Ask anyone what they thought the most memorable session of the recent LMA conference was, and I’m sure they’ll tell you, "Kat Cole’s keynote."

Kat (@KatColeATL) is the President of Cinnabon, Inc., and although more than one person was heard to ask, "what do cinnamon buns have to do with lawyers?" (only before the session, not after!) we all learned lesson after valuable lesson during her speech. 

If you’re still not sure what Kat’s words had to do with legal marketing, take a look at my comments after last year’s Zappos session here and here. And read on. Also, take a look at Chelsie Givan’s recap of the session

Before I dive into the session itself, let’s talk a little bit about Kat. 

Kat Cole is the president of Cinnabon, Inc. where [she] is accountable for leading, evolving and building the team and multi-channel brand. Ms. Cole is also a member of the leadership team within Cinnabon’s parent company, FOCUS Brands Inc…Prior to her role with FOCUS Brands at Cinnabon Inc., Ms. Cole was Vice President of Training and Development for Hooters of America, Inc."

All of that is impressive in and of itself, but Kat’s only 35 (and since I’m 34, that makes me feel very lazy!). And that’s not all there is to her story. 

Her story is often shared for inspiration as she moved up from working as a hostess at 17 years old in restaurants to traveling globally to help open new franchises. At the age of 19, Kat dropped out of college, advanced to various management and leadership positions, and at the age of 26, became a Vice President at Hooters making her one of the youngest executives in the hospitality industry. She later completed her MBA at Georgia State University." [Source: LMA Conference Guide]

She is brilliant, thoughtful, and an inspiration to those of us looking to make a difference in our careers and lives. Her speech, "The Difference – Lessons in Leadership, Change and Driving Innovation," is one that I hope we all learned from and will continue to take lessons from as we move through our careers and in our firms. 

Business is like Working Out – You Have to Build Your Core

Kat kicked off her keynote by pointing out that every industry in the world was dumped on its head during the economic downturn – the legal industry is no different (so we’re not alone, whew!). The new normal for all of us will involve leveraging the ability to lead, innovate and constantly change. 

So where do we start? With our core – remember how the firm/company started, and what got us to where we are today. Then, we build from there – and there are two keys to this: relevance and differentiation. 

Firms should be asking themselves, "how are we relevant?" "How are we different?" And we as marketers should too – marketers are at the center of the foundation of helping to differentiate our firms. 

Build Those Relationships…By Listening!

Cinnabon’s goal is to wow their guests – and that should be our goal too. Lawyers should be asking how they can wow their clients, while we as marketers should be asking how we can wow our lawyers. 

The key to the "wow" here is building relationships – if you don’t, your competition will. And an essential aspect of building those relationships is actively listening (and then innovating based on what you hear). Kat herself is very active on social media, tweeting, listening, searching and seeing what people say about her brand. She looks for patterns in what people are saying and then asks "how can we become a thought leader in that area?" 

Kat mentioned that products have to be differentiated to stand out in the market – but guess what? Services are no different. How can professional services firms differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace? Through service and reputation. (That’s our "product" and our "brand" people). 

Get Small to Grow

We know many of our attorneys would be very anxious over this advice, but one of the most important things Kat told us was the idea of getting small to grow. What does that mean? After the downturn, Cinnabon went with a smaller offering, more competitive pricing and lower barriers to entry – that made them more nimble and able to withstand the crisis. If you’re wondering whether they really put their money where their mouth is (so to speak), Cinnabon shrank their footprint by 75% when the economy tanked – that’s significant. And it worked – they became more relevant, and ended up with double digit growth. 

The question many lawyers would ask is "why would you offer something smaller, when you have something bigger?" And the answer to that is because if you don’t, you will leave a chasm for your competition. If you don’t find a way to be flexible when times are competitive, your competitors will (truer words were never spoken). 

Why does getting small work? Because when you offer a smaller way for people to do business with you, as their means grow, they will trade up. The lesson here is to listen to your clients and give them what they want – that will ultimately lead to success. 

If you don’t change to meet your clients’ needs, someone else will – that should be enough motivation to be different. 

Find Your Strategic Partners

To strengthen our brands, we should be out looking for partnerships, not waiting for them to knock on our doors. When we approach these partners, we should be asking ourselves, will we be a competitor, or a collaborator? And with each partnership, firms must carefully consider which will strategically make sense in order to expand the firm’s business and brand. 

In some cases, partnering with competitors might even help our firms to grow. For example, Cinnabon offers branded products for sale in other restaurants, like Taco Bell (typically thought of as their competitors). How can firms do something similar? 

We also need to be looking at how our firms can show up in the community to get a foot in the door –  places like blogs, articles, CLE, webinars, etc. The opportunities to be a thought leader could be a game changer for your firm. You don’t have to start big here though – where can your firm show up in a small way? 

Are all of these things hard, and even uncomfortable? Yes. 

But as Kat noted,

Anything worth doing is a pain in the rear." 

Firms should look to be vulnerable in a way that makes sense for their business – this is about letting people know who you are, and when your people are your product (as lawyers are), this is even more important. What you want is for people to keep telling your story after you’ve finished talking. Then, people are doing your branding for you (that’s what branding is all about, Charlie Brown, telling your story!). 

Just Give

Kat says: 

The central key is to give. That’s what builds lasting brands. There are few more powerful branding opportunities than giving of yourself." 

Why? Because it builds your reputation and trust. And trust is a key element in helping any business grow. So be present in the community.

Be a Hotshot

Kat then shared with us one of everyone’s favorite takeaways from the conference, the hotshot rule. The idea behind this is to look at your current job and imagine that today, you were fired. A hotshot comes in and takes your place, minus all of the baggage. If you were that hotshot, what would you do with your current job? 

This helps you to be your own toughest critic and to look honestly at what you can and should change. It will also help you to be willing to do things differently and to bring new ideas to the table. And you will "fail faster," which can be anxiety-inducing for many of us, but actually leads to our successes happening more quickly as well.  

We all know that one of the pieces of "baggage" that can come with any role is detractors. To deal with them, reach out and ask "how can I help you?" You may find that they become your biggest supporters over time. 

Another of my favorite lines from Kat’s speech was:

The people around you know what the right thing to do is long before you have the courage to make the call."

How true that is. Using the hotshot rule can help us get to that change much quicker, though, and as Kat told us: 

When you have an opportunity to make a change, don’t wait too long."

Too often, we wait too long to make the call when we have a seat at the table – we don’t use our voice. So question yourself and listen to others, and make the call to make a change. 

Don’t Settle in Gratitude

I think we can all agree that an attitude of gratitude is important, but Kat cautioned us not to be too grateful. She pointed out that we can use that as an excuse not to change. Don’t be satisfied with what you have because "it could be worse out there." Always be evaluating and striving for excellence, which brings us to everyone’s favorite line of the conference: 

If not me, who? If not now, when?

I love this. These are two great questions to ask ourselves whenever we start to think, "Someone should do…" or "Someone should say…" If you don’t do it, say it, or make that decision, who will? Perhaps your competition. 

So what do we take away from this? We all need to: 

  • Be accountable.
  • Be flexible.
  • Connect.
  • Trust.
  • Partner. 
  • Grow. 

And then, we will succeed. 

Be Helpful and Curious…and Grow a Thick Skin

One of the things I have found to be so very, very true is the next thing that Kat said, that that is: 

A funny thing happens when you build a reputation for being helpful and curious – opportunities that you could never expect happen."

Kat said that there are two groups of people in the world, those who jump into the fire, and those who just keep muddling along. To be in the former group, take risks and be helpful and curious. In the process, you’ll also amass skills and relationships that provide for those new opportunities. Putting yourself in unfamiliar situations helps to build muscle. 

But to succeed, you’ve also got to grow a thick skin…as those of us who have been in the legal industry for a while can attest to. Kat said that she got clarity on who matters because so many people rejected her early on. She added that her pride in what she does exceeds these external concerns, and that’s what keeps her moving forward. 

Something that helps with that is to not have your sense of self tied up in one place – and that is a lesson that I know I need to learn! 

Don’t Waste Your Seat

I’ve been in legal long enough to remember when the talk at the LMA conference was about "how can we get a seat at the table?" Now, most of us have got one, but Kat pointed out that it’s a waste if we don’t use our voices and share our stories. 

And if you’ve got a seat at the table, you’ve got to be a team player. You can do this by being a specialist on some days and a generalist on others (there were many nodding heads in the room). As part of being a team player, Kat noted that we’ve all be a part of firms/companies that have made bad decisions – she cited Hooters Airlines – and we can either make the best shot of it, or bail. 

Diversify your Purpose Portfolio

Perhaps one of the most important pieces of advice for me that Kat offered was the lesson about diversifying our "purpose portfolio." She said that our sense of self can’t come from one place (I’m guilty of that, as I mentioned above), so we should give of ourselves, volunteer, pursue education, etc. The key is that we need to find good ways to make deposits into our "emotional bank account" to help us through difficult times – this will give us perspective. How can we do this? In part, by saying "yes."

Saying ‘yes’ can be a game changer."

Whether you’re saying "yes" as a business or a person, the right "yeses" can be game changers. Kat talked about her experience with traveling to Africa for humanitarian work as one of the times she said "yes." There, she learned so much, including the lesson of "small enough to change, big enough to matter." We can apply this to our own lives by looking at whether we’re active in the areas where we have influence, and whether we can make a change – what is in our control and big enough to matter? 

The challenge for us in the developed world is that we have so much choice, and the consequences for missing an opportunity aren’t always as clear as they are in the developing world. When the price of your priorities is death, you are very clear about what those priorities are. 

So we have to ask ourselves "What is the one thing we could do first, that would make everything that follows more effective? What is the enabler?" Then, look at what you’re doing already and ask how you can magnify it and make it better.

In many cases, it’s going to boil down to being there when it counts – that’s what builds trust. For legal marketers, that means getting out of our offices – we need to have lunch with our lawyers, attend their meetings, sit in their offices. 

Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and relationships are the foundation of all businesses."

Yes, yes, and yes. These are the tenets of friendship and business, Kat says – build trust, and be there when it counts. You’ll be a partner for life. 

And "small wins rule" – you want to step up when no one else will. Your clients and potential clients will always remember that. Through trust and integrity, these small wins will help turn your biggest critics into your biggest advocates. 

There is SO much to take away from Kat’s speech, and for me, it’s the following: 

  • "Trust is the foundation of all relationships, and relationships are the foundation of all businesses." 
  • "Small wins rule." 
  • "Saying ‘yes’ can be a game changer." 
  • "Diversify your purpose portfolio." 
  • "Small enough to change, big enough to matter." 
  • "A funny thing happens when you build a reputation for being helpful and curious – opportunities that you could never expect happen."
  • "If not me, who? If not now, when?"
  • "When you have an opportunity to change, don’t wait too long." 
  • "The people around you know what the right thing to do is long before you have the courage to make the call."
  • The hotshot rule.
  • "The central key is to give. That’s what builds lasting brands. There are few more powerful branding opportunities than giving of yourself."
  • "Anything worth doing is a pain in the rear." 

How are you embracing these ideas now that you’re back at your firm, marketers? How can lawyers be adopting these as well?