Kat Cole is the President and COO of Athletic Greens. She also served as an executive for Focus Brands for over a decade, and is on the board of Milk Bar, Slice, and HumanCo SPAC. In this guide, she shares her thoughts on leadership, learning, failure, and how to rebuild trust within an organization. This is an abridged summary of Kat’s interview on Execs, our podcast where we interview executives from high-growth companies.
What is the Hot Shot Rule?
Kat: I practice something called the hotshot rule. I envision someone I admire in my role and ask: what is the one thing they would do differently if they were in my seat tomorrow? Then I try to take action on that and share it with my team. The goal is not to do this optimally or perfectly, but to use it to gain more perspective and get fresh ideas.
What are some of the key threads that have kept you moving along in your career?
Kat: One is learning. Learning is currency for me, and it’s a great motivator. It’s my north star: any opportunities in my career that optimized for learning were prioritized.
I also always evaluated my values and where I was at that point in time when an opportunity came along. There are times when I could have made a different move sooner, but whether it was because of family or location or just enjoying a season of life, I didn’t do that. Rooting myself in my values in the moment has always been a big filter for career decisions.
Another thread in my career has been leadership. It’s one of my callings and I have far more than 10,000 hours of experience there, in part because I started so young. I’ve been leading teams — whether they be elected, appointed, or professional — since I was incredibly young.
I’m also fascinated by the consumer. I’ve had many opportunities to go enterprise in the B2B or SaaS world, but that just didn’t ignite my full set of interests and capabilities. Nor did it ignite my spidey sense that helps me with more strategic decisions; I don’t have as deep of an appreciation and understanding for the enterprise market as I do for the consumer market.
I like having a lot of levers to pull, which makes my latest adventure with Athletic Greens even more interesting because it has fewer levers and poses a lot of ways we can add more and potentially go multichannel. The “multi” part of a business has always attracted me, and I’m uniquely comfortable with the chaos that comes along with those types of companies.
What are some of your hot takes about leadership?
Kat: One of my hot takes is that leaders shouldn’t have all the answers. They should have most of the questions, though: it’s questions over answers.
Another hot take is this: question success more than failure. Everyone thinks you need to rush to evaluate failure because it creates obvious pressure to explain. But so often, teams, companies, and really smart individuals duplicate behaviors because they assume that they are driving success instead of questioning what that success is built off of.
Finally, I believe that we need to prioritize our employees over our customers all day long. Of course, we still need to be rooted in what the customer needs and deserves, but that hierarchy is always there in my mind: employees first.
How do you navigate failure?
Kat: I always feel like I’ve failed the most when I have to let someone or a group of people go. It’s different if there are extreme conditions, like a pandemic or things of that nature, that force you to make difficult calls. On one hand, it’s a failure to let someone sit in a role with expectations that they cannot demonstrate in the period of time required. I’ll do my job and give them a lot of conversations, coaching, opportunities for learning, and all of those things, but at the end of the day there are a lot of people who have a ton of potential but they can’t fully grow into it in the time that the company requires.
The yuckiest moments for me have been any time in my life that — outside of losing life and losing love — I’ve lost that trust from people and of people. The few times this has occurred have been the total bottom for me, the pit and the trenches. I’m in those situations because I mismanaged expectations, I mismanaged my delivery of those expectations, or I failed to live up to the full responsibility of my own role and let someone down.
I’ve definitely experienced failure in my own career. For example, when I took over my first ever President role, there was an initiative underway for a new channel and new products. We did not have the meetings, approvals, or systems to solve this channels’ different dynamics. Yet I put my name on the initiative and told the franchisees what to expect. Not long after it rolled out, it was not only different than I said it would be, it was the worst possible version of itself.
It eventually ended well because I handled it the right way, and we learned a lot as a company. I took complete responsibility immediately and made very tough financial decisions. But in a way, having this failure early on paved the path for me to be able to go farther and faster with our franchise systems with better systems and processes.
How do you rebuild lost trust within an organization?
Kat: There is no shortcut. Acknowledge, assess, take ownership, and fix what’s fixable so it doesn’t happen again. When someone loses trust, they’re asking you to give them a reason to believe it won’t happen again. They want to understand if what happened was a blip or if that is how you move through the world as a person. You have to say: “I should have done X. Here’s what I’m doing now. Here’s what won’t happen on my watch again.”
You might be scrutinized for a while, but that’s just fair. Again, it’s not a switch you can flip. People are human, and they have that right to take their time to rebuild trust.
Understand that you need to do the work, but don't wallow in it. Every meeting for six months doesn’t need to start with an apology. You move on and prove yourself by doing the next thing differently from the beginning, in addition to making sure that whatever you’ve repaired stays repaired. Most of all, lead with humility, curiosity, courage, and confidence — be a human.
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