Casting a Leadership Shadow: Leadership tips from a master
Name: Catherine Monson
Company: Propelled Brands
Brands: 765 Fastsigns, 285 Suite Management Franchising, 33 NerdsToGo
Years in franchising: 40
Years in current position: 14
With more than four decades in franchising, Catherine Monson is a well-recognized name in the franchise community. She has been at the helm of Fastsigns since 2009, and in 2021 oversaw the formation of Propelled Brands, which includes Fastsigns, NerdsToGo, and Suite Management Franchising (My Salon Suite and Salon Plaza). In addition, she has been recognized with the IFA’s prestigious Bonny LeVine Award and has been chair of the IFA twice. She was even featured on the CBS TV show “Undercover Boss.”
She is a consummate leader and has the skill set needed to oversee an organization with more than 1,000 franchised locations worldwide. “I want to cast a ‘leadership shadow’ in such a way that even when I am not around, my team knows how to solve problems and make decisions in line with our company values,” she says.
Under Monson’s leadership, Propelled Brands is characterized by a growth-oriented culture that prioritizes fostering integrity and positivity throughout the organization. “I believe in the power of positive thinking and goal-oriented behavior,” she says. “Visual displays, such as our ‘Inspiration Hall’ at the corporate office, inspire and motivate employees, franchisees, and visitors.” She says expressing gratitude, celebrating milestones, and recognizing team members and franchisees is essential to how she leads.
Monson says the future looks bright for Propelled Brands. “We believe that all of our brands are going to continue to grow. We’re having a successful year in franchise sales with all three brands and have strong same-center sales growth or occupancy growth in all three brands. We believe that the more proactive you are the better the results will be.”
With three brands presently under the Propelled Brands umbrella, Monson says the company is looking to acquire two more in the next 18 months.
What is your role as CEO? My key roles and responsibilities are to create the strategic vision for the company and clearly communicate it; to drive for results; to build high-performing teams; to recruit and develop outstanding talent; to lead and manage change; and to lead by example. I need to set very high standards for myself, fulfill them, and lead with the example of personal excellence.
How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? Leading through the pandemic pushed me to be an even stronger leader and was one of the greatest learning experiences in my time as CEO. This experience further reinforced my belief that a positive mindset is the key to developing the skills you need to be resilient and courageous and to lead successfully. While leading Fastsigns through the pandemic, I also had the opportunity to serve as the chairwoman of the IFA in both 2020 and 2021 as we strove to make a positive impact throughout all of franchising.
Describe your leadership style. Leadership is about vision and strategic focus, the ability to clearly communicate a compelling vision, aligning goals of different departments and different brands, and being an innovative thinker. Another critical part of leadership is driving for results. A good leader does create some tension in the organization to drive even greater results. Another big part of leadership is building high-performance teams. It starts with selecting strong team members and providing them the tools, training, and development to further excel. Then it includes setting goals, holding people accountable, and creating the environment where people’s natural motivation is released. I also think it’s critical for a leader to always have a positive attitude and to project confidence. And sometimes you have to fake that. I think it’s important to learn how to handle conflict effectively and lead through personal experience.
What has inspired your leadership style? I am deeply grateful to my former boss and long-time mentor, Don Lowe, CEO of Franchise Services, the franchisor of TeamLogicIT, Sir Speedy, PIP, and MultiCopy. His example taught me what true leadership looks like, as well as the best practices in franchising.
What has been your biggest leadership challenge? Leading through the pandemic was one of my greatest leadership challenges. During weekly video calls, we covered how to comply with the CARES Act, how to apply for PPP loans, how to prove Fastsigns centers were an essential business, and how to operate during the pandemic with as many employees as possible working remotely. We also pivoted to create new products and services for our franchisees to sell and covered that in our weekly video calls. I also decided to focus not just on informational communication, but on inspirational communication as well.
How do you transmit your culture from your office to frontline employees? I truly enjoy creating a growth-oriented, positive culture and leading the team and the company to meet goals and achieve success. I reinforce our company values at every meeting, and I live the values. We use our values in the hiring process, ensuring that our values are understood well before we hire someone, and in giving candidates the opportunity to select, or de-select, based on whether they are motivated and can fulfill our values. Our performance appraisal system is based on our company values, further reinforcing them.
How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? It should all be tailored based on the experience, strengths, and weaknesses of the individual CMO. I believe it is critical to clearly define the goals and expectations for the business and the marketing function. It is important for the CEO to foster open communication with the CMO and to provide the resources and support they need to be successful. In addition, I believe in encouraging professional development through relevant conferences, seminars, workshops, executive coaching, and leadership development programs. I also believe in encouraging collaboration between the marketing department and other departments. It’s important to ensure that the CMO is exposed to and has a full understanding of the workings of the entire organization. And, as with all of my team, I believe it is important to recognize and reward achievements.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ? That would definitely be on the job, making sure you’re an expert in your industry or whatever you’re managing. You can’t do a great job leading people if you don’t understand what they do.
Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? In any organization, there ultimately is going to be one person responsible for the tough decisions. I think the more you develop leadership skills, the more leaders you develop as well. But when push comes to shove and the tough decision needs to be made, it’s usually best made by one person. Now, it’s probably good to involve other executives in that tough decision and work to get buy-in, but you can’t run a company on buy-in alone. I think about what’s best for the company and all of the stakeholders. I have private equity owners, franchisees, and team members, and I have to balance all of their interests for the long-term benefit of the company.
Do you want to be liked or respected? Leadership is not a popularity contest. Leadership is about making tough, correct decisions. Not everybody’s going to like the right decisions, but it’s important they be made. I’d much rather be respected than liked. But I wouldn’t mind people liking me as well.
Advice to CEO wannabes: 1) Exercise your mind daily. Fuel it with positive messages, maintain a journal of uplifting quotes, and stay updated on industry trends. 2) Create a positive culture. At Propelled Brands, we prioritize fostering integrity and positivity throughout the organization. I believe in the power of positive thinking and goal-oriented behavior. 3) Master prioritization. Delegation and efficient time management are crucial for leaders. 4) Embrace adversity. During the Great Recession, I initiated a 28-city “town hall” tour, improving communication, listening, and implementing strategies to turn the company around. 5) Keep your body healthy. Leading a company is demanding and requires stamina and energy. Your body is your most priceless possession. 6) Pursue a passion outside of work. Engaging in activities such as yoga, running, or horseback riding can rejuvenate your mind and boost productivity when returning to work.
Describe your management style. I avoid micromanaging unless I have an underperforming team member. In such cases, I provide specific feedback, coaching, and temporary micromanagement to help achieve the business unit’s goals. Fortunately, micromanagement is rarely necessary for me.
What does your management team look like? We have a diverse, smart, confident, knowledgeable, and motivated team that lives our company values.
How does your management team help you lead? Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of working with exceptional leaders who possess unique strengths and expertise. I consistently emphasize to them the trust I place in their ability to make optimal decisions for the company. Additionally, our senior leaders are present to provide encouragement, support, and guidance, stepping in to help whenever needed.
Favorite leadership gurus: Do you read books on leadership? Some of my favorite books on leadership are John Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, Rudy Giuliani’s Leadership, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, John Wooden’s Wooden on Leadership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s Extreme Ownership, and Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.
What makes you say, “Yes, now that’s why I do what I do!”? I get to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and it has allowed me to develop relationships with thousands of franchisees. I also believe my calling is to support those facing challenges, whether it is a health battle or loss of a loved one. I believe I am on this earth to provide love and emotional support to those dealing with challenges.
What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your businesses? All three of our brands are B2B, so we look at our customers’ spending habits. In the Fastsigns business, our customers remain concerned about having great signage and visual graphics that inform, direct, and sell. In the NerdsToGo business, our small B2B customers are looking for a resource that will act as their outsourced VP of IT. In the My Salon Suite business, our members are looking for a place to run their own business out of a suite they can personalize, that’s near where most of their clients are, and is safe and secure.
How is the economy driving consumer behavior in your system? Our B2B customers feel positive about the future. They want to continue to grow their businesses, and they’re looking to each of our three brands to help them successfully do that.
What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? Employment continues to grow, unemployment is low, and consumers are still spending. All of that drives the small-business economy. At the same time, I think there will be a recession. The question is when? You want to make sure that you are building up cash on your balance sheet and improving your quick ratio and your current ratios so you can weather a tough time.
Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding units? They are bullish. Our franchisees are highly optimistic and recognize the growing demand for our solutions in their respective local markets. They are diligently striving to meet this demand, demonstrating their commitment and dedication. The primary challenge lies not in generating demand, but rather in expanding our capacity to fulfill it.
What time do you like to be at your desk? Before 9 a.m. I can even surprise myself and sometimes get there before 8 a.m. But I would much rather start answering some emails, thinking about the day, and preparing for the day at home, and then getting to the office before 9.
Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? I’ve never met a morning I like. However, as a leader, I need to start the day strong. My typical morning is when my trainer shows up at 5:30 a.m. at my house. A typical day starts with me getting up 45 minutes before that, getting a little caffeine, and preparing for an hour-long workout before getting ready for work. I don’t drink wine with lunch unless I have the opportunity to nap the rest of the day because day drinking wipes me out.
Do you socialize with your team after work/outside the office? We have what we call “team week,” where we bring all of our team members in for a week of training, and I really look forward to the social events we have with them. I have times when I socialize outside the office with my executive team. I also think that, as leaders, it’s important that we respect our people, love our people, and care about our people. But we always have to keep the business top of mind.
Last two books read: Radical Candor by Kim Scott and Change Your Brain Every Day by Daniel Amen.
What technology do you take on the road? I can’t go anywhere without my laptop and my cell phone. I take a portable expandable monitor if I want to have three screens going at the same time. Sometimes I take an external video camera so I can have better image quality, particularly if I’m doing an interview.
How do you relax/balance life and work? Most people would look at my life and say I have little to no work/life balance. However, I love my life. At the end of the vast majority of days and weeks, I feel energized. To relax on the weekends, I love going hiking or running. I love being outdoors. I am a member of Stretch Zone and get at least two stretches a week. I find these stretches more relaxing than a massage. I love to travel and have dinner parties at my house.
Favorite vacation destinations: The best trip I ever took was to Africa, where I went to four countries. I was in the wild literally every day for two weeks. I certainly love every place in Europe that I have visited. I also enjoy Tahiti, Hawaii, and Cabo San Lucas.
Favorite occasions to send employees notes: I send about 2,000 birthday cards a year. I send notes to employees on their anniversaries every year. Whenever something exciting happens in an employee or franchisee’s life, such as having a baby, having a grandchild, getting married, or getting engaged, I send notes. If a friend, employee, or a franchisee is facing cancer, they’re likely going to get a card a week from me. If somebody loses a family member or somebody they love, I send a condolence card as well as additional cards afterward. I love sending graduation cards with a gift card to my employees’ children when they graduate high school and college.
Favorite company product/service: I am a big tea drinker, but I only drink English breakfast tea by Tazo or Teavana. While I love how coffee smells, I hate how it tastes.
What are your long-term goals for the company? We want to keep growing the brands in our portfolio and look to add more brands to our portfolio.
How has the economy changed your goals for your company? We believe that all of our brands are going to continue to grow. We’re having a successful year in franchise sales with all three brands showing strong same-center sales growth or occupancy growth. Our Fastsigns and NerdsToGo franchisees are being more proactive with outside sales, and our My Salon Suite franchisees are being more proactive in the marketing and outreach they do to fill any suite they have open.
Where can capital be found these days? There is no question that there is a tightening in the capital markets. However, Propelled Brands is blessed in that we have outstanding relationships with knowledgeable lenders that understand the franchise space and understand the high success rates we have. So Fastsigns, NerdsToGo, and My Salon Suite franchisees have great access to capital.
How do you measure success? By setting high goals and achieving them in all areas of my life.
What has been your greatest success? I would say managing Fastsigns International, Inc., during the pandemic, while concurrently leading the IFA as chair for two consecutive years and advocating on Capitol Hill to protect the franchise business model.
Any regrets? None.
What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? We hope to acquire at least two more brands and continue to grow the three brands we currently have.
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