From Hooters Waitress to CEO of a Billion-Dollar Company: Smart Advice From the President of Cinnabon

Kat Cole, president of the billion-dollar bakery brand, shares her best career advice.

Photo by Melly Lee

When Kat Cole was 17, she planned to become a lawyer. But her part-time job at Hooters led to unexpected success in business, and she rapidly climbed the company ranks to vice president. Today, at 36, she's president of Cinnabon, the billion-dollar bakery brand. Here, her most brilliant career strategies.

1. Keep learning.

“I’m a chronic learner. I’m always watching people and noticing the things I could learn from them or behaviors I want to make sure I never do. When I started at Hooters, I was hungry for new opportunities and curious to see if I could figure them out. So when the cooks quit, I went in the kitchen and learned that job. I helped the bartender, so I learned that job, too. Without knowing it, I became able to train people in almost every job.”

2. Get yourself out there.

“I always had a bit of insecurity because I had dropped out of college so as I moved up, I would get every certification I could. And I started volunteering in industry groups. I ended up getting on boards of directors of non-profits at a very young age. That gave me leadership experience and it helped me build relationships.”

3. Question success.

“Rarely do people question success in the same way they do failure. That’s a mistake. When you fail, the lessons smack you in the face. But you might misdiagnose the things that drive success. I learned that from running restaurants. People would say, ‘That manager is so great. His restaurant’s up in sales 50 percent,’ when really he’s a bad manager and they’re just located on a street with a new strip mall. You can reward the wrong behaviors and duplicate the wrong things if you don’t dig deep behind success.”

4. Manage your energy.

“For me, it’s not about time management; it’s about energy management. I know I need to be doing things with people who energize me. I will do whatever it takes to go spend time with those people.”

5. Find your motto.

Every year my mom writes on my birthday card: “Don’t forget where you came from, but don’t you dare let it solely define you.” I live by that.