Catherine Monson of FASTSIGNS International: “Your mind is your greatest asset”

My advice to women business owners or women seeking to own a business is to work every day to improve in each of these five skills and teach their team members how to do the same. The most successful leaders cultivate a positive mindset and use positive leadership skills. They also need to establish goals […]

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My advice to women business owners or women seeking to own a business is to work every day to improve in each of these five skills and teach their team members how to do the same. The most successful leaders cultivate a positive mindset and use positive leadership skills. They also need to establish goals for themselves and their team and know who’s doing what to drive the organization forward. It’s important for the leader to be self-motivated. It is essential to become an expert in their industry and their company, and then they need to become an expert or highly skilled in leadership. To this day, I still listen to podcasts, TedTalks, and books on leadership; I’m always trying to improve my leadership skills.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Monson.

Catherine became CEO of FASTSIGNS International, Inc. in 2009, and brings 30 years of franchising and management experience. In 2009, she received the International Franchise Association (IFA) Bonny LeVine Award in recognition of her contributions to the growth of the franchising industry, and in 2010, the Dallas Business Journal named her a top Women Industry Leader in the Dallas Metroplex. In 2012, Catherine appeared on the Emmy Award-winning series Undercover Boss to learn new ways to advance the FASTSIGNS® brand. In 2013, she was named an “Innovator and Influencer” by Sign and Digital Graphics Magazine. In 2015, she received the IFA’s first Franchise Action Network “FAN of the Year” award for her advocacy work on behalf of the franchising community. In 2016, she was selected as a Soderstrom Society Inductee for her contributions to the printing and graphic communications industry and was also honored with the 2016 Leadership Award from the Women That Soar organization. Under Monson’s leadership, FASTSIGNS International, Inc. received the 2016 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, the highest recognition presented by the Department of Defense to employers for their exemplary support of National Guard and Reserve members. In 2017, Monson received the Distinguished Women Award presented by Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. In 2018, she was honored by the Sales and Marketing Executives International (SMEI) with their Ambassador of Free Enterprise Award, and in 2019, she received a Most Admired CEO Award by Dallas Business Journal. Catherine has served on the Board of Directors of the IFA since 2008 and became the IFA Chair in February 2020. Additionally, she serves on the Board of Directors of Brain Balance, a franchise company with a non-drug alternative for children with behavioral challenges, and on the Board of Directors of the franchisor Big Blue Swim School, one of the nation’s fastest-growing swim schools. She is a keynote speaker at many franchise industry events, as well as at many sign and visual graphics industry events.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in a small family business. My parents started one preschool and over time, they opened another preschool, getting to 5 locations, and then adding kindergarten and an elementary school. Growing up in a family business, on Saturdays and Sundays, I would go with my dad to the schools to mow the lawns and clean the kitchens and restrooms. While there, and on our drive to the school and then back home, we would talk business. I fell in love with the business of business at a very young age, and by high school, I wanted to be the president of a large company.

My background in franchising actually began in 1980 with Sir Speedy, Inc., where I served in many roles, being part of the team that built that brand from under 200 locations to over 850. I started as a Sales Coordinator and quickly was promoted to Western Region Operations Manager. In 1984, I was promoted to Assistant Vice President of Franchise Development and later Vice President of Franchise Development, where I was responsible for opening over 400 Sir Speedy locations. In 1991, I was promoted to Group Vice President of Marketing and Communications, playing an integral role in Sir Speedy developing and becoming the first printing franchise to launch a website. In 1996, when Sir Speedy became multi-brand, I became Vice President of Business Development of Franchise Services, Inc. (FSI), the parent company of Sir Speedy, MultiCopy, and PIP Printing. My vision of becoming president was fulfilled in 1999, when I was named President of PIP Printing & Document Services (PIP was acquired by Franchise Services, Inc. in 1996). As President, I successfully reorganized the company and changed the strategic marketing direction and dramatically improved franchisee support, increasing franchisee satisfaction and profits after six years of decline.

In January 2009, I was named CEO of FASTSIGNS International, Inc. and brought my comprehensive background in franchising, leadership, marketing and business. It was an exciting time to become CEO: in the midst of the “Great Recession”; helping our franchisees get through that recession successfully was the top priority! We did well. I strive to develop personal relationships with the franchisees in 735 FASTSIGNS® locations worldwide, suppliers, as well as with the 125 plus employees that comprise the FASTSIGNS International corporate team.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

One exciting opportunity that has come my way as the CEO of FASTSIGNS International, Inc. was when I was asked to be on Undercover Boss in 2012. I was honored to be invited to be featured on the show. The show led to many TV, magazine, and radio interviews that have been great experiences.

Another exciting opportunity occurred this February when I was named the Chair of the International Franchising Association (IFA). It has been an honor to be both Chairs of the IFA and CEO of FASTSIGNS concurrently in an effort to lead and make a positive and dramatic impact not just with FASTSIGNS and our franchisees but throughout all of franchising. Less than one month into my time as Chair of the IFA, the pandemic hit. From taking the reins as CEO of FASTSIGNS in the midst of the great recession to becoming Chair of the IFA as the pandemic hit — strong leadership, while always important, is even more critical during challenging times.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One that comes quickly to mind is the day I arrived in the office and was eager to get to work. I needed to print something, but was having trouble. I enlisted the help of one of our IT team members, and they quickly realized it was a user error. He said, “It really helps if you plug the printer cable in.” I told that story again today to make fun of myself with some of my team on a video call! I am truly appreciative of the entire team at FASTSIGNS that goes above and beyond to help each other as we work toward our goals.

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I believe I am a natural leader. When I was in high school and was assigned to a group project, I would wait about 30 seconds for someone to lead. When no one would take charge, I would take the initiative. I did the same in college with group projects when no one would assume a leadership role. Whenever a vacuum in leadership occurred, I felt a need to get involved. I am driven, which has led me to some significant achievements. I knew as a teenager that I wanted to run a company. Leadership itself is what drew me to this from that young age. My love of leadership motivated me to develop my business, leadership, and industry skills. That led to promotions, finally to President of PIP Printing and then to the opportunity to become CEO of FASTSIGNS International. I love all that is involved and important in being a CEO: creating and maintaining the culture, creating the strategy, creating the plan to achieve it, and developing the needed high-performance team.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Being the CEO means you’re the highest-ranking executive in a company whose primary responsibility includes making corporate decisions, managing the overall operations, and being the main point of communication between the board of directors and the company. The CEO is also the “face” of the company.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I truly enjoy creating a growth-oriented, positive culture, and leading the team and the company to meet goals and achieve success.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

There aren’t any downsides for me personally. Being an executive completely fits my personality, my DNA and my psyche. The job description isn’t right for everyone. You’re never really “off.” It requires long hours, including working on vacations and on weekends. I have never been on a vacation where I was not connected and available, because the responsibilities of a leader do not go away. That’s just reality. If you aren’t committed to your career and aren’t wired that way, you probably shouldn’t be a CEO. Bottom line: I love what I do!

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

There are a variety of myths that people hold about CEOs. First, they believe that we have a glamorous lifestyle. While there are glamorous parts of it, there are also un-glamorous aspects such as spending a lot of time in airports, time away from home and working extensive 60 to 80 hour work weeks. That’s just the reality of what I believe it takes to excel as a CEO. Some feel that CEOs have no bosses, which is also not true. CEOs report to a board of directors, which is even more challenging at times. I actually have eight bosses! A third myth is that CEOs aren’t approachable. Personally, I work hard to be approachable for the FASTSIGNS International team and franchisees. Another myth is that CEOs have all the answers. We don’t always know the answer; when I don’t, I take time to consider the situation or talk to another CEO or mentor before moving forward in a specific direction. Finally, many think that CEOs earn millions of dollars each year, but I can confirm that is a myth as well, at least for me!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I do not believe women should view their standing in the career world as somehow disadvantaged to their male counterparts. Someone may be a male, female, short, tall, or any other physical descriptor that some might think to present a reason to not be respected in the business world, yet I believe this way of thinking contributes to a victim mentality. I work harder, smarter, and better to get recognition for my actions. I’m going to give 110% each day. I refuse to dwell in a victim mentality that might lead me to think I’m at a disadvantage because I am a woman.

While a male colleague may have some factors that could be seen as an “advantage,” as a female CEO, I can also orient my life to create the same advantages for myself. I don’t use this as an excuse for why I cannot excel in my career. If someone is willing to work hard, they will be paid for their intelligence, experience, and the results they deliver.

Vince Lombardi once said, “You have to pay the price to win and you have to pay the price to get to the point where success is possible. Most important, you must pay the price to stay there.” It took sacrifices to get where I am, but they were sacrifices I was willing and glad to make.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

There is no striking difference; it is what I expected. I love what I do.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

There are several general traits that increase the likelihood of becoming a successful executive. One key component that leads to success is being highly driven. As opposed to someone who is more relaxed in nature, the high drive exhibited in a restless and pressure-oriented nature leads one to press forward and push for more. High dominance is another trait of most highly successful leaders, and this involves being competitive and goal-oriented. Someone will likely be a successful executive if they have an analytical mind that is both logical and task-oriented. They need to be more analytical than social, focused on making the best decisions for the organization versus making people happy. When someone is too social, they can’t effectively drive an organization. Finally, being persistent and resilient are essential elements of success.

In addition, successful executives are ones who can create and maintain a positive results-oriented culture, create a strong strategic vision and a strategic focus, and build high-performing teams. Personally, they are people who are committed to never stopping learning and consistently work to develop exceptional leadership skills such as interpersonal communication skills and public speaking skills, a High EQ, the ability to lead and manage change, and also lead through personal excellence by being a role model.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I believe there are five common characteristics of all highly successful people and that these characteristics are learned skills, not something one has to be born with. These characteristics are not based on or limited by gender, and they are skills that can be developed and improved, yielding greater results and success for anyone who works to hone them. These common characteristics are a Positive Mental Attitude, Goal-Directed Behavior, Self Motivation, a Sense of Urgency, and Never Stopping Learning.

My advice to women business owners or women seeking to own a business is to work every day to improve in each of these five skills and teach their team members how to do the same. The most successful leaders cultivate a positive mindset and use positive leadership skills. They also need to establish goals for themselves and their team and know who’s doing what to drive the organization forward. It’s important for the leader to be self-motivated. It is essential to become an expert in their industry and their company, and then they need to become an expert or highly skilled in leadership. To this day, I still listen to podcasts, TedTalks, and books on leadership; I’m always trying to improve my leadership skills.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I owe so much to my former boss and long-time mentor, Don Lowe, CEO of Franchise Services, Inc., (FSI) franchisor of TeamLogicIT, Sir Speedy, PIP and MultiCopy. He taught me, by example, about leadership. I learned from him the best practices in franchising. Don Lowe oversees all FSI companies, and his 47-year career in franchising includes his work as Senior Vice President for Kampgrounds of America (KOA) and President of Sir Speedy from 1981 to 1996.

I was a team member at Sir Speedy, Inc. in 1981 when Don Lowe was appointed President of Sir Speedy. He assembled a great team that built Sir Speedy from under 200 locations to over 850. In 1996, Sir Speedy, Inc. purchased MultiCopy and PIP Printing and created the holding company Franchise Services, Inc. I worked for Don until I left Franchise Services in December, 2008 to become CEO of FASTSIGNS International. I have had the pleasure of learning from him as well as sharing the stage with him, where we have offered best practices in franchising and provided insight into why having a mentor is integral to success for every leader.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe there’s a reason I’m in the world, and it is to make a difference and to pay it forward every day. There are several ways that I enjoy doing that, including serving on the Board of Directors of three organizations: The International Franchise Association (IFA) in my role as IFA Chair; the franchisor Big Blue Swim School, one of the nation’s fastest-growing swim schools; and Brain Balance, a franchisor offering a non-drug alternative to change the lives of children struggling with academic, social and behavioral issues.

I also enjoy sharing the knowledge I have gained along the way. Any time I have the opportunity to talk to high school or college students, I take that opportunity and talk about the five common characteristics of highly successful people, teaching them how to grow those skills. I also enjoy teaching young people how to successfully set and achieve goals.

In addition, I’ve recently created an inspirational video series for our FASTSIGNS YouTube channel and the International Franchising Association that highlights a wide range of topics including optimism, motivation, overcoming adversity, and more. I share this outside of our network and encourage others to do the same.

What are 5 Things You Wish Someone Told You Before You Became CEO and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Your mind is your greatest asset. It’s a “muscle” that you need to exercise daily. I feed my mind with encouraging and positive messages every day, I keep a journal of positive quotes, and I study the industry and other industries in order to remain fresh. Leaders need to learn to control their attitude and minds.
  2. Positively impact others and develop gratitude. I made it my mission to create a positive, engaging culture at FASTSIGNS, with integrity from the top down. I believe strongly in the power of positive thinking and goal-directed behavior, encouraging this in my employees, which includes visual displays such as our “Inspiration Hall” at the corporate office with quotes that inspire and motivate employees and visitors to the office. I truly have an attitude of gratitude for my employees, eagerly welcoming new employees aboard and celebrating milestones and anniversaries. In our corporate offices, we celebrate team members and franchisees with banners, cards, and public appreciation. FASTSIGNS International, Inc. is a hard-working family of individuals that work to maximize the success of every franchisee. I strive to let my team and franchisees know just how much they are a valued part of the FASTSIGNS family.
  3. Prioritize your resources. Every person experiences limitations and constraints with time and energy. As a result, you have to learn to delegate and coordinate the absolute best use of your schedule. Prioritization and time management is imperative on any leader’s path to success.
  4. Accept adversity and be willing to adapt and pivot. When I came into my role as CEO at FASTSIGNS, it was during the great recession of 2009. We had a need for greater communication between the corporate office and our franchisees, so I immediately embarked on a 28-city town hall tour around the country to visit franchisees and put a plan in place to turn the company around, including a sales incentive program. I initiated monthly conference calls with the system to provide updates and answer questions and concerns. I was transparent with my team in our company meetings about our financial situation, because I believe in transparency and communication. I strove to unite the network during a difficult time, and now in 2020, I am navigating similar challenges. I have encouraged innovation and adaptability as our franchisees pivoted their businesses by adding new products and services.
  5. Find a passion outside of work. Whether it’s yoga, running, or riding horses, having an outlet can help clear your head and actually make you more productive after some time away from the office.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would create a movement that educates every person under 30 about the five common characteristics of all highly successful people and how they are learned skills. I would instill the value and importance of a Positive Mental Attitude, Goal-Directed Behavior, Self-Motivation, a Sense of Urgency and Never Stopping Learning. My goal would be that this movement would inspire them to take ownership of their actions and empower them to courageously achieve their dreams and build their future.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two Zig Ziglar quotes that come to mind. One was a pre-pandemic focus and the second is one that we have adopted amid the pandemic. My pre-pandemic quote is “Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.” This quote is critical because as the leader, I need to come with a positive attitude every single day. It involves the practice of cultivating a growth mindset and an optimistic mindset. I consider it my job, and I take personal responsibility for my attitude before I walk into work or (working remotely) turn on my computer.

During this unprecedented year, I have adopted an additional quote, because 2020 has required a different kind of leadership and a different kind of focus: “Expect the best, prepare for the worst, and capitalize on what comes.” I still have to maintain that positive attitude. Even in the toughest times, no one wants to follow a pessimistic or negative leader. Preparing for the worst is a very critical part of leadership and capitalizing on what comes means always looking for the opportunities that exist.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

Without needing to think about it, I choose Condoleezza Rice. She’s a fascinating, intelligent woman who has overcome many challenges and held some of the most important and powerful positions in the world. I would welcome the opportunity to share a meal with her.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

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