'Undercover Boss': Fastsigns International CEO Admits She's A Workaholic
But by Monson's own telling, it wasn't until her appearance on "Undercover Boss" this past Friday that the CEO of the $300 million-a-year company finally came to terms with the brutal truth of her own personal reality -- she's a workaholic whose devotion to professional success has had some big personal costs.
The episode featured an unusual storyline for the CBS series, now one episode away from wrapping up its third season. (A fourth season has already been ordered by the network.) Most often, the series revolves around a self-assured boss confronting lapses in his or her workplaces, and then going about rectifying those problems.
To be sure, Monson, had her fair share of on-the-ground comeuppances during the episode. (Not having a proper e-commerce outfit in 2012 was a glaring embarrassment, as Sheldon, the second employee she visits on the episode pointed out to her.) But her turn on "Undercover Boss" was really about her personal catharsis and, ultimately, her rejection of a life lived in the corner office at the expense of the family room.
Monson coped with a challenging childhood by developing a Teflon exterior. As she puts it at the top of the show, "More important than being liked is doing what's right for the company." It wasn't just that her brother barely survived a surfing accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. While growing up in Southern California, Monson had an abusive, alcoholic mother. After a series of traumatic incidents, including her mother shattering a glass over her head, Monson and her siblings got a restraining order against their own mother. Tragically, their mother responded by shooting herself to death.
A Hard Beginning
Monson, perhaps not surprisingly, threw herself into work and has no children after two failed marriages. She even uprooted herself and moved to Texas to take on the Fastsigns job after more than 30 years working at the California-based Franchise Services.
Her soul-searching began early in the show. After working with a site surveyor named Jen, Monson and Jen went bowling together. Bowling happens to be Jen's passion, and it was through her league that she met her husband. "When you are passionate about something, you make it happen," was how Jen explained fitting her hobby into her life. Monson, posing as Louise Steeley, an aging rocker looking to launch a new career on the reality show called "Second Chances," couldn't help but compare her own passion for horseback riding. "I've put it on hold, and maybe I need to bring it back," she said, but added, "Right now my commitment is to Fastsigns."
Her conviction in work, however, was chipped away. Working with Sheldon, a sign maker at a production center in Austin, Tex., Monson couldn't keep up with the assembly line for production and accidentally tore off parts of the signs. How does Sheldon do it? she asked. Raising children, he said, taught him patience. Upon finding out that he is raising a kid with a wife who is battling breast cancer, the CEO says, the experience "must have been an amazing lesson in caring and love."
But it was really during her next site visit, working on installations in Culver City, Calif., that Monson has her epiphany. She couldn't apply decals without letting in air bubbles, but Gary, another worker, calmly gets it all done -- he's a "teddy bear," she says. Gary coolly explained to her that he grew up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood, got mixed up in gangs and drug dealing, but had a change of heart when he was 19. Facing a possible a 25-year sentence, he said, a judge let him off, telling him that it was his lucky day. "Good things come from bad things," he told Monson, although on that very day of the show's filming, he learned that he was getting evicted.
The Moment Of Truth
Monson was visibly moved. "I've never met anyone like Gary, on one hand, and then, on the other, he's very much like my brother," she said.
During her last site visit, she worked with Gary on installing high-rise signs from a crane in Phoenix and learned that Gary and his wife adopted a child, despite the fact that his wife has multiple sclerosis. Monson says, "If given the chance to go back, I might do it differently."
Her new emphasis on the personal over professional animated the reveal. She told Sheldon, the Austin worker who is raising a kid with his wife who has cancer, "It would be a dream to find a man who would stand by like you stood by Michelle." She gave him $50,000 to help with medical bills, in addition to $10,000 for a honeymoon.
She told Scott, of the high-rise crane, how hearing about his choice to adopt led her to regret her own decision not to have kids, and so she gave him $10,000 to start a college fund for his daughter, and another $15,000 for their home life. And for Gary, of the eviction? $50,000 to help restart, and another $15,000 for his 2½-hour commute. "The love we have for our families far exceeds anything we accomplish in our business lives."
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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