Learning from Reflection
Powerful perspective from seeing life as chapters to review
Reflecting, finding insights and patterns from the past, and turning them into lessons for the future has become one of my most important muscles and most valued practices.
Whether it’s the holidays, time off, major life changes, or the end of the year, we reflect mostly (or only) when prompted. Having a proactive process to reflect in addition to those natural prompts has been foundational to my business success, leadership approach, intimate relationships, and personal growth. Otherwise, we tend to see things through the lens of the “How it started//How it’s going” meme, just a leap from where we were to where we are, leaving us ripe for painful repeats and missed opportunities.
I’m freakishly passionate about learning and equally about growth and progress. So much so, this is my mantra (and my pinned tweet if you want to revisit).
Don’t forget where you came from, but don’t you dare ever let it solely define you. Your truth is in your roots, but your past is not your anchor.
In order to honor this mantra and continue to grow from and beyond my past, I put a practice in place to be sure I regularly see the lessons in my own history. When paired with lessons from other sources, the learning is actionable and powerful.
I follow a weekly process to envision someone else in my shoes as part of seeking to improve a little each week. I’ve shared this entire process in a previous post The Hotshot Rule.
My husband and I also do a monthly check-in to reflect on the last 30 days and ask each other questions to help us be better for each other. I overview that process in this post Checking In.
When I hit a major milestone or a natural end to a period of time, I also reflect alone, and more deeply. Now that I’m wrapping up my 10-year chapter at Focus Brands, it’s the perfect opportunity for one of those reflection exercises.
In the hopes that you or someone you know may identify with a moment or lesson in these chapters or that the act of reading this may contribute to your own process, I’m sharing the process and my reflection highlights in a longer form than my usual posts. I hope it is worth a bit more invested time as you wrap up your year and prepare for the next steps in your journey.
First, I pause to think and see things through the frame of major milestones and what I was navigating or dealing with at the time. If it feels overly positive, I find something challenging happening at the same time, and if it was overly challenging, I find something positive. Both almost always exist if the time frame is broad enough.
Next, I think deeper about enablers, detractors, dynamics, emotions, and more. Without those things, we give ourselves too much credit for the good and too much blame for the bad.
Finally, I don’t over analyze, but rather take notes for later review as one piece. The review of these notes helps me keep things in perspective, have gratitude, and build a continued drive to grow.
Reflecting doesn’t take long, and generally, I spend far more time in the present and working toward the future, but it is a critical part of optimizing outcomes and growing as a person. If I had to guess how my mind-time is spent, although it varies based on what’s going on, it’s likely a 5/80/15 ratio past/present & near term/farther future. This is a peek into the 5% looking in the rearview mirror.
Each decade-long section of life seems to be a distinct book with clear sections to provide learning. The last 10 years I have been at Focus Brands is no different, an interesting edition with specific chapters and key lessons. I don’t want to miss learning from my own life, and not just the things I learn while living in real-time, but also the lessons revealed by reflecting. So it’s time to look back and learn.
10 years is a long time and certainly can’t be boiled down to a blog post with many nuances preserved, but the key moments shared here provide some insight and learning from this practice of looking back, making notes, and absorbing the education.
Many people talk about their career journeys, but not often enough do we hear what it was really like with challenges, emotions, and some of the personal events happening at the same time. I have learned to appreciate the whole journey and how personal and professional are sometimes at complete odds, while other times they are in harmony.
As many say, and as I have learned, things are rarely as good as they seem for as long as you think and rarely as bad as they seem or for as long as you think. In my reflection process, I consciously seek personal and professional moments and both highs and lows, and you’ll see that represented here. Sometimes reflecting on a section of our lives requires a quick reminder of what came before, to keep it in context, so I’ll run through that quickly in my mind first. For this reflection on my last 10 years, I quickly run through the highlights of what came before.
The prequel: 15-year career at Hooters, move to Atlanta, unexpected opportunities, and a close call
First chapter: while in high school, I started at 17 as a hostess (was my 3rd job by that time), 1st person in my family to get into college, by 18, became a waitress and started college. Also started filling other jobs in the restaurant (shift leader, cook, “promo girl”, bartender, new-hire trainer, etc.). At 19, I joined the international training team to open a new location in Sydney, Australia (had never been on a plane and did not have a passport when offered the opportunity). By 20 I had helped to launch the franchise on 3 additional continents and was failing college because I was traveling so much. So I dropped out of college, continuing to work in the restaurants and thinking I would keep opening stores. Soon after, I was offered a job in the corporate office to oversee employee training for the entire company. I moved to Atlanta from Jacksonville for that job at 20. That was 1 big chapter over those 3 years.
The next big chapter was 20-22, my first corporate chapter, living in a new city, very few friends, doing great at work (work was life). I became obsessed with fitness and developed an eating disorder. I would later learn this was driven by the rapid transition (and my sense of self) from immediate feedback loops of service industry dynamics to behind-the-scenes corporate work.
I was fortunate that my department head and another leader in the company noticed, pulled me aside, found help, and within weeks, I was out of the woods. It is very, very rare to catch it that early to be able to navigate adjusting my sense of self to a healthier place. These things can be deadly and more often than not are a struggle for a lifetime.
All the credit goes to these women, Kimi and Colleen. I was working with them so much that they had ample opportunity to notice, and they had more leadership courage than most people I’ve encountered since. This was a period of work and personal lives being WAY out of sync. I was crushing it at the office, but I lost my ‘confidence compass’ for about 6 months amidst such a stark transition to corporate life from being on the ground and in the field running and opening restaurants.
The next chapter was 23-26. This was my corporate foundation era. The company was growing, I was promoted every 18-24 months. I met new friends, had many great nights out, met someone with whom I would be in a 10-year relationship thereafter, and volunteered my personal time with industry associations and local non-profits. These multiple paths of responsibility accelerated building leadership muscles. While others were working one job, and going home to chill, I was working, then volunteering with shelters and food banks, and leading committees for restaurant associations and professional development groups. It was lonely at times, but far more often it was deeply fulfilling.
26-31 was the final chapter at Hooters, and the cementing of my “executive” experiences. I was now chair of the board of the organizations for which I had previously volunteered. I was a Vice President at the company with growing responsibility each year, in an organization with growth and complexity. The company navigated record growth of the base business and launches of multi-channel businesses.
Staying at Hooters was a conscious decision every year because no other company could provide the varied leadership roles and broad experiences of that vertically integrated, international business. I listened to a mentor who wanted to be sure I had all my options open to me, and I went back to school nights and weekends to get my MBA, without having a 4-year/Bachelor’s degree. I met a few amazing friends who became chosen family in this chapter as well. My humanitarian and mentoring work shifted from just local to working in Eastern Africa with frequent trips to Rwanda. I started to feel that life was really just starting.
This is the video I sent to our teams the week I left Hooters, just over 10 years ago.
It was a busy and uncertain time, and full of learning. The years that preceded my departure were packed with change and growth: the CEO died suddenly, his son took over, the company was forced to sell to private equity as a result of the estate court process, and it was my first foray into the world private equity. I was back and forth to Turkey and Rwanda each year, saying yes to every opportunity to go. I’m so grateful for every one of those wild experiences and all the people along the journey.
The lesson from this prequel: saying no to living a normal life at home allowed me to say yes to the experiences that ultimately opened the door to the next decade.
The Last 10 Years - my focus for this reflection exercise
For my Focus Brands era, I’m fortunate to have video, interviews, and articles from the high points of the journey. Even with that, I wish I had taken even more pictures. I hope you remember to highlight your journey now, even if just to look back and celebrate the beauty in every-day moments. Below is a mini section of my review of each chapter.
Chapter 1 - 2010. I joined as president of Cinnabon at the tail end of the recession. I was a first-time president, inheriting a business in decline, initiating turnaround, and driving growth ( so much to unpack there - another post). Changing companies felt right. After being at Hooters for 15 years, an executive there for 6, I was ready. I didn’t have all the answers for my new role, but I had confidence I would figure it out. I was also moving into a new house with my partner at the time, and that was both fun and insanely stressful. I immersed myself in the brand and business. I was on a few episodes of Undercover Boss (so fun)! The business started performing well.
We built a fantastic team, drove powerful results in the franchise business and alternative channels, and worked with amazing franchisees. It was a great business success, but also so much fun! https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/227970.
I also had one of my biggest business mistakes and failures as a leader at this time. We were launching new products and channels, moving faster than our team was set up to manage, and I learned the hard way just how much responsibility lies on the top leader in a company. It was both the worst moment in my career and one of the best at the same time providing massive learning. I over-indexed on humility, didn’t probe into things as I should have in my role as president, and that was a failure of leadership. I made up for it by handling the issue with integrity and heart and setting us up to be much stronger going forward, but it was painful.
Chapter 2 - Success at Cinnabon https://www.fastcompany.com/3028787/how-kat-cole-operates-cinnabon-like-a-tech-startup. The wins kept coming and we continued our multichannel, global growth. We launched big innovations (one of the first national chains with 3rd party delivery (7 years ago!), huge multi-channel partnerships (Burger King, Pillsbury, Green Mountain, and more + Cinnabon), and left my partner/relationship of almost 11 years. We started bringing the franchise business to new formats, and there were some pretty tense times figuring out the new models - different menus, build-out costs, pricing strategies, and more. Any time you are launching an innovation channel, those involved in the legacy channels have mixed feelings and should be deeply involved in the strategy, planning, rollout, and communications.
I was named to Fortune’s 40 under 40 list and began my love affair with New York City, commuting several times a month. I met one of my closest girlfriends in this chapter, and as a result, have met many other amazing friends. She would be the one who would invite me to the event where I met my husband. You never know the impact one person can have on you or that you can have on others. One of the many times I was reminded of the joy of meeting new, great humans.
A new CEO joined the parent company, and I was tapped to help lead the restructuring of the company to leverage our scale and set us up for more growth. I hired my first COO who would become my successor. Through the restructuring, I had no idea what would come next, I just enjoyed the process, leaned into doing the right thing for the company, and trusted whatever came next would be great. It was all a new chapter indeed!
Chapter 3 - New role as Group President at Focus Brands, growing licensing, CPG, and all alternative channels for all brands in the company. We built out unique capabilities, created a badass, wildly profitable business, and became more differentiated as an acquirer and brand builders as a result of this multi-channel brand-building machine. I spent more time connecting across industries, meeting amazing friends and mentors started to become more politically active, which invited fans and critics. I was comfortable with media reflecting on my story, sharing lessons, and filling the responsibility of inspiring others to embrace non-traditional backgrounds and make their own path.
I also met the love of my life, Daley (now husband) 4 days before this CNN interview was filmed - life is so BANANAS! We met at an event for socially-minded leaders, had a one-night stand (so we thought), and we proposed to each other within weeks. I was 37, and he was 29. 2 months later, in December of 2015, he left to row across the Atlantic Ocean (not a typo). I became a different version of myself as an executive. Not only the giddy phase of meeting my life partner but also for the first time ever, the idea of family and intimate relationships was clearly number one. I would have left my company in a heartbeat if it came to it.
We got closer through the row over the 45 days he was on the water from La Gomera, Spain to English Harbour, Antigua. After he landed safely, we tattooed our rings and shortly after got married at Burning Man.
An important reminder: while work and business often get the headline of these books and chapters of our lives, it’s the personal side that’s most important. We all experience loss and challenges, that is the great equalizer, but we also should create and enjoy all the moments that make life so beautiful.
Chapter 4 - All the previous roles led to my next move to COO and President of the parent company. What a leap moving from managing one business and one division to leading 8 businesses and 8 presidents! Some brands and businesses were in high growth mode, one needed turn around, and a few needed investment to move out of stagnation. https://www.cnbc.com/video/2018/05/25/kat-cole.html.
My husband was in the middle of transitioning from one venture-backed tech company to another, and we found out we were going to have a baby. We had a big scare with what is called a “threatened miscarriage”. At 11 weeks, I thought I had a miscarriage. It was heart-wrenching, only to go to the doctor and hear a heartbeat. Turns out it was a “phantom twin”. It could have been twins, but the second sac never turned into a healthy embryo, so my body was naturally processing that. I did, however, have 2 placentas and one healthy baby still there – our bodies are wild!
We consolidated our romantic NYC-ATL commuting life to one home-base city, Atlanta. We moved out of our lofts in New York and Atlanta and into a home to prepare for our life as parents. He was adjusting to a new city, new business, and getting ready to be a dad. I was hiring and developing new leaders, navigating the challenge-du-jour in the business, doing my best to take care of myself while being pregnant, and was promoted to President and COO just a few months before going out on maternity leave. So. much. change.
I became a first-time mom with our son, Ocean. Ultimately, I leveled up as a human and as a leader. I was tired, very, very tired, but at the same time, I felt powerful and fortunate. Physical recovery from having the baby had its challenges that would occasionally create worry and stress behind the scenes (I’m now a pseudo-pelvic floor aficionado as a result), but business was going incredibly well.
This was filmed not long after my son was born, and is a nice mini-reflection on life up to that point and prediction of what was to come. (Even capturing working-while-pumping, an art form I am glad I no longer have to do!)
Chapter 5 - This was a season all about investing in leadership - I was hiring, developing, and promoting leaders, both internally and externally alongside many changes in both organizational structure and company culture. I was doing more keynote speeches for amazing organizations than I ever had before, our leaders were learning and growing, and everything seemed pretty awesome.
In the middle of this chapter of life, my husband transitioned from leading as an executive in venture-backed startups to working with a venture firm in Atlanta. It was very cool watching him bring all his experiences together to start a new professional chapter in a new city. He also met an awesome group of friends at an endurance event, and he ended up working together with them to help some of them run their first-ever 100-mile Ultra-marathon. And in August of 2018, he ran his second Leadville 100, but this time along with 7 amazing friends. They became forever bonded from the training and that experience. I am inspired by each of them as individuals and their friendship to this day.
As we all know, life happens - and sometimes it’s beautiful and other times it’s just the opposite. We were excited about having another baby, but it didn’t happen as quickly as the first. In 2018, I had our 2nd miscarriage while I was traveling for work and a keynote speech. Knowing we wanted Ocean to have a sibling, and that life and age were progressing on, it was particularly sad.
Chapter 6 – I needed to make a few more leadership changes in the company, and I was generally proud of how we handled them but learned some important lessons in that process on timing, prioritizing, and making tough calls before it’s obvious to everyone what needs to be done.
At the same time, we found out we were pregnant with our second, and everything worked out this time. This pregnancy was a bit rougher than the first, but all things considered, very healthy. I was 8 months prego in this interview with Goldman discussing industry dynamics and predictions. We had our daughter, Arrow, a month after this was filmed.
Daley also went back to Leadville for a 3rd time to help a great friend run that ultra marathon. I was so proud of our friend and of Daley for being such a great supporter and training partner to him, and I remember hoping I did not go into labor while he was gone, ha!
By late 2019, I had two babies at home. My husband’s firm was growing and he was hitting his stride. I was back at work with a focus on onboarding our most recently hired brand presidents, one of our brands in turn-around mode, implementing new technology across the business, meeting changing consumer and industry demands, jumping into a new board of directors role, and an assumption that 2020 would be “up and to the right”.
I had a health scare that required an unexpected surgery just 4 months after Arrow was born. It was difficult for my husband and family, as he was busy with his work and literally taking care of the entire house and family. We had help, but that is still so much to handle. I was and am so grateful for him. I healed well, and all was looking up, so we kept with our holiday tradition of only small gifts for the kids and an end of year holiday vacation.
My husband and I took our family to Mexico for the holidays. We had friends come meet us, and it was a beautiful time of community and family. It was a lot to think about that trek with two babies under three, and I hesitated for a moment - had just healed from surgery, was just back from maternity leave, and planes, trains, and automobiles with two little humans was an overwhelming thought. But we did it, and I’m so glad we did. It was one of many reminders of one of our favorite family phrases, “Always go”. We were all ready for a great 2020. Or so I thought.
Chapter 7 - 2020. I could just leave it there, I suppose. 2020 says a lot and quite enough. But failing to reflect on the major points of this year would be missing some of the most profound moments of growth and learning. January and February started with a change. I was planning on wrapping up at Focus in 2020, and the previous CEO and I had been discussing the thinking around my departure, as we knew I was ready to go on to my next adventure.
Unexpectedly, we had a CEO transition, and I was now focused on onboarding and supporting the new CEO. Within a month of his first day, COVID was spreading around the world. I was so grateful to have built a strong leadership team in the years prior - there’s not another group I’d want to be in those rocky seas with.
At the same time, at the end of February, my babies got very, very sick. Ocean was incredibly ill with a horrible respiratory virus, but we were able to manage it at home, and Arrow became ill right as Ocean was getting better. But we could not manage her at home. She was barely 7 months old. What started as a high fever and congestion turned into an ER visit within 24 hours and 2 weeks in the hospital and pediatric ICU (as well as an ER visit myself, because I caught the same virus).
There were nurse and doctor shortages. They had to self-quarantine if they had symptoms since there were no COVID tests at that point. This was, without question, the worst two weeks of my entire life.
Arrow didn’t have COVID, but full viral panels confirmed it was another common virus called HmPV (Human Metapneumovirus). HmPv is particularly nasty for babies because of the thick mucous and lung stress, requiring constant sinus suction, augmented oxygen, IVs, a feeding tube, and more. After day 10 of the virus, and day 9 in the hospital, it started getting better. Every day I meditated on this mantra, “Up and to the right. Progress, not perfection. Every step counts.” My husband and I will never forget those weeks.
We brought her home with a nasogastric feeding tube and managed the remaining recovery at home. At the same time, my company was navigating global shutdowns and working to help our franchisees and team members navigate what would become one of the most difficult times our industry has ever seen.
Arrow eventually got better just as the world was getting much, much worse. I will never forget leaning over her at home while she was pulling her feeding tube out of her nose, trying to push it back down while having some of the most intense conversations, ear pods in, with our teams on the next steps to navigate the global demand shocks in the industry.
Those weeks I felt more pressure, sadness, and fear than any other time I can remember. I also felt more like a leader and more of a mom than I ever had before. I wanted to cry, and at some points I did. But I lifted out of it quickly knowing that I needed to focus on how I could help things and also knowing how much harder it was for others. I also kept in mind how much harder it would be for our franchisees and company if my teams and I didn't lead with clarity, love, decisiveness, and grace.
Chapter 8 - Spring of 2020. Still, as heavy as everything was in the world, it felt light compared to the dark days with Arrow in the hospital. Being able to take her feeding tube out just a few weeks after getting home and seeing her eat normally was the best feeling in the world. It took a few weeks to feel “out of the woods” and a few months to feel like she was back on track, albeit in a “new normal” world. When I look back at the pictures, I cry…hard. But then my heart swells with gratitude for where we are today.
Shortly after, there were more horrendous murders of Black men and women that ignited a groundswell of activism we will never forget. While my babies were finally healthy, our country was acutely ill with the long-lasting sickness of racism. I was happy with the health of my family but gutted about what was going on in the world. Yet another example of the dichotomy of our lives at times.
I was out protesting with my mask on, doing what I could in our city and nation while working with our executive teams at the office to navigate these most intense moments that were all part of much needed moments. I was proud to be leading, proud to be with our team, and like so many, I was very, very tired. But I knew I was nowhere near as tired as our Black community. My head of HR said, “Kat, I’ve been Black for over 40 years, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, don’t burn out, we have a long way to go”. What a time to live through, and we are far from done. I’m grateful for the many, many lessons from reflecting on this chapter, especially this one about driving progress, “To change the world, start at home. We MUST start at home”.
Chapter 9 - Summer of 2020. At this time, we were also embarking on the second restructuring of our company to prepare it for another growth sprint. I had 8 presidents reporting to me, and I knew if we were to acquire more companies, that wasn’t a viable structure. Our new CEO came from the big hotel chains, and he had deep experience in building capabilities to serve an enormous house of brands - far more than the 8 we had. So off we went on building an entirely new operating model, which was both daunting and exciting. I had to decide to whom to give new or more responsibility, think creatively about new ways of working, leverage the collective experiences of our team, and take some big risks.
Up to this point of the year, and to now, a major lesson is how important it is to make changes to your team and keep leveling up. I am SO GRATEFUL that I went through 2020 with the team we have - which meant changes in key positions in the years prior. While some of those changes were uncomfortable, but what would have been far worse is going through 2020 with a different team. Make the hard decisions now, because you never know what is coming around the corner - horrendously difficult times or amazing opportunities. Either way, you want the best team around you.
Chapter 10 - Confirming it was time to leave. Once we had the core structure complete, and our new organization was shaping up, it was clear now was the best window to architect my departure that had been planned for some time, but delayed due to many things calling me to stay and lead. My husband has been cheering me on to make the movie for some time, and although I knew it was inevitable and near, it just hadn’t felt right. Until now.
I felt it the morning I woke up. There was a full moon. I felt my woo-woo intuition and was filled with confidence and joy that it was so clear. This was a natural pinnacle to my time at Focus. Leaving now really would be leaving “on top”. The conversations that day flowed effortlessly and were received so positively.
So few can really time it that way. Many either leave early assuming the grass is greener or stay far too long and leave (or are asked to leave) because things are no longer a fit and possibly even getting bad. This really was a peak: a company full of leaders I personally either hired, promoted, or developed into their roles, a new structure setting the company up for growth, a strong financial position ready for acquisitions, and all-around fantastic teams and strategic plans for growth.
To some, that may sound like the time to stay and double down. But to me, all of those things were signs pointing to the door. It was unfinished business up to that point, but now, my work there was done, after 10 amazing years and what felt like a full life lived in that window. We could not have architected my departure more beautifully, and I could not be more proud of the team and company I’m leaving behind. A lesson there is to speak honestly about what’s on your mind and what you think is right, and it’s much easier for others to support that move.
Post-reflection. Applying it to the present and future
There are many patterns I’ve identified through my reflections like this, and one of them is to have the courage to do the right things, for the right reasons, and generally at just the right time - and that time is simply when it feels right to me.
Through these reflections, I’m reminded to prioritize family, health, energy management, values alignment, and ensuring my teams are as strong and well taken care of as possible. I’m also reminded that at the beginning of another 10-year chapter that I can’t possibly know the things ahead. But I know the direction I’m headed. I follow a compass, not a road map.
I trust myself. I trust the relationships I have built. I’ve learned to de-risk risk, but still to take risks keep things in perspective and be sure those I love most always know it. They will be there for me, and I will prioritize being there for them. Given the foundation of these lessons and many more from other sources, I couldn’t be more excited about or ready for the future.
I’m pumped for the known parts: board and advisory roles, more investing activity, speaking, working on my book, and generally helping others along with great flexibility and time with my family. AND I’m pumped for the unknown: Will I go run another huge company? Will I start a fund? Will I be a part of a founding team of a high-impact startup or go deep into more humanitarian work? Likely yes to all these things in some way.
I will revisit this reflection from time to time. I trust that I carry these lessons with me to every new decision I make, every new challenge that I, my family, friends, or companies may face, and to every new opportunity that comes my way.
These next 10 years will provide just as much learning and excitement as the last - sure to have ups and downs, scares and wins, but still trending up and to the right. And it’s only the beginning. And I hope you know, wherever you are, it’s only the beginning of this next chapter for you. Reflect on your past, and apply the lessons to the present and future.
I recently saw a quote that went something like this:
“I trust this next chapter because I know the author.”