As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Sue Monhait.
Sue Monhait is a business owner, podcast host, speaker, coach and best-selling author for the community she’s lovingly named, “Gifters-Bakers-Crafters-Makers” — people who create beautiful and/or delicious products that they want to share with the world.
Sue owns two businesses serving this audience. The Ribbon Print Company offers custom ribbon printing systems creating the ability for businesses to produce on-site personalization and branding of products. Gift Biz Unwrapped provides free and paid business development and growth direction through a weekly podcast and other virtual courses including her signature program, Makers MBA.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I spent the first part of my professional journey in journalism, TV research and retail market consultation. I had no idea these experiences would be so valuable today. Lessons from the McDonald’s, Kohls, Osco Drug and so many more large and small businesses provided insight into issues that still exist in product businesses today. As time went on, I also learned about management and building a team where my focus switched to supporting employees versus being first-line with the client directly. I’m forever grateful for this knowledge. It formed the groundwork for my future.
Well into my corporate career, I encountered a significant mindset switch. I was being groomed for a General Manager position to head one of our production facilities. That would mean I’d be in charge of all the departments: Production, Customer Service, Sales, Marketing and Human Resources. I was very excited about this great opportunity until I met with an outside Corporate Psychologist. This was one of the steps in the evaluation and development process. He asked me a question that changed everything.
Here’s that question. “When you’re 80 years old sitting on your front porch drinking lemonade, how would you like your past employees to remember you?”
Although I answered his question, it prompted a different internal reaction. I thought about how much time I already spent away from home traveling and in meetings. I realized I was missing my son and daughter’s childhood and it wasn’t something I could put on pause to come back to later.
I shared this emotional insight with my husband and together we created a plan that would allow me to address what could have been the biggest regret of my life. The result? I left a 15-year corporate marketing career that I loved, to stay at home and be a “traditional” mom.
After four years, I got the itch to return to work. I couldn’t deny my love of business. From there I started my first business which allowed me to merge and balance these two important areas into my life — family and career.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I had the vision for The Ribbon Print Company, the most challenging obstacle I faced was building the asset that lies at the heart of the business, the software. Designing the program was easy. I did that in one night. I wasn’t a programmer, but I thought it would be easy to find someone to code it into a live application. I mean, people do that all the time, right?
Surprise — wrong! What I was looking for was a program that could work on multiple operating systems with users who were at various levels of computer knowledge. Professional coders at that time wanted a project to be for one specific platform and targeted to a defined audience. What I was looking for was a “boxed” program and everyone who I approached wouldn’t touch it.
I even searched in India. I mean feet on the street half a world away — where lots of programming took place. Nobody. I thought the dream was over and I took a day to feel defeated.
Then I had a new idea. I re-approached one contact who used to program for Mac. I asked him to explain again why he wouldn’t do the project. We talked about revisions of features (not downgrades mind you) that got him to a point where he felt comfortable doing the job. Then came the second obstacle. Price!
There was not a chance I could afford what he was asking, and I was determined not to get a loan given there was some level of uncertainty about whether it would actually work. So, in negotiations again, we agreed to a first level of the software build that I could afford.
Cut to the results of the project. I ended up with a software program that started and expanded over time and is now the gold standard of the industry. I’m extremely proud of the finished product of course, but also that I didn’t throw in the towel when met with what felt like the impossible.
My major lesson (and one I coach on all the time) is that there are multiple roads to reach your destination. If one gets blocked, don’t give up on your goal, just find a new path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have always been dedicated to my job to a fault. When I was pregnant with my son, I was in a sales position and the first woman in the company to have a baby. There wasn’t a maternity plan, but I prompted getting that in place. Anyway, the way it was structured, I’d lose commissions once I went out on leave. So, I decided to work until the last minute. And I say that seriously. My office called me with a customer question while I was in the delivery room and the doctor was already there. You know when the doc is there — it’s time for a new person to come into the world. He was the one who finally told the labor nurse that I was officially no longer available to talk!
I reflect back on that and realize it was crazy. Balance and division between personal and business life is something I still struggle with today. But I do recognize and continue to get better and better with being in the moment regardless of where I am — versus trying to circle all areas of my life into my sight every moment. This has become particularly important with the addition of social media.
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 about that?
This would absolutely be my husband, Michael. 20 years ago when I decided to re-enter the workforce, he was the one who suggested I start my own business. “Sue, you’ve been working for years showing others how to grow their businesses. Why not take that knowledge and experience and do it for yourself?” This got my heart racing because I could already see the opportunities. But I often reflect back and wonder why it had to be presented to me as an option versus thinking of it myself. “Entreprenur” wasn’t a common word back then. I’m so glad it is today!
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
The first thing I do is remind myself how fortunate I am to be in this spot in the first place. It’s easy to forget that the stress I’m experiencing is what I asked for! I then focus on the outcome I’m looking to create and envision the results of that happening. Of course, I have prepared so I know the steps I’ll take to show up in the best way possible. I never try to completely “wing it”.
When it’s show time, I find that engaging in a small talk with those who will be part of my audience calms my nerves. In either a large conference presentation or a small board meeting, doing this reinforces that our interaction is meant to relay information, ideas and opportunities between people. Then I take a deep breath, power pose and go for it!
I’ve been asked if I’ve ever been a motivational or corporate speaker. That surprises me because I don’t consider myself to be overly skilled in public speaking … although I do love it. In my corporate years, I was always the one chosen to present for significant client presentations. It’s a good lesson that if others believe you have a particular skill, you pay attention to that. Sometimes others see in you, things that you can’t see in yourself.
However, it wasn’t also so. My very first important presentation in the corporate world was to room full of decision makers. If I delivered my message well and they bought into the program, it would position me as a solid contributor to my predominately male sales team. I wanted to show my worth and gain their respect, not to mention the commissions that came along with the sales. To say I was nervous is an understatement. I psyched myself out so badly I got up there and completely froze. I wanted to run out of the room but obviously that wasn’t an option. I mumbled through something that I’m sure was nonsensical and when I got to the car, I broke down in tears. I get sick to my stomach thinking about it even today.
I didn’t get the business. But I didn’t give up on myself either. I reviewed what happened, tried again with a smaller audience and less risk. And little by little I got better. Now I’ll go on any stage to any number of people and am excited to talk. Action and experience brings confidence.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity brings a richness of perspectives and experiences that strengthens the organization overall. As our world continues to get smaller and our access to global options expands, our understanding and learning about different cultures and races is required to work together effectively.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Last year brought a heightened awareness that we haven’t progressed in these areas as much as we’d like to believe. After much thought, what felt right was to address this in a private safe space within my Gift Biz Unwrapped community. We had bold courageous women speak about what life is like for them. These conversations have been raw and honest and have allowed us to ask and answer questions that would probably never be discussed in other settings.
It provided a deeper level of understanding because we were hearing from women we already knew and respected. They, in turn, felt free to say some hard things we needed to hear. For example, we talked about why there was such a strong response to certain words. It was eye-opening to learn how far apart the meanings of some phrases are from one group of people to another.
The result of these interactions is that we have stories that can be passed on to advance the cause. Stories help with understanding much more than stating facts. The issues are complex and packed with intense feelings. I can’t profess to know the answers, but we can all help with spread understanding in the small areas we each influence.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As a CEO, my job is to be the visionary of the business. It starts with the strategic direction of the organization and then focuses on each part of the business (departments) and their role in achieving the overall goal. It is then up to the leaders of the individual departments to ensure their group follows through.
This C-Suite position is important because if you don’t get the strategy right, all other goals can be met yet a business can still fail. Just think of some of the large brands who didn’t look seriously at the trends. Maybe they thought they were too big to be impacted. Now they’re gone. Blockbuster, Toys R Us, Blackberry, to name a few.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There’s a perception that once someone reaches a certain level, all the fears, doubts or self-questioning goes away. It’s not true. These emotions still exist but take a different form. I’ve become confident in certain areas through experience and results, but they get replaced with new challenges and goals that come with their own set of anxious feelings.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
While I see the gap narrowing, there’s more work to be done. Equal compensation remains an issue but here I’ll highlight two others.
Acknowledgement and recognition. As a general statement, women still have to reach higher levels of performance in the corporate world for their results to be pointed out and highlighted. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked sales. Numbers don’t lie. You’re either doing the job or you aren’t.
More and more women are starting their own businesses where results speak for themselves. I’m so impressed by women who have developed brands recognized on a national level that show others what is possible.
Sara Blakely of Spanx or Laura Alber of Williams-Sonoma are two well-known examples. There has never been as much opportunity for women as there is today and it’s our time to grab our share.
Sexist innuendos or sideline talk. The “good ole boys club” sadly still exists. Just recently I had to address an incident with someone who was directly connected to my industry and loosely connected with my business. It was a PR mini-crisis. Sexist comments were made for several minutes in a public forum that went viral. He thought it was so funny and clearly was thinking he was being clever and cute. Nobody else did. He was fired from his VP position and the company lost a lot of business as well.
From my end, doing nothing would be condoning his behavior. I planned my response relative to the level of connection he had with my business. That meant pulling some links off my website and pulling down a podcast episode highlighting him and his company. That was replaced with a two minute statement of why the content was pulled.
As women, we are powerful and resourceful. We’re facing establishments and ways of thinking that are centuries old. But we are making progress and the last thing I want anyone to do is use it as an excuse for not going after what you want.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t foresee the weight of responsibility that I feel to make sure the businesses stay healthy. Providing a reliable stable salary for my employees is on my mind all the time. This was true in my corporate job but even more so now.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Not everyone is cut out to be an executive. It’s natural to think that if someone is a top performer in their current position, they’ll be able to train others to get similar results if they are promoted into management. This isn’t the case. I’ve seen many top sales people move into management only to return to their sales positions within the year. Some by request because they didn’t like being responsible for others and some because of performance.
This is neither good nor bad. It’s a matter of skills and personal strengths. Going from doing the job to supporting others who do the job is a huge difference. Not to mention the strategic planning, reports and inter-department communication that happens at the executive level.
Three traits required to be successful as an executive are the ability to think outside the box, being able to listen with an open mind and getting along with others. These sound like old playground rules, don’t they?
Creatively thinking outside the box, a form of brainstorming, releases logical restrictions to make the impossible possibly possible. Where would we be today if Steve Jobs didn’t stretch his mind to consider a flat handheld screen directed with the touch of a finger?
Listening is important at all levels, but I have to include it here. I mean really listening. Not being silent while someone is talking while you’re thinking about what to say next. I’ve learned the most and performed at my highest when I had managers who listened to understand my words and what existed beneath those words. Great things come out of these interactions. I took this valuable lesson with me into my leadership roles.
Getting along with others sounds like a parent to a child. But many times, executives try to treat employees exactly that way. The further up in an organization you get, the less connected you are to the daily “goings on” in the business. That is natural and only by respecting and interacting with others at different levels will you truly have a pulse on the business. Employee retention and customer satisfaction suffer when there is too much separation from the lowest to the highest levels of the org chart. I have a lot of respect for businesses that do cross-department training or when top executives experience a “day in the life” on the production floor or in the stores.
Who should avoid considering an executive position? Someone who works best alone and someone who is a “right-fighter” meaning the belief that there is only one way and it’s their way!
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
As the leader of a team, executive or otherwise, your most important role is to support those on your team. That’s a switch from being a member of a team. It starts with clearly articulating the purpose of the team and each individual role if applicable — such as quotas for a sales team, hourly output for a production team, etc.
Then you want to ensure they have all the tools needed to succeed. Things like placing the right people in the right roles, providing any education and resources required and removing obstacles that prevent their success.
An often-overlooked role as the leader is that you set the tone. Your attitude and enthusiasm define the environment and can directly impact the team’s motivation level and in turn their results. This speaks to the personality traits of a leader too. I believe a naturally optimistic and out-going person serves in this position best.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m now taking my C-Suite experience to uplift and empower women who have never believed in themselves and those who question whether they’re capable of doing great things. I’m doubling down on paying it forward and leaving my mark through others achieving their dreams.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- There will be many failures on your way to success. It’s devastating when you don’t get the results you expected. I wish it was better known that all successes come after a road full of failures. But we don’t talk about it. The business that looks like it blew up in popularity overnight got there with numerous trials and dead-ends before it got on your radar. You didn’t see that part so it looks like it happened on the first try. Here’s an example of what may be behind the scenes of one of your favorite products. Situations of course vary but everyone has a story like this. The prototype of the product goes through numerous reiterations before the perfect design is achieved. There may be false starts with factories that lead to wasted time and money. Pitching to investors or to get loans can result in multiple rejections before the funding becomes available. Then there’s the presentation, rejections, resets and more presentations to get the product onto store shelves or promoting online if that’s the sales approach. And it goes on. What you see as a consumer is the product you now know and love on the shelf of your favorite store. Not all the ups and downs of making that happen. So when this happens to you, remember that’s how this works, it’s not that you don’t have the ability or skill to do it.
- Hire before you think you’re ready. As a small business owner, it’s scary to spend money when you aren’t completely confident in it’s return. That’s what hiring employees feels like. But the old adage is true. You have to spend money to make money. In my early years as a business owner, I fell into this trap. I’m Super Woman so I can and will do everything myself. I thought it was much better to reserve money for an unforeseen problem than hire. I was wrong. It impeded my growth and once I figured this out and took the leap to my first employee, the business blossomed. There is a trick to hiring, however. When you take things off your plate, freeing up your time, you need to replace that with revenue producing tasks that only you can do. Things like building relationships with large prospective clients, creating visibility projects to get eyes on your business and watching and planning the future course of the business.
- Being yourself is the easiest road to take. Why is it will we think we’re not enough? That everyone else is smarter, more personable and skilled? This leads to us trying to mimic those we admire. Guess what happens when you do that? You come across looking phony and unauthentic. That translates into not being trusted and works in exact opposite of what you’re trying to represent. When I first started my podcast, it was hard to find my voice. I studied what others did and tried to be like them. I took courses and followed suggested scripts and interview flows. I listened to the power words of others and tried to incorporate them into my talk. It was exhausting and definitely not me. Finally (and luckily) I buckled and decided I couldn’t do it that way. If I was going to continue producing the show, I needed to just be me. How refreshing! I gave into the idea that if some of my listeners didn’t resonate with the real me, they aren’t my ideal listener in the first place. That was so freeing and guess what? My show continues to grow and grow. After 7+ years, I have more followers and customers as a result and love producing and putting content out into the world. Because it’s truly of and from the real me.
- Set boundaries and encourage others to do so too. Achieving big goals whether it’s a corporate project or starting your own business, takes endurance and mental stamina. To show up with your best work, you need to get away and refill your cup. That means setting boundaries and turning the business off to allow for personal replenishment and enriching family time. Take the vacation time you’re entitled to. Decide on a time when you shut down for the day and only deviate from that by emergency exception. When I started The Ribbon Print Company, I had my personal cell phone number on my business card. Because we are a global company, I would get calls from customers at all hours of the night and day. I accepted calls from London just before midnight. Once I stayed up in presentable business attire and makeup until 2:30 in the morning to take a video call from Manila. This had stop. I’m sure you can see there’s no way I could continue to do this regularly and I certainly couldn’t request an employee to be on that sort of schedule. (Except I did have someone assist a client in Australia in the wee hours of the morning too. I told her this was NOT in her job description.) I know we’re a 24/7, on-demand world now. But if you’re a small business owner and provide a valuable product with strong service and a clear way they can get in touch with you, your customers will understand and accept that.
- You’ll never feel like you’ve “made it.” I think that’s the biggest fallacy of all. This idea that when you reach a certain level of success that everything will be easy and that there’s a specific point in time to enjoy the achievements and the rewarding feelings that go along with that. I was recently at a conference and had several people come up to introduce themselves. A couple of the comments I received were, “I’m in the presence of a celebrity.” and “I specifically came to this event to meet you.” While this is tremendously gratifying, I certainly don’t feel like I should be the recipient of these accolades. I’m still striving for the new goals I’ve set. And I have uncomfortable scary moments to address and work through. Recognizing that everyone has these thoughts and feelings and that they don’t go away no matter how much you achieve is helpful. It also reinforces the fact that we need to appreciate and enjoy the journey and celebrate the milestones all along the way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Today with Gift Biz Unwrapped, I focus on supporting handmade product makers. I recently created a nationally recognized holiday called “Bakers Crafters Makers Day”. Its focus is to highlight these handmade creators and the value their skills provide. Making a product comes from the soul. It involves reflection, passion and skill. The final result provides happiness for both the creator and the recipient — something our world needs and continually seeks.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” by Joseph Campbell.
Fear not only plays a mind game on us, it prevents us from taking the actions that will bring us to our dreams. I see this every single day in varying degrees. It’s the woman who’s afraid to start her business because she thinks she’ll make an irreversible mistake. It’s the person who won’t go in front of a camera for a company video because she’s concerned about her appearance. Or the fear of making contact with a decision-maker at a high-profile company that could provide a game-changing opportunity.
Learning to push past the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, doing it anyway, is what leads to advancement and achieving our dreams.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 if we tag them.
Marcus Lemonis. He’s close but so far. This is a perfect example of not taking advantage of an opportunity when I may have had one. I live in an area where he used to live and in recent years, regularly visited. In fact, he’d been in the coffee shop right below my office a few times. I thought of inviting him as a guest on my podcast because I know the conversation would be of great value to my listeners. I should have pursued that right away. Instead, the opportunity (for now) passed me by. But I believe in Karma, so you never know!