…Focus on what you can control and work on those things — I have found that resilience rises from making progress on those things that you can control. You can control your reaction to situations. You can also control how you prioritize, spend and invest your time.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Monson.
Catherine Monson brings 30 years of franchising and management experience to her leadership role that spans multiple brands. She is currently the CEO of Propelled Brands, the parent company of FASTSIGNS®, SIGNWAVE®, NerdsToGo®, MY SALON Suite® and Salon Plaza®. Catherine has served on the Board of Directors of the IFA since 2008 and entered her second year as Chair of the IFA in February 2021.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I had a less-than-optimal childhood and grew up with an abusive alcoholic mother. The eldest of four, my mother took her unhappiness out on me and repeatedly communicated that I was not worth anything and the reason she drank. I realized early in my adult life that I had two options — to choose to live life as a victim or to choose to live life as a victor. I made a firm decision to choose the latter.
My parents had pre-schools as the family business. Starting around 9 years old, I would go with my dad on the weekends to the schools to mow the lawns and clean the kitchens and restrooms. While there, and on our drive to the schools and then back home, we would talk business. At a young age, I fell in love with the business of business, and by the time I graduated from high school, I wanted to be CEO of a company.
My background in franchising 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 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 leading a company 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, 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 over 750 FASTSIGNS® locations worldwide.
Now, as CEO of Propelled Brands, I lead the teams that are supporting franchisees and growing our brands which include FASTSIGNS®, NerdsToGo®, MY SALON Suite® and Salon Plaza®.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I’ve had a variety of interesting experiences throughout my career but a few highlights include successfully managing FASTSIGNS International, Inc. during the pandemic, while concurrently leading the International Franchise Association (IFA) as Chair for two consecutive years and advocating to protect the franchise business model on Capitol Hill.
Leading through the pandemic pushed me to be an even stronger leader and was also 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 both resilient and courageous and to lead successfully. It is my belief that without the building block of a positive mental attitude, one lacks a solid foundation on which to build additional character traits to carry one through adversity. While leading FASTSIGNS through the pandemic, I also had the opportunity to serve as the Chair of the International Franchising Association (IFA) in both 2020 and 2021 as we strove to make a positive and dramatic impact throughout all of franchising. My takeaway from this experience is how beneficial it is to have strong, resilient leaders throughout challenging times.
I find great meaning in my work as a franchising advocate, and in the past, I have had the opportunity to testify before Congress twice on key franchising issues. I am in regular contact with elected officials and the Administration on Capitol Hill.
Through all of my experiences, I continue to be reminded that a positive mental attitude is the catalyst for how successful you become. “Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.” — Zig Ziglar
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe the results-oriented, franchisee-focused, motivated culture and people behind our brands are what make them stand out. In 2021, Propelled Brands was formed, the corporate umbrella that includes FASTSIGNS®; SIGNWAVE® in Australia; NerdsToGo®, an emerging IT services franchise brand acquired in September 2020; and Suite Management Franchising, LLC, the parent company of MY SALON Suite® and Salon Plaza® acquired in June 2021. We, as Propelled Brands, continue to look for other quality franchise brands to acquire.
We started with FASTSIGNS, committed to focusing on building a network with extremely high franchisee satisfaction, continual improvements in franchisee profitability, and giving our franchisees the training and tools they and their teams need to provide outstanding service and support to their customers, leading to high net promoter scores. Now, with Propelled Brands, we bring the same strategy, culture, and discipline to each of our five brands, enriching the lives of their franchisees. We know franchising, we love franchisees, and we have a supportive, positive, and motivating culture.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am deeply grateful to my former boss and long-time mentor, Don Lowe, CEO of Franchise Services, Inc., (FSI) franchisor of TeamLogicIT, Sir Speedy, PIP and MultiCopy. His example taught me what true leadership looks like and 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. Together, we have shared the stage to speak on best practices in franchising and offer insight about why having a mentor is instrumental to every leader’s success. Don’s mentorship has made a very positive impact on my abilities as a franchising leader.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience, just like success, begins with making optimism your default through adversity. I believe that resilience can be developed, and it’s much like a diamond with many facets. It covers a range of traits such as grit, endurance, perseverance, courage, calmness, fortitude and commitment. How resilience is manifested in the people who develop it includes courage in the face of fear, perseverance when the days are incredibly tough, a relentless resolve and grit to never give up, an internal fortitude that is cultivated by daily habits, and a commitment to endure no matter what comes. At our office, we have a long hallway filled with over 150 quotes on positive mindset, courage, resilience, goal-directed behavior and self motivation. One of my favorite quotes from Inspiration Hall is from Bohdi Sanders: “During times of persistent hardship is when the warrior learns the most about his fortitude.”
The ability to become resilient and bounce back is also made possible by characteristics such as gratitude, kindness, flexibility and learning to see the humor in the darkness. Our team was inspired by the following Zig Ziglar quote as a mantra throughout the pandemic, “Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.”
Developing the strengths of resilience, courage, grit, and perseverance are similar to strengthening muscles; the more you use them, the stronger they get.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Nelson Mandela said that “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Courage and resilience are both characteristics of successful overcomers, but I believe each characteristic is developed at a different point during the adversity process. Courage is required in the moment when you must choose to walk forward in the face of fear with the knowledge that what you have to do is infinitely more important than not doing it. Resilience is that ability to spring back like a rubber band, and it comes as a result of continually acting with courage and working regularly to develop your grit and fortitude. As Angela Lee Duckworth shared in her famous TedTalk on Grit: “Grit is sticking with your future day in, day out and not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years.”
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Two historical figures that come to mind for me are Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. Abraham Lincoln, who grieved the death of his mother as a child and was prone to periods of melancholy, rose to become one of the most well-known US presidents. His success of navigating a political struggle and civil war, in addition to bringing an end of slavery and bringing hope for both social and civil freedom for African-Americans are what contributed to his enduring legacy. Many times in Abraham Lincoln’s life, he could have given up; he experienced so many disappointments and failures. He chose not to give up. He chose to continue, to not give up, to be resilient. Clearly, this was a choice.
Winston Churchhill, who was not without his own personal battles, was a resilient leader who, despite opposition by naysayers, led his country and the world through war and into peace during World War II. Throughout his career, he made strategic decisions that often involved incredible risk. Churchill once stated, “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.” That continuous effort is a choice to not give up, to not give in, but to be resilient.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I became the president of PIP Printing in 1998. At that time, 85% of franchise agreements were expiring in 2001 and 2002. The majority of franchisees in the network and most of the corporate team thought the company would cease to exist because the company had been running a 15% renewal rate. When I became President, I got the team focused on providing better support and service. We focused on improving franchisee profitability. I spent a lot of time in the field visiting franchisees and finding out what they needed, and I ensured we provided what they needed. As a result of these focused efforts, 95% of franchisees renewed their franchise agreements. Many said that could not be done.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
One of the greatest challenges I faced in my career and that we as a company faced was the COVID-19 pandemic.
By mid- January 2020, I shared concern with my senior team that the “novel coronavirus” that was affecting China could cause significant disruption to the US. I asked our IT team to put together the training and tools for our franchisees to enable them to have all but their production employees work remotely. I asked our IT team to buy the equipment needed to allow our team to work remotely. We had been working on a “managing through a recession document” as a low priority project for over a year; I asked the team to get it completed and add the focus on managing through the (at that time potential) pandemic to it.
On March 5, we sent our franchisees a bulletin on how to get and stay prepared amidst the spread of the coronavirus. It included how to create a contingency plan, how to communicate to their employees, how to get their employees trained and set up to work remotely, how to educate their employees to reduce the spread of the virus, and how to manage cash in anticipation of a significant disruption.
On March 10, we sent our franchisees the “managing through recession” document, updated for a potential pandemic, titled “Preparing and Protecting Your Business in Uncertain Times.”
Over the weekend of March 14 and 15, the US economy was shut down. I walked into our office the morning of Monday, March 16, and I could feel the fear and tension. I quickly called a team huddle and gave the team a combination of both how we were going to lead our franchisees successfully through this pandemic and a pep talk. I focused on how we needed to control our emotions and mindset in order to provide the needed leadership for our franchisees. I explained how we were going to move to remote work, and the IT team provisioned everyone with the equipment–laptops, monitors, web cams, etc.- that they had been buying for the prior few weeks. From there, I walked into our video studio and recorded a video for our franchisees to let them know how we were going to support them, including weekly network-wide video conference calls, the first of which was held on Thursday, March 19.
Our 700+ FASTSIGNS franchisees were then experiencing the disastrous effects of the shutdown. At that time, signage companies were not on the list of “essential businesses” (the US government did not put signage companies on the list of essential businesses until July 2020). Our franchisees had employees they cared about and wanted to pay, rent to pay, and business dried up.
We taught our franchisees how to be an essential business: to reach out to their essential customers (hospitals, medical centers, grocery stores, food banks, etc.) and have them send a letter/email with their logo on it explaining how they needed FASTSIGNS to remain open to provide the constantly changing signage they needed. Our franchisees put together hard copy files of these letters and used them whenever they were inspected and questioned about why they were operating. We taught our franchisees to operate by telephone and email only, with their front doors locked, and how to handle deliveries and installations safely while following CDC protocols.
We taught our franchisees how to comply with the CARES Act, how to apply for PPP Loans, and more.
We led our FASTSIGNS centers to pivot their business models to provide everything from COVID-19 signs as well as PPE and even direct-to-consumer products. We’re fortunate to have a business model that allows our franchisees to quickly respond to whatever their communities need most.
We provided the tools necessary for FASTSIGNS centers to continue assisting other essential businesses while FASTSIGNS’ inside sales, outside sales, and graphic design employees worked remotely.
Our team quickly created a “Prepared” site for our franchisees and their employees, filled with information and resources regarding COVID-related signage and safety barriers to keep their communities safe, how to sell and market remotely, how to keep employees engaged and connected while they worked remotely, and more.
Weekly Connect with Catherine video conference calls were hosted where we shared success stories, ideas and information to keep our franchise network informed and positive. There was huge adoption of these by those watching live and viewing later through our resource site.
I recorded weekly motivational videos to help our franchisees and their employees keep their spirits up during this challenging time.
Like Winston Churchill said, “When you find yourself in hell, keep going.” Rather than giving up, we just kept going. It was challenging, but I poured myself into leading our team to support our franchisees. I learned first-hand what the Ovid quote meant that says “Courage conquers all things: it even gives strength to the body.” I believe this, because I experienced the strength to push forward every day.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I believe that resilience is a choice. After growing up in an alcoholic home, I knew I could choose to be a victim or a victor, and I chose to be a victor. That is a decision each person has the ability and choice to make.
Cultivating resilience also comes from taking personal responsibility. This is the concept that we as humans can choose and can control our own destiny. I believe that the level of resilience we attain and the outcome of much of our lives is a direct result of taking responsibility and making good choices. And closely tied to those two attributes is hard work. Overcoming adversity, recovering and growing will never be easy, but it will always be worth it.
In your opinion, what are steps that someone can take to become more resilient?
I believe that resilience is similar to a muscle in that it can be developed and strengthened. Here are steps I have learned to help develop my resilience.
- Don’t accept every thought as true or helpful — Our minds come up with many thoughts, many of which are negative or work against us. I have learned that I do not need to believe my mind when it thinks a negative thought. Often our past experiences, self-defeating beliefs and feelings in any situation become an invisible filter that influences how we interpret the world and holds us back. Growing more aware of when you’re worrying or thinking negative or unhelpful thoughts, and choosing to focus on what you can control and focusing on all of the good things you have to be grateful for, instead of looking at the world through a filter of negativity and fear, is the first step in becoming more resilient.
When I catch myself thinking negative thoughts, I firmly tell myself “STOP!” to shake me out of that negative space, and I redirect myself to something more useful. By focusing on useful thoughts, I do not lose time to worry and negativity.
- Rest Your Mind — Building resilience also requires not expecting yourself to be a machine for 24 hours a day. Sometimes your mind needs a break from the daily stressors in order to recharge. Allowing your mind time to rest with an activity you enjoy is important for optimum health. It’s also important to tune out the noise and simplify some of the bombarding daily messages such as disabling push notifications and detoxing from some of the digital stimuli.
I’ve always been a fan of rock music, and I used to listen to it while I worked to pump me up. During the pandemic, I found listening to smooth jazz and going for evening walks really helped me rest my mind and renew my spirit and energy, so I could be ready for the next day.
- Prioritize sleep — The time we spend awake is precious but so is the time we spend asleep, because our bodies and brains can recover and repair while we sleep. Restful sleep enables us to improve our memory, mood, creativity and problem-solving skills. I admit sleep is an issue for me, and it has been for decades. During the early months of the pandemic, when I was working 7 days a week for 12 or more hours a day, I had to literally schedule going to bed and find ways to turn off the adrenaline that kept me going.
- Let Go — To enhance our resilience, we have to realize that in many instances, control is an illusion. We have very little control over some things that happen in our lives and the people in them. Fixating on trying to control those things you cannot control will lead to exhaustion and absorb your time. Sometimes perfectionism keeps us stuck and to cultivate resilience, we must realize when we are carrying a load of responsibility that is not ours to carry.
- Focus on what you can control and work on those things — I have found that resilience rises from making progress on those things that you can control. You can control your reaction to situations. You can also control how you prioritize, spend and invest your time.
- Take a deep breath — This simple, physical component of our lives is accessible wherever and whenever we need. If we feel stressed and overwhelmed, by slowing down and deepening our breath, we can calm our thinking as well as reduce blood pressure and settle our emotions. I practice a specific deep breathing technique when I am feeling stressed and it works wonders for me.
Byron Nelson, the American professional golfer once said, “One way to break up any kind of tension is good deep breathing.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I speak regularly on the five common characteristics of highly successful people to share the knowledge I have gained along my journey. Because of this, I would create a movement that educates everyone, and specifically young people, about the five common characteristics of all highly successful people and that these are learned skills. I would share the great value of a Positive Mental Attitude, Goal Directed Behavior, Self-Motivation, a Sense of Urgency and Never Stopping Learning. My ultimate goal would be to inspire young people to take ownership of their actions and empower them to courageously achieve their dreams and build the future of their dreams.
Because I want to pay it forward, I created a video series on my YouTube channel that highlights topics including optimism, motivation, overcoming adversity and more. It can be found at youtube.com/catherinemonson.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’ve always wanted to meet and talk with Condaleeza Rice. She has integrity, intelligence and has overcome great obstacles in her life to ultimately hold some of the most powerful positions in the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!