpected places all echo the same thing: You have the power to make all the difference the world needs.

Edited by: Lawyer Asad

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