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Art of Leading

Kat Cole

Do You Avoid Tough Conversations? Try This Approach to Reframing Them.

July 24, 2019

The art of difficult conversations. Building teams. Creating high-performing cultures. Kat Cole, chief operating officer and president, North America of FOCUS Brands, has smart insights and practical tips on all these topics and more. Guaranteed you’ll learn something from our interview.

Do You Avoid Tough Conversations? Try This Approach to Reframing Them.

Q. How have you evolved as a leader as you’ve moved into more senior roles?

A. One of the things that’s become more important – whether it’s because I’m getting older, or because I have more formal authority or because we’ve bought more businesses and I have less time – is candor. I’ve always come by it naturally but it wasn’t as intentional.

It’s not just candor in terms of providing feedback in the moment, but candor in terms of helping people on their career journey, which sometimes means sitting down with someone who’s very tenured and saying, “This isn’t the place for you.”

Q. How do you approach these kinds of direct conversations?

A. The playbook is a bit of reframing the story I tell myself. Instead of, “I’m failing this person if I have a tough conversation,” or, “It’s going to create challenges on the team; the change is going to be so hard,” I reframe the talk-track in my head to, “I am failing if I don’t have this conversation. I am failing the team and the company if I don’t address this.”

It’s just a shift in my mindset, and it’s been a conscious shift long enough that it’s now become unconscious. I am going to be the person who says something immediately or right away, and I don’t wait for little things to become medium things or big things. And I keep getting rewarded for it.

Q. In what sense?

A. Every time I sit down with someone or make a change, it’s fascinating the response from team members, which is always some version of, “What took you so long? We were waiting for you to do that.” That affirmation makes me more apt to act faster each time.

“If I really care about them, I’m either going to fix the behavior or get them out of the position.”

Another part of the reframing has been to ask myself, what do I really care about? And if I really care about this person, I am failing them if I leave them in a position where it is very likely going to get worse, not better. And if I really care about them, I’m either going to fix the behavior or get them out of the position, even if that means having an uncomfortable conversation. It creates a higher-order sense that I’m doing the right thing.

Q. Are you upfront with people about how you’re going to work them?

A. I let people know that I’m incredibly candid but that it’s because I care deeply. And I’ll ask, “Is there a particular way you like to get feedback? Obviously, I’ll praise in public and critique in private, but do you have any quirks? Are there things you’ve learned about yourself on your journey that I should know?”

My natural style is that if I see something in a meeting, and if I can call it out in a way that’s supportive, I’ll do it right then. If there’s not a clean way to do it, I’ll pull you outside or I’ll wait until the meeting is over. If I learn of a challenge with your team and I become aware of it, I’m going to check in with you and I expect you not to retaliate against those team members.

I tell leaders that I do skip-level meetings to check in with people at all levels in the organization. People are used to it, but if someone’s new to the company or my leadership and they come from a more hierarchical, structured, don’t-talk-to-the-level-above-you-or-below-you culture, it can feel a little weird for them.

“Because it’s quick and immediate, it doesn’t feel like this big, heavy, anticipated thing.”

After I start working with people, they generally say they find this approach refreshing. Because it’s quick and immediate, it doesn’t feel like this big, heavy, anticipated thing. It’s just, “Hey, I saw this, and this is what I think we should do differently. What do you think about it? If we don’t address it, this is what will happen.” Or I might say, “I just saw you do this. It’s okay for now, but if you were in a higher-level position that I know you aspire to reach, that wouldn’t be okay and I need you to think about that.”

Q. How do you keep raising the bar for performance for your leadership team?

A. There are probably three approaches I use. One is to compare my leaders to each other – within the organization, how do you rank in terms of your overall ability to drive results, develop culture, develop people, handle the immediate and prepare for the future? I’ll think through this deeply a couple times throughout the year.

And so when I talk to people, that’s a very comforting initial benchmark. I’m not comparing you to some vague idea of a best-in-class leader. I’m just comparing you against your peers, and you’re better in this area and not in this area.

The second step is that I try to become a student of people who tend to exhibit the consistent qualities of great leadership. That might happen through my humanitarian work or reading about leaders or meeting other people in completely different industries and hearing how they’ve handled conflict or opportunities. That helps me understand and appreciate what is possible.

The third part is tying those together and saying, “What can I and should I expect of my team? Is it a team issue? Is it an individual issue? Is it a structural or cultural issue?”

Q. You oversee a portfolio of companies. How do you make sure people on your team think like a team, rather than just running their own businesses?

A. Almost half of their bonus compensation is based on the performance of the overall parent company, so they care what’s going on at the table when we all get together for our regular meetings.

It’s absolutely a psychological driver. In the same way a football player doesn’t get paid for his touchdowns, the team here is paid for the wins of the team in addition to their individual business. I think it’s critical. They believe, rightly so, that they have a say in what’s going on in the company, and that means each other’s businesses.

I also solicit high-priority agenda items from them that are generally relevant to most of the group, rather than people just reporting out. And that’s how we’ll spend 75 percent of our regular presidents’ meeting. And even with the last 25 percent of the meeting, the way I structure the report-out is to say to one of the leaders, “You have this going on that’s relevant to the group. Can you share that and then add one big thing that you think the group needs to know?”

Q. If you were on a public company board and assessing CEO candidates, what are the qualities that you would look for most?

A. Curiosity and the ability to unlearn. If someone’s at that level, they’ve had many successes. In today’s environment, where the speed of change is only going to accelerate, the ability to understand that what you know and think may not be right. Maybe you had the right question in the past, and you found the right answer at the time, but do you have the ability to acknowledge that that path may not work this time?

If you want to be a CEO for five years or longer, there’s no way you can succeed over that period of time without the ability to question and unlearn and redirect. To get at that quality in interviews, I’ll ask people to identify a time when their course of action was right for a period of time and then it wasn’t. How did they figure that out? When did they figure it out? Did they figure it out soon enough or not? What are their regrets around it? What did they do? I’ll dig to see if that behavior is there.

Q. How do you think about the amorphous topic of culture? What are the biggest drivers?

A. One is the ethos of the leader – the vibe, the personality, the way they treat people. Another is just the persistence and consistency of candor in people’s interactions. If there are secrets, hallway talk, “after-the-meeting meetings,” those are problems. But you can script those behaviors. You can say, “These two things we won’t allow: We won’t allow a meeting after the meeting, and I won’t allow you to talk about someone who’s not in the room.”

You know a culture is healthy when someone in the middle of the organization sees a behavior and says, “Oh, hey, we don’t do that here; let me help you,” and then moves on and doesn’t make it a big deal. It’s about understanding the things that might be the most negative drivers of culture and then making them very tactical, like “we don’t do this here.” Sometimes the “we don’t do this here” approach is easier to direct and make more consistent than “we do this here.” I’ve seen that many times.

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