Women At The Top: Catherine Monson

Catherine Monson

Catherine Monson
CEO, Fastsigns International

System revenue: $340 million
No. of units: 545
Public or private: Private
Growth plans: 1,000 locations in 20 countries with sales of $900 million
Founded: 1985
Began franchising: 1986
Years with company: 5
Years in franchising: 20-plus
International locations: 87

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
From a young age, I knew that I wanted to lead an organization. This is possibly due to spending time during my childhood working alongside my father in our family businesses. As the oldest of four, I spent a great deal of time with my father at his agency and later at private schools my parents owned. I had no interest in earning money by babysitting or child care or focusing on what, at the time, were considered traditional female interests, such as cooking or sewing. I would rather talk business with my father. 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 these characteristics were developed during my childhood. My behavioral profile is more dominant than accepting, more independent than compliant, and more driving than relaxed.

Role models?
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. As I progressed in my career, I studied successful leaders. I worked to understand what made those people successful and focused on implementing those characteristics and learning those necessary business and leadership skills. Pushing myself to develop the qualities of successful leaders has helped me achieve the position I am in today.

Management gurus or books that have deeply affected you:
I have read many books on leadership and continue to do so. Several of my favorites include Rudy Guiliani's book Leadership; Good to Great by Jim Collins; John Wooden's book Wooden on Leadership; Developing the Leader in You by John Maxwell; Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Winning by Jack Welch; and Execution by Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy. A book that I think is one of the very best when it comes to basic people management skills is The One Minute Manager by Blanchard and Johnson. I recommend to every manager on my team that they re-read it every year. It is a quick, short read and the leadership lessons are timeless and effective.

Has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been blessed with many great mentors and have worked to implement their advice throughout my career. They have helped me become a better leader and inspired me to continually improve my skills in sales, marketing, and leadership. In my role, I also have the opportunity to mentor many people and always learn from those experiences as well. Those insights allow me to grow both personally and professionally. My early management style was more autocratic than what works most effectively. In a previous role, I spent two years running European operations and better learned how to gain consensus from both internal and external groups while improving my collaborative skills. Learning to lead by building consensus has helped me become a better leader. One of the most significant mentors in my career has been Don Lowe, CEO of the multi-brand franchising company Franchise Services, Inc.

Female leaders you admire:
I admire leadership regardless of gender. Specifically with women, I admire Meg Whitman because she's had a diverse career and excels in every area of business. I admire Anne Mulcahy, who had to make tough decisions to save Xerox from bankruptcy. Julia Stewart of DineEquity is another female leader I admire because of her focus and drive. Julia taught me the concept of the "leadership shadow," which means to lead in such a way that your people understand what you are doing and why, and will follow your lead even when you're not there, following in your leadership shadow. I also admire and learn from my close friend Shelly Sun, co-founder and CEO of BrightStar.

Advice for young female CEO aspirants:
Regardless of gender, my advice is the same. It begins with competence: you must be extremely knowledgeable about your field as well as hone your management and leadership skills. You must be committed to excellence and take initiative. The ability to focus on what is most important is key. Strong, effective verbal and written communication skills are essential. You need to be able to develop your vision for the company (or department or group in the early days) and articulate it clearly. You must be committed to never stop learning, develop good listening skills, and understand how to set and achieve goals.

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--and I don't see understanding the details as a negative in any way.

Was becoming CEO of an organization part of your professional plan?
Yes. I have wanted to lead a company since I was in high school. Throughout my career, I was focused on opportunities to gain further experience and responsibility, with the ultimate goal of leading an organization.

What is it you love most about being CEO?
I am going to start with what I love about franchising, as that is the basis of what I love about being CEO of Fastsigns International. I grew up in a small family business, and I am passionate about and its positive impact on the economy and our country. Franchising is the most effective business model to help people get into business for themselves: they benefit from being part of a brand with systems and procedures to help them succeed, thus being in business for themselves but not by themselves. Franchised businesses have a higher success rate than independent businesses. In my more than 20-year career in franchising, I gained fulfillment in helping hundreds of people fulfill their dream of owning their own business and, in so doing, build wealth for their families. I am friends with many franchisees from the several brands I have been involved with. What I love most about being CEO of Fastsigns is leading an entire team of people who help our franchise partners succeed, thus being able to positively affect the lives of more people, helping them achieve their dream of business ownership and all the benefits that brings.

How much of your time do you spend at that, and what are you doing to spend more?
I spend about half of my time in pure leadership functions. I believe that is about the right proportion for a company the size of Fastsigns.

What do you like most about what your brand/legacy represents?
There are many things I like about our brand. Fastsigns is the leader in the signage and visual graphics industry. We remain focused, as we have since our inception, on incorporating cutting-edge technology in order to offer our customers innovative products and services to solve their communications challenges. Outstanding customer service is a hallmark of our brand. Our new, expanded "More than" brand positioning enables us to provide a broader range of products and services to our customers, allowing us to increase the positive impact we can have on their organizations. The challenge of ensuring we maintain our leadership position is another aspect of the brand that I enjoy.

If you are expanding overseas, does being a woman affect growth?
I don't believe that my gender affects our growth overseas. We believe that the power of the Fastsigns brand and our proven, effective operating system is what the potential buyer is interested in, regardless of whether they are in the U.S. or another country, whether they are evaluating a single unit or a master franchise. We are sensitive to the potential buyer's culture. We ensure that the entire team at Fastsigns is briefed on the prospective franchisee and their culture. We have found the book Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands to be helpful in this regard. We educate our team and modify our approach out of respect to the candidate's culture.

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