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What I learned when the president of Cinnabon bought me coffee at Starbucks

I had the opportunity to interview Kat Cole, President of Cinnabon, at the ASAE Annual Meeting in Atlanta earlier this month.  I had first become aware of Kat through the CBS show Undercover Boss with the episode featuring her last fall. I was excited to learn a few months ago that Kat would be at this conference and reached out to her through Twitter to arrange this interview.

Kat Cole, President of Cinnabon

Kat Cole, President of Cinnabon

In the interview Kat touches on a number of topics, but the one I find most fascinating is her deft handling of partnerships. She has worked with major brands like Kellogg, Burger King, and Taco Bell to expand the reach of Cinnabon without taking away from the core business of the franchises. Kat also touched on some of this in her presentation. Her perspective certainly challenges association and nonprofit leaders to consider more thoroughly who they might partner with to create win-win situations.

I walked with Kat from our interview to the auditorium where she would present later that afternoon. As we passed a Starbucks, Kat asked if she could buy me a coffee. What do you say when the head of a major food brand asks if they can buy you an iconic product from another major food brand? You say yes.  When you’re also a blogger, you also think, Hey, this could make a really great title for a future blog post! It should be further noted that Kat was impressed with my selection of a tall Java Chip Frappuccino® Blended Beverage… coffee with rich mocha-flavored sauce blended with milk, chocolaty chips and ice. Topped with sweetened whipped cream and chocolate-flavored drizzle. Ah, but I digress. We walked on. I told Kat that I like how playful she can be with the brand on Twitter when people talk about how they can’t resist Cinnabon or how they’ll have to work out more after indulging. Her response: “We’re not building missiles.” 

Some of the takeaways from Kat’s session at ASAE Annual:

  • Protect the core. Reinvest in what makes you great.
  • Leverage something you’re the best at. @Cinnabon did it w/ @Kelloggs_US w/ their cinnamon.
  • Be honest about what you can’t do well. Decide if you’re okay with that.
  • Culture eats strategy for lunch every day.
  • Be humbly bold.
  • What is small enough to change, big enough to matter?
  • The deal you don’t do is never the one that’s going to kill you.
  • What’s the opportunity cost with the limited resources you have?
  • What is the one thing we could do today that everything after it will be more effective?
  • Be there for your community when it really counts. Are you there for your constituents?
  • Be one IN a million … Not one OF a million!
  • Guess what? @Cinnabon is not healthy.
  • The biggest mistakes are people mistakes.

Believe me, there are some thought-provoking gems here, and Kat’s presentation was well-received. I couldn’t do it justice in even a short blog post. Make no mistake- I found Kat to be approachable and personable in the interview, off camera, and in her presentation, but she is also a focused and determined businesswoman who has not lost touch with her values or who she is. Kat purposely cares for and connects with people, and this comes across genuinely.  She furthers her authenticity by being thankful for opportunities, giving credit to others, and admitting mistakes. Many leaders could learn from her approach and her example.

  1. August 19, 2013 at 11:26 am

    This was a great interview, but you know what (local) brand you neglected to mention? Carvel. If there is a stand alone Cinnabon it has Carvel Ice cream. So Kat is responsible for gooey, sweet cinnamon deliciousness, but also has Fudgie the Whale at her disposal (or Cookie-Puss depending on your preference). Everything about that is awesome.

    To answer your question “What do you say when the head of a major food brand asks if they can buy you an iconic product from another major food brand?” of course you say yes, but you also add during the conversation “the only thing that would make this more perfect would be some free Cinnabon for life. If you make that happen, the coffee’s on me…” See tie how her product is better of complements another major food product, and you get major points and free stuff. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

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