I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Brown the President of Fort Worth-based Children’ s Lighthouse Franchise Company, the franchisor of the nation’s leading values-based early childhood educational schools.
Michael’s primary responsibilities include oversight and management of the company’s business growth. As part of the founding family of the business, Michael is also active in planning for the future of the company, ranging from the new curriculum introductions to the growing list of markets targeted for expansion. Childrens Lighthouse Learning Centers has more than 50 schools in operation and 25 additional franchise locations in its development pipeline. Prior to leading Childrens Lighthouse, Michael served as the company’s Vice President of Finance. Michael earned his bachelor’s degree in Finance from the University of Texas at Austin.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My father founded Childrens Lighthouse with my uncle in 1994. Before we opened our first school, my family and I created and distributed marketing packets and fliers around town. At the age of 14, I started working at Childrens Lighthouse on the weekends and summer watering trees, changing air filters and whatever else was on the general maintenance list for our schools. After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin at age 22, I came on board full time and worked in various positions throughout the company. I was promoted to the Director of Finance position after four years.
My parents told me they would support me in whatever I wanted to do, but while working at Childrens Lighthouse, I found that I really enjoyed the industry. I have so much pride and excitement about our brand that I want to ensure as many children as possible get the chance to benefit from it. And, as I learned more and more about franchising, I realized what an incredible and truly innovative business model we have at Childrens Lighthouse.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I started working full time at the company, my first boss was our Director of Education and Training. One of my duties was to follow her to our schools to check certain items and provide support and training. I was right out of college, and it was the summer time, so I was wearing flip flops. About halfway through the day, she finally pulled me aside and told me we have a “no open-toe shoes” policy. Now she did not say, “Don’t ever wear flip flops again when visiting schools,” but I still took the hint and never wore them again.
Later, she told me that she was so nervous about telling the owner’s son what to wear. However, I was glad she did, because to me, it doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone has to follow the same rules. I also told her never hesitate to instruct or teach me, especially if I am doing something wrong. I wanted her and everyone else to treat me as any other employee, and that is how I was able to really learn the business. In this lesson, I also learned that, sometimes, subtlety works just as well — if not better — when making a point as opposed to direct confrontation.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This one is a complete team effort. My father and uncle created an incredible foundation with incredible people. I have learned from each and every one of them. The success of Childrens Lighthouse is because of the various experience and skills sets of each individual person. No one is good at everything. We all have unique talents, and — because we work together and complement each other so well — we make an incredible team.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Children’s Lighthouse was founded with a strong passion toward education, and the mission was simply to provide the best educational experience in a safe and fun environment. At the time, the industry consisted of many daycare centers that provided a place for parents to drop off their children while they were at work. However, my father noticed there was a lack of schools that focused on the educational aspect of the industry. These daycare centers did provide some educational experiences, but for the most part, it was just babysitting.
He founded our concept completely based around high-quality early education. Over the course of several years, we have fine-tuned our curriculum. Our care continues to be centered around education, and now we are able to utilize the most up-to-date childhood brain research that allows our curriculum to stand out as one of the industry leaders. We also fine-tuned our mission as we realized that many people don’t fully understand what a curriculum is. Many people hear curriculum, and they automatically think about workbook pages designed to teach math, spelling, handwriting, etc. While we do utilize these tools, we also incorporate so much more to make it a completely integrated learning process. The “play” centers and “games” in our classrooms are specifically designed to utilize materials and concepts that will continuously enhance and reinforce the skills learned throughout the lesson.
There are also many other aspects to learning that people don’t think about, like the social and emotional education of their children. We have developed supportive curriculum that help children develop higher thinking skills in a language-rich, literature-rich and relationship-rich learning environment. It encourages children to grow and learn through exploration and interactions with other children and their teachers. We were one of the first in the industry to focus heavily on character values, and we continue to lead the industry in this area. While we have many school districts that tell us how advanced educationally the children that come from our schools are, we also have many testimonials where these schoolteachers and principals talk about how emotionally mature our children are.
The last piece to our curriculum — which is so integral — is that we have child-directed and exploration learning times built into each day. This is where children “play” while working on activities that are enriched with elementary readiness skill development. Our outdoor playgrounds have a reputation of having some of the largest play areas in our industry so that children have the space and freedom to take a break and have fun with their friends. Many of our school owners also incorporate outside gardens, music stations, sports fields and a splash pad area for the warmer weather into their outdoor learning environments. This well-rounded approach of early learning instruction is summarized in our curriculum motto: “developing brains, bodies, and best behaviors.”
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
My philosophy is to never waver from the mission, no matter what the situation is or how difficult. We have a mission statement, like all companies, but from an internal process standpoint, our mission is to focus 100% on our franchisees and support them and their needs to better provide for the children. To help us in these efforts, we are heavily focused on communication, from our internal team to our franchisees and everyone in between. When the COVID-19 situation first hit, we were prepared to respond immediately because our internal team came together to dissect the situation and collect information.
Our leadership team set aside more than three days to call each individual franchisee to discuss their situation and what they needed. Because of this, we were able to send out guidance and best practice communications to each franchisee that would focus on topics like how best to handle the safety protocols as well as how to handle the difficult financial position that we were all facing. Out of our 51 schools, all but three had their PPP applications accepted in the first round of funding, and the three that did not were already in the pipeline and were accepted immediately once the second round of funding was released. In perspective, it was calculated that almost 90% of all franchises did not receive PPP funding in the first round, but through our focus on leading with information and providing non-stop guidance, 94% of our franchisees DID receive PPP funding in the first round.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My goals are to provide the best possible learning experience to our future generations, as well as to provide the best possible support to our franchisees. Along the way, my goals became my motivation. I would never be willing to give up on supporting future generations and helping others support the future generations. It is something that naturally happens as our franchisees realize their dreams of becoming successful business owners.
I think my unfaltering drive comes from my family and how I was raised. Everyone in life faces a challenge of some sort, but I grew up surrounded by people who never quit and who always seemed to focus “on the bright side.” I know that may sound a bit old-fashioned. So, in today’s terms, I would say that having a positive attitude “is in my DNA,” and it is in the company’s DNA as well.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As mentioned earlier, the most important role of a leader during challenging times is to stick to your mission and core values and deliver on your promises. When the entire team is united on that front, it is very hard to stop the team from achieving their goals. I also think it is important to be honest with people, and as also mentioned earlier, to keep the lines of communication open.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The first words I shared with my team when we were first tackling the COVID-19 crisis were from Catherine Monson, the International Franchise Association’s Chair and the CEO of Fastsigns International. Her words were: “Let’s expect the best and prepare for the worst.” Unfortunately, our expectations for “the best” were not met, as the crisis grew and grew. However, for our franchisees and the company, the sky did not fall down either, and even if it had, there would have been nothing to gain from panicking. By staying calm and having everyone focus on the task at hand, we were able to weather the storm and achieve our goals. I cannot say that I had no sleepless nights, but I always made sure not to bring doubt or insecurity to the team. As stated earlier, honesty is important, but being driven by the fear of the future — which is always just speculation — is not inspirational nor productive.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
When possible, an honest face-to-face discussion is always the best way to handle a difficult situation, even though it may not be the most comfortable way. It might seem easier to send a message — be it text, email or snail mail — but these forms of communication are far less efficient and can lead to major miscommunication, misunderstanding and a perceived lack of respect.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Again, when it come to the mission and core values, there should be no wavering. What was important yesterday should still be just as important today. However, during times of unpredictability, it is important to reevaluate if your initiatives are the best way to achieve your goals. Several industries have had to, at least temporarily, alter their business model to succeed. It is important to keep all options open and be prepared to adapt as needed to the model that will keep you afloat during difficult times.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one principle is to stay focused on your mission and core values, but be agile in the tactics you take to deliver on the mission.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Both overreacting and under reacting are the culprit of many mistakes people make during difficult times. By staying calm and focusing on your mission, you can avoid this. I also believe that maintaining a “can-do” attitude is critical. During this crisis, I have heard too many stories of businesses not applying for government funding until it was too late because they were not prepared or because they had a defeatist attitude.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
For us, it has been delivering on our promise. We tell parents what their children will achieve in our program, and we must do everything in our power to make sure that we deliver on that promise. Children are the most important thing in most people’s lives, and it is our responsibility to treat them as such. We recognize it is a difficult time for parents, because they are trying to balance their child’s educational, social and emotional needs alongside concerns around COVID-19.
But we have heard first-hand from parents who have been working from home and taking care of their children that it’s nearly impossible to do so. It not only impacts the parents’ sanity but also the future growth of their child. The children we care for at Childrens Lighthouse are at a critical point in their lives where they need an environment that provides for educational, social and emotional growth that can only be achieved in a group environment. And we believe that providing this environment, while also implementing our stringent health and safety protocols, is the best way to focus on, maintain and build the business.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- A business leader should stick to their mission and core values. Ours is to provide a program that will allow the children in our care to develop their brains, bodies and best behaviors while supporting our franchisees to achieve their dream of running a successful business. We have completed the second edition of our C.A.R.E.S.™ curriculum (C.A.R.E.S. 2.0) for the fall so that we can ensure our children continue to have the best curriculum available. We have also spent many hours researching and evaluating the ever-changing data to send to our owners so that they can operate a successful business.
- Business owners should focus on communication and learn how to “listen.” In this day and age, everyone wants to talk first or are convinced that their way is the only way. They are forgetting to listen to not only their team but also to the other side so that they can truly have all the information necessary to make important decisions. With all of the unknown, misinformation and contradictory information, originally, I was at a loss for how to create a clear action plan for our systems and processes during this crisis. However, with the assistance of my team and our franchisees, we gathered enough information from various sources, spent more time listening and learning and focused on our mission so that we were able to make the best possible plan we could.
- Engage in contingency planning, including best-case and worst-case scenarios. Then, setting up processes and plans of actions tied to each scenario is imperative for business leaders. During this crisis, we spent several hours coming up with contingencies for our summer curriculum. Some of them included our off-campus field trips and some of them focused on virtual field trips and supplemental materials. It ended up that we were unable to take field trips so the contingency for virtual field trips was invaluable. However, while not utilized, the ideal scenario would have been to take children on in-person field trips so it was important to have this in our pocket if we were able to.
- Stay calm and make the right decisions for the right reasons. A decision based upon emotion can get you into a lot of trouble. When the crisis broke out and we started calling each owner one on one, many were asking us to tell them what to do. Each time I would ask them “What is your mission?” and “What is it that you want to accomplish?” Once you have that, you can work your way back to making the right decision for the right reason.
- Be agile and prepared to closely examine the business model and adapt the model to fit the current conditions. As discussed earlier, we worked with our franchisees and developed alternatives to our typical summer curriculum so that children would remain engaged and would continue with their educational, social and emotional growth while the restrictions were in place. We have also adapted our back-to-school business model to provide families some much-needed support for their school-age children who are participating in virtual learning. With most parents now working and unable to help their children, we have created a system for children to come to our schools and complete their school work in an environment where they have what they need to succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have always believed that “you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” While a business owner must be firm and direct, I have learned you will never get the buy-in you are looking for if you stick with the “it’s my way or the highway” motto. In fact, in our past, I’ve seen this process personally and, without fail, it always set the leaders further back in their initiative than when they began.
An example is our building design. While in theory it may sound great to have a covered drive-thru to allow parents to drop-off their children, it does not always work in practice. We even wanted to do this when we first started out but were convinced otherwise once we heard all of the reasons why it doesn’t work. New franchisees often want to change the prototype in one way or another and many have asked us to allow for the covered drop-off, but once we explain the reasoning behind our decision, they quickly agree. The reasoning is simple: most parents want to walk their child into the school, talk to the teacher about how their child is doing and what they are doing. This can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes. If you have one parent that is running late for work and they are stuck in a line they can’t get out of, tempers can rise, and we don’t want any child who is in our care to be exposed to stress or anger. However, we always listen, and we do not say “no” to all requested changes. We have had several changes requested that we actually adopted system-wide.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am very involved in the International Franchise Association and attend several conferences throughout the year, normally in person, but this year, virtually. I always enjoy speaking to fellow entrepreneurs about best practices and specific situations that I either have questions about or situations that I feel I can provide answers for. I have also exchanged contact information with several business owners and had scheduled monthly calls where we do this as well.
While staying true to our values, we are always looking for ways to improve the franchise model so we can give others the opportunity to own a business that makes an impact in their community. Our operational procedures give us a competitive edge over others in the industry. Because of this, we have built a diverse, talented and passionate team of franchisees who have helped us to strengthen the brand and get us to where we are today.
To find out more about our efforts, visit: https://childrenslighthousefranchise.com/