At age 9, Kat’s mom pulled her aside. She was the oldest of three kids and could tell this was about to be a serious conversation. “We’re leaving,” her mom said. She knew what it meant. Her father was an alcoholic. She’d already been in multiple car accidents with him. She’d seen the chaos and damage his drinking caused. She knew how bad it was. In her words,
I did not cry, I did not get upset. I looked at her and said, “What took you so long?”
Yeah. That was her response.
As an adult, the same Kat Cole learned a lot from traveling the world and helping franchisees jumpstart their businesses. She learned about the power and challenges of embracing the team you’ve got. She also learned the significance of a leader staying as “close to the action” as they can. She told Patrick O’Shaughnessy the story about leaving her dad because what she’s since learned as the technical jargon and skills of business, she first learned from her mom.
Kat’s mom, like any leader of any group, organization, or family, had to work with the team she had. Once it became clear the father was not on that team (or it became as clear as it could, these things can take time), mom let her most reliable lieutenant know the plan and onward they went. When starting a franchise with a small group of strangers in a foreign country, she couldn’t go build an ideal team or make competitive hires. She had her unit, she knew they’d be loyal so long as they had trust, and she focused hard on making each group the best they could be.
Back to childhood, a mom or dad is always operating “above” the action their kids are living in. Likewise, leaders experience reality on a different level from everyone else. This allows them to cultivate a different set of skills and authorities. You don’t get promoted to parent, it happens and you get to work. The difference between leaders and front-line employees, and parents and kids, is leaders have the language and tools to plan beyond the immediate situation, and critically, the authority to bring action and change into reality. It’s a distinction we don’t want to forget.
If a leader is plugged in, like Kat’s mom, they see what the front-line workers see. They see it on their level. If a leader is unplugged, like Kat’s dad, they’re oblivious, and we’ve all seen what happens to teams with ineffective leaders. Truly great leaders keep themselves close to the action so they can understand what their people are facing. With attention and empathy, the leader’s job is to put feelings and experiences into words, translate the words into strategy, and implement the changes that continuously improve the situation. It’s what Kat’s mom did. It’s what all great leaders do.
And then there’s the question, “What took you so long?” The front-line workers are smart. They don’t always have the language to describe what’s happening. Organizationally, they don’t have the authority to do much of anything about it either. But, they get it, and they’re waiting for the leader to notice and take action. Kat Cole says without fail, any time she makes a leadership decision based on her being close to the action, she gets asked a form of the question. It takes her right back to being 9 years-old again, every time. She’s learned that getting the question is validation she’s made the right call.
It’s on us to lead the people we’ve got, and we’re all leading someone. It’s true for our employees, it’s true for our coworkers, and it’s true our clients. It’s on us to keep our attention close to the action. It’s our job to pay attention to what’s happening and what really matters. It’s a sign of success* when our people say, “What took you so long,” because it means we saw the right answer and we got everyone there. I highly recommend listening to the full interview on the Invest Like The Best Podcast ep. 184. Cole is a remarkable individual with an impressive and inspiring story to tell. She’s as impressive in business as she has been in life.
*figuratively speaking. Coming from experience as someone who has taken too long more than once.