Cinnabon’s Kat Cole on setting priorities.
Elders in an impoverished Ethiopian village taught Cinnabon President Kat Cole an important lesson about setting priorities: Focus only on one, possibly two, vital areas or die.
“I learned [about priority setting] from years of experience, but it was highlighted by my humanitarian work in eastern Africa,” says Cole, the 34-year-old who, at 19, opened the first Hooters restaurant in Australia. Years later, sitting with African village leaders, she heard a colleague ask what their most important priorities were.
Drinkable water and systems to get water to crop fields, they replied. Cole made a note and then asked: what else?
“The villagers laughed,” says Cole. “They said, ‘Our first priority is water. Our second priority is water, and our third priority is water.’ The point was that water was the one thing that if they didn’t get it right, any other efforts would either be pointless or have little return.
“I thought in that moment that it’s so easy to be crystal clear on priorities in villages like this, because if you get the priority wrong, you die,” she says. “In the developed world and in business, we have so many choices and places to put our resources. When we get it wrong, the penalties are not as severe as in Ethiopia, so it’s more difficult to teach people how to focus on a few critical priorities and to build the discipline to stay focused.”
Inspired, Cole adjusted her thinking: “My question became, ‘How do we redefine crises in our own businesses to create that sense of urgency around doing only the one or two things that if we do them correctly now, everything afterward will be more effective?’ There is an answer to that question.”