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How to Succeed in Business? Think Like a ‘Hot Shot,’ Says Private Equity Exec Kat Cole

Kat Cole, the COO and president of North America for Focus Brands, private equity parent of Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Jamba Juice and four other food chains, has charted an enviable and inspiring career course—quickly rising through the ranks at Hooters to open her first international franchise at 19 and later leading a skillful turnaround of Cinnabon. But she often tries to forget all that success and think about what a “hot shot” executive would do in her place.

Cole, speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Tuesday, explained how the self-developed technique—she calls it the “hot shot rule”—has kept her moving forward in her career. Climbing the ladder at Hooters, Cole didn’t have a lot of mentors, but she “learned to be my own best self coach.”

That meant teaching herself not to get blinded by her progress. At least monthly (now she does it more frequently, she explained), she imagines what a hot shot executive—“a Mrs. Potato Head of badass-ery,” as she described it—might do if she took over Cole’s business that day. Cole said the strategy has taught her vulnerability, reflection and a bias for action that helps her maintain a sense of urgency. Recently, she noted, the “hot shot rule” helped her realize she needed to make some leadership changes on her team. “I realized I had started to accept a level of performance because it was better than what was worse before. My new worst performers were mediocre, but they were nonetheless the worst. I needed to upgrade.” She added that she would be failing the underperforming employees if she didn’t address the issue.

Cole more broadly credited her business success to her “hustle muscle,” the grit and attributes she developed as a child growing up in less than ideal circumstances. Her father was an alcoholic and from the age of 9, she was raised by a single mother who worked three jobs to care for Cole and her sister. Cole took on a number of responsibilities as the eldest child, and says that that growing up in that chaotic and challenging environment, as well as having her mother, who nonetheless carried herself with grace and calm had given her “an unfair advantage” in the business world.

Cole also offered a preview of what customers can expect from Jamba Juice, the first “purely healthy” brand that Focus recently added to its portfolio. Cole’s plans for the juice brand include investing heavily in tech—best-in-class apps—and evolving the menu to “an even healthier place.” That means Jamba Juice’s future offerings will be more green and less sweet. Cole promised more plant-based proteins and dairy-free alternatives on the menu as well. “We’re all on a healthfulness journey,” she said; for customers, “it doesn’t go backwards.”

Don’t expect the same changes at Cinnabon. When asked by one audience member if she could envision keto-friendly versions of the brand’s famously large and gooey cinnamon rolls, Cole remarked customers “don’t come to it for their nutritional value.” She noted that she’d tried to introduce low-fat and low-sugar rolls in the past and they didn’t sell. Tiny rolls, however, sold with the same indulgent ingredients were a hit.