Five Questions with Diane Hessan

March 16, 2018
In “Five Questions,” Diane Hessan, chairman of C Space, shares the skills that have helped her navigate new industries from technology to marketing to entrepreneurship.

1. You have had a varied career path that includes technology, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tell us more about how you successfully navigated the transition to new industries.

It’s a paradox, but I believe you need both confidence and humility. On one hand, there are many skills that translate across industries: your ability to lead, your sales skills, your understanding of finance and more. That gives you the backbone required to navigate a strange space. On the other hand, you must admit upfront that you have a lot to learn, especially in your first 90 days. If you don’t understand an industry in depth, it’s difficult to create the right strategy and even harder to establish credibility with your stakeholders. When I go into a new industry, I immerse myself: I read everything possible, go to conferences and meet experts and ask for help and, of course, talk to as many customers as possible.

2. C Space, an agency focused on helping brands connect with customers, experienced tremendous growth while you were the founder and CEO. To what do you attribute the growth? What are you hoping to achieve today as chairman?

C Space grew because we were solving a big problem for brands: helping them get insight and inspiration from their customers through the power of the internet. Our customer engagement was better and faster than most companies – and we were less expensive. That still holds. Our clients include hundreds of corporations all over the world, who are infusing the voice of their customers into how they do business. It’s a fantastic way to accelerate growth! We also succeeded because our leadership team was fantastic, and we were aligned and passionate about our mission. In addition, C Space has always had fantastic clients who were willing to push us to do our best work.

As chairman, I mostly play cheerleader. I would have never handed over the reins unless I thought the next generation was capable of taking us to the next level. They are doing a marvelous job.

3. You were the CEO of Startup Institute, a firm that offers training to job seekers looking to work at startups. What traits does someone need to succeed at a startup?

Clearly, you need technical skills, such as coding or UX design, or performance marketing, depending on your area of interest. However, we did a research project while I was CEO in which we looked at what distinguishes the best startup employees, and it turned out to be about soft skills: your ability to deal with change without getting paralyzed, your desire to learn, your willingness to go above and beyond for your team, your scrappiness, grit and passion, your ability to collaborate and your willingness to put the company first. I love those results because we all know deep down inside that the smartest person is rarely the most successful.

4. What role did your network play in your professional success?

My network has always been my most valuable asset. Rather than focusing on having one or two mentors, I have always tried to have hundreds of people I can go to for expertise, advice, contacts and even a shoulder to lean on. In the 21st century, it doesn’t matter if we have all the answers; it matters whether we know where to go – or whom to call – for the answers. My network has helped me get jobs, find employees, close business, connect with prospective board members, raise money for nonprofits and envision where to take an organization. At a baseline level, nearly 80% of jobs are found by networking, so even for introverts, it is a critical skill.

5. What advice would you give your younger self?

I think I would say that life is long. When I was in my 20s, I was in such a rush to succeed, and by the time I was in my 30s, I was worried that I was running out of time. As it turned out, I didn’t even become an entrepreneur until I was in my 40s, and my 50s and 60s have been my most productive decades. Just last year, I became a columnist for The Boston Globe, which has added an entirely new dimension to my career. I am excited to see what happens next, and I am relaxed about it. If I knew all of this when I was younger, I would have focused more on picking bosses instead of jobs – so that I could work for people who would develop and push me and be role models. I would have focused on the journey and what I was learning along the way, and I would have stopped planning and been more open to serendipity.

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