Leading by Example: Catherine Monson shows the way at FastSigns

Catherine MonsonIn the eyes of Catherine Monson, the most important role of a CEO is leading and inspiring. "It's critical for the leader to communicate a clear, compelling vision and align the different departments or teams with the company's priorities," says Monson, CEO of FastSigns. "I set the vision, goals, and standards and then work through my team to achieve them."

When Monson took over the 25-year-old brand in early 2009, she put this approach right to work. First on her agenda was clearing up a communication gap between corporate and franchisees. Some franchisees were unhappy with the lack of support they felt they were receiving from corporate, resulting in stalled brand growth.

Monson created a sales incentive program and instituted monthly company meetings for sales updates, program developments, company announcements, and praise for departments on their projects and efforts. She even began making regular "Connect with Catherine" calls with the franchise system to provide updates and answer questions. Since implementing these programs, franchisee satisfaction has improved and the company's growth has picked up.

It's all part of the management and leadership approach for the franchise industry veteran. Before arriving at FastSigns, Monson spent more than two decades with Sir Speedy and PIP Printing in numerous leadership positions. She has a history of inspiring, transforming, and growing brands. But perhaps most important is her dedication to leading by example.

Name: Catherine Monson
Title: CEO
Company: FastSigns International
Units: 540-plus locations
Family: Formerly married with no children. I have several nieces and nephews I enjoy spending time with.
Years in franchising: More than 20
Years in current position: 5 in January


What is your role as CEO?
If I had to boil it down to the single most important role, it is to lead and inspire both our corporate franchisor team as well as our 540 franchise partners and their team members.

There actually are several additional skill sets I believe are required to be an outstanding leader. The first is vision, the strategic focus. It's critical for the leader to communicate a clear, compelling vision and align the different departments or teams with the company's priorities. Another skill or competency is driving results. The successful leader knows that it's not about activity; instead it is about producing results. A successful leader drives hard and takes charge to produce results, focusing on the things that are most important in the business forward and making the tough decisions.

Also important is building high-performing teams and acquiring and developing outstanding people. A strong leader also leads and manages change, acting as a catalyst of change to improve the business. Last is leading through personal excellence and example. I set very high standards for myself, work very hard to lead consistently by example, and strive for continuous learning and personal development


Describe your leadership style.
I set the vision, goals, and standards and then work through my team to achieve them. I refrain from micromanaging, except in those rare situations when I have a team member who is underperforming. In those cases, in addition to giving specific feedback and coaching on how to improve, I will be micromanaging for a time to ensure the business unit attains its goals. Thankfully, I rarely have to partake in micromanaging. I do, however, have a solid grasp of the important details of the business, but I don't see understanding the details as a negative in any way.

What has inspired your leadership style?
I do believe, to some extent, that most successful leaders possess a similar behavioral or personality profile. Therefore, to some degree, I would say that I was born with leadership characteristics or that it developed during my childhood. My behavioral profile is more dominant than accepting, more independent than compliant, more driving than relaxed, and more analytical than sociable. With that as the backdrop, it has been my practice, since first getting into business, to seek out successful leaders and learn from them. Sometimes it is in a mentee role. Other times in listening to them speak or reading their books. One of the most significant mentors in my career has been Don Lowe, CEO of the multi-brand franchising company Franchise Services, Inc.

What is your biggest leadership challenge?
Learning to focus on the most important three or four drivers of the business, saying "no" or "not right now" to many other good ideas or initiatives, and keeping my team focused on implementing or effecting those same three or four key drivers. Concentrating resources, essentially my people's time and money, on the few most-significant drivers of the business is important to maximizing the success of the company, while at the same time remaining open to new opportunities. In short, there are always a thousand competing ideas, but if you spread yourself too thin, you're not going to achieve as much as you would if you remain focused on the important few key drivers of the business.

How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees?
Once the vision is set and the company's key strategic objectives are determined and the desired results-oriented culture is defined, my job is to reinforce, focus, and cheerlead the team. I begin every meeting, whether with my team members or franchise partners and their employees, with a review or discussion of FastSigns' four key strategic objectives, which outline our mission. By my personal example and reinforcing their importance, the entire team comes to understand that this is what FastSigns International is all about. These four key strategic objectives are: 1) to increase franchise partner profitability; 2) to increase average unit volume; 3) to increase the value of the FastSigns brand; and 4) to further improve franchise partner satisfaction. We have specific metrics for each of these strategic objectives and ensure that every team member understands their role in fulfilling them. I also believe that language is critically important. A simple change, such as using the term franchise partner, rather than franchisee or "zee," has resulted in subtle improvements in our culture.

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ?
Since I don't have an MBA, I would have to say on-the-job An MBA teaches you principles and educates you about business and finance. You cannot develop your leadership skills unless you're leading people. Of course, it is also essential to be confident in regard to your business. Therefore, having an MBA--which would increase your confidence in regard to your business principles and finance--would never hurt. But it's by actually leading people and learning through experience that you truly develop your leadership skills.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions?
I believe it's important to gather the facts and understand the implications and ramifications of decisions. This is often best accomplished by involving and discussing decisions with my key management team members. The benefits of understanding other perspectives is important to making the best decision. At the same time, the toughest decisions are ultimately made by me.

Do you want to be liked or respected?
Optimally, both. But given the choice, I'll take respect over being liked. The CEO's job is not to run a popularity contest. The CEO's job is to drive the business forward. If done well, it will result in respect.

Advice to CEO wannabes:
Several key qualities are required to be a successful leader or a CEO. These include confidence in your business, management, and leadership skills, as well as your commitment to your business. True commitment inspires and attracts others. Similarly, people will believe in you only if you believe in your cause.

Initiative is another key quality for a successful CEO. Success is connected to actions. Focus is also important, which means understanding how to set priorities as well as the ability to concentrate. Developing a positive mental attitude is a prerequisite for success of a CEO. Self-motivation and self-discipline are also required. And, of course, passion is important. Passion is demonstrated in the enthusiasm and excitement you have about your business, your brand, and your organization. You can't start a fire in your organization unless there is one burning inside you.


Describe your management style.
Setting the vision, setting objectives, involving the team in the development of the tactics to achieve the objectives, and allowing the outstanding people on my team to implement those tactics to achieve the set objectives.

What does your management team look like?
My senior management team is made up of knowledgeable, confident, passionate, driven leaders committed to the FastSigns brand.

How does your management team help you lead?
My management team is made up of high-caliber people, knowledgeable in their area of the business, and whose advice and counsel I respect and welcome. They are willing and able to disagree with me and give me a different perspective. As an executive team, we meet regularly to review the business, focused on excellence in operations and execution. In addition to helping in decision making, they also lead and motivate their teams effectively.

Favorite management gurus: Do you read management books?
I read a lot. Some of my all-time favorites include: Good to Great by Jim Collins; The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell; Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing; On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis; Wooden on Leadership by John Wooden; and Leadership by Rudy Giuliani.

What makes you say, "Yes, now that's why I do what I do!"
I'm competitive. I love winning. In business, winning is defined as meeting or exceeding your company's plans. It's defined as winning in the marketplace. It's defined as becoming the preeminent brand. I wake up every morning wanting to win.


What time do you like to be at your desk?
I believe in leading by example. I choose to be at my desk before our opening hours of 8 a.m. and I am often the last one out the door at night.

Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch?
Since I'm not a morning person and I want to be at my desk before we open for business at 8 a.m., I exercise at the end of the day. And, there's no wine at lunch for me. If there was, you would find me asleep at my desk in the afternoon!

Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office?
While it may be a shortcoming, I don't spend a lot of time socializing with my team outside of work.

Last two books read:
I am currently reading Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman. Next on my list is Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In.

What technology do you take on the road?
I always take my laptop, iPad, and iPhone. At night, in my room, I prefer my laptop over my iPad for ease in responding to emails. During the day, I use my iPad to stay connected.

How do you relax/balance life and work?
I am not an example of work/life balance. Most people would consider me a workaholic. I love what I do and am satisfied and fulfilled at the end of the day. To relax, I like to go on a long run, spend time with friends, have dinner parties, or travel.

Favorite destinations:
Africa for a camera safari, Europe for sightseeing and history, as well as horseback riding holidays.

Favorite occasions to send employees notes:
I often send employees notes for a job well done, on their company anniversary with a specific thank-you for the things they do well, and on their birthday.

Bottom Line

What are your long-term goals for the company?
To triple system-wide sales, double the number of locations, and maintain our high franchise partner satisfaction.

How has the economy changed your goals for your company?
I took over the helm as CEO in January 2009. While the economy I encountered has not changed my goals for the company, it did delay achieving them a bit.

Where can capital be found these days?
Because of our outstanding unit-level economics and extremely high level of franchise partner success, we are one of 30 select brands that are part of Franchise America Finance's SBA program. We have $5 million in financing reserved for approved FastSigns franchise partners.

How do you measure success?
By meeting or achieving the high goals that I set for the company and myself.

What has been your greatest success?
Achieving the confidence of the FastSigns franchise partners after being selected to replace the beloved founder after his 23 years as CEO.

Any regrets?
I don't believe having regrets is healthy. I believe in taking personal responsibility, learning from mistakes and experiences, and taking action with what was learned.

What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months?
We will continue fulfilling our "More Than" brand promise and increasing average unit volume with our expanded products and services, as well as growing the number of FastSigns locations in the United States and internationally.

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