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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Catherine Monson, CEO And President Of FASTSIGNS

I spoke to Catherine Monson, CEO and President of FASTSIGNS International, about her unique upbringing and journey and her thoughts on leadership

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts on leadership. First things first, though I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

I love going to rock concerts; it’s one of my favorite things to do. I make it a priority to go to 10 to 15 per year. A few of the best shows I’ve seen in the past year are Lady Gaga, Nickleback, Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, and Tears for Fears.

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Catherine: I knew from a young age that I wanted to lead a company one day. I grew up in my family’s business. My parents had a chain of preschools. I got involved at 10 years old when my dad and I would spend the weekends at the schools cleaning toilets, mowing lawns, and other maintenance. My dad and I would talk business during these weekends at work. I fell in love with the business of business and knew I wanted to be a leader in business. I feel it is part of my DNA.

Growing up in an abusive alcoholic home, I had the choice of becoming a victim or overcoming my experiences to lead a fulfilling and positive life. I chose (and still choose) to overcome. Once I learned and understood it was my personal responsibility to control my destiny and life, I studied how to become successful. Each individual defines what success is in his or her own way. Through developing my leadership skills, reading biographies of successful people and learning from mentors, I learned there are five common characteristics of all highly successful people (more details on this in the next question). Despite my upbringing, I made it a priority to shift my thinking in order to control my life, which I believe is foundational to my growth and has fueled my ability to reach my goals.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Catherine: As previously mentioned, I believe there are five common characteristics of all highly successful people and have worked daily to apply them to every aspect of my life. And I have come to understand that these five common characteristics are learned skills: each of us can improve in each of them. These five skills include a positive mental attitude, goal-directed behavior, self-motivation, a sense of urgency, and never stopping learning. Effective leadership requires mastery of all five of these skills.

In my opinion, the number one defining quality of an effective leader is the ability to create a clear vision for the company and to develop a strategic focus. It’s critical to be able to align all of the different departments or teams of your organization working towards the company’s strategic objectives, be an innovative and a forward-thinker, and constantly study the market and future of your specific industry. Another defining quality of a leader is the willingness to make tough decisions in order to produce results, combining drive, speed and focus to what is most important: focusing on the “critical few” rather than spreading you and your team too thin. A third quality of effective leadership is interpersonal and communication skills. A leader must always project confidence and competence to their various customers, vendors and teams both verbally and in writing. You must handle conflict effectively and be a team player. I believe strongly that strong public speaking skills are critical to being the most effective leader. Leading through personal excellence and holding yourself accountable is an effective method to motivate your team and have them understand your level of expectation: a team respects a leader that demands as much or more from themselves as they do from their team.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?

Catherine: Don Lowe, the CEO of Franchise Services Inc., which is the parent company of my previous company, Sir Speedy, PIP Printing, MultiCopy, TeamLogic IT and other brands has been an outstanding mentor. I started at Sir Speedy in 1980 and Don became president in 1981. I worked with him for more than two decades and under his leadership I learned a plethora of skills that helped me develop many skills, including how to develop a high-performance team. I attribute my knowledge on how to lead for results and how to become an outstanding franchisor to Don. What I learned from Don has helped me immensely over the years as we’ve grown FASTSIGNS to more than 675 locations worldwide and have repeatedly been recognized for our high franchisee satisfaction.

Being extremely involved in the International Franchise Association (IFA), I’ve worked alongside dozens of exceptional leaders. Specifically, Shelly Sun, CEO and co-founder of BrightStar Care and previous chair of the IFA Board of Directors. Shelly implements her vision and strategic focus in every endeavor she embarks upon. Her skills include building high performance teams and leading and managing change. I admire the amount of positive change that she was able accomplish during her year as chair for the IFA for the Association, in addition to the consistently strong results of her company.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Catherine: I encourage leaders and aspiring leaders to read books on leadership and management. There are so many great books on the topic, enough to read several a year. Additionally, I always suggest individuals of all levels in their career find great leaders to be their mentors. Lastly, continue to evolve your skills and keep up with current and upcoming trends about your industry.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Catherine: It begins by creating a positive culture and motivating environment. Your people need to know and understand the company’s goals and how what they do each day contributes to the achievement of those goals. Creating an environment where people are motivated and comfortable sharing their ideas openly and to take chances and to innovate or improve processes. Even if someone suggests an idea that’s not the best, the way you respond ultimately can determine that person’s desire to contribute in the future. By opening the discussion and not shutting it down immediately creates an environment where the person doesn’t feel like you disagree with their ideas or make them feel foolish.

In order to build high performance teams you need to acquire and develop outstanding people and build the talent pool the company needs. I work to recruit people who are smarter than me and more knowledgeable in their areas of expertise than I am. By surrounding yourself with key players in each department from marketing to IT, your organization has even greater chances for success. Recruit high-caliber people and develop them to make them even better than they already are. Sometimes you need to make the tough decisions to make sure you have the right talent for your business at that time. As your company grows, your business might outgrow a person and their skillset, leading to difficult decisions that, when implemented, will often lead the company to greater levels of success.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?

Catherine: International travel, both professional and personal. By traveling alone, you have to overcome fear and often be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Another hobby of mine is horseback riding, which I have found there are several mental benefits to. Having to truly listen to your horse allows you to stay in the moment, resulting in a brief break from the day-to-day challenge of running an international company, and inevitably sharpens my ability to think quickly.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Catherine: I love what I do. I’m passionate about franchising and love that I have the opportunity to help people achieve the dream of business ownership, allowing them to take control of their own destiny, build wealth for their families, create jobs and drive economic output. In my opinion, finding something you are truly passionate about is one of the most important contributing factors to your success as a leader.

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