03/18/2014 09:37 am ET Updated May 18, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Diana Hovey, CMO, Corner Bakery Cafe

Diana joined the leadership team at Corner Bakery Cafe in 2006, taking an active role in shaping brand strategy for what she describes as the "ultimate neighborhood gathering spot". She makes it a priority to discover the needs and preferences of every neighborhood, offering a consistent experience and an ingredient-inspired menu while creating a feel that fits the personality of the neighborhood. This philosophy has proved effective and is a large part of Corner Bakery's franchising program, where the goal is to capitalize on the insights of franchise partners to create unique neighborhood cafes on corners everywhere.

Getting into the hearts and minds of the consumer has been the focus of Diana's career from the beginning. She began her career in public relations and marketing with T.G.I. Friday's and later joined Brinker International as Vice President of Marketing for its Mexican Concepts Division and Romano's Macaroni Grill. In 2003, Diana formed her own brand strategy firm, working with brands from all segments of the restaurant industry.

Diana is active in the National Restaurant Association, and is a former chair and current board member of its Marketing Executives Group. A strong advocate for ending childhood hunger in the U.S., she has served on Share Our Strength's "Dine Out for No Kid Hungry" board since 2009 and was recognized with the organization's 2010 Leadership Award.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

When I think about where I've learned the most through the years, it hasn't been in a classroom. As a young college student working two jobs to pay my tuition, I learned unfortunately that some of my greatest learning would come from outside the classroom. When I was 19 years old, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and my world turned upside down. Overnight, I went from being a hardworking college student to also learning how to help run a family office equipment business. I can remember my father teaching my mother, my brother and me about payroll and accounts receivable from his hospital bed. I learned so much from watching my mother's courage following my father's death - holding a family and a business together in the midst of her own grief. The restaurant industry is full of tremendous stories, people that have pulled through obstacles to achieve great success. When I look at our Corner Bakery Cafe franchisees, I'm always drawn to their personal stories that led to the success they're experiencing today. It's more common than not in our industry to find great leaders that started their careers as dishwashers and, through hard work, found their way to the board room.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as the CMO of Corner Bakery Cafe?

I've spent my entire career in the restaurant industry. When I was 15 years old, I fudged my age to get my first job - as a Burger King hostess, handing out paper crowns in the dining room. From there, I climbed the ladder to "French Fry Queen". I have to admit that I fell in love with the restaurant industry from Day One. For me, there is nothing better than seeing people come together over food. I've been fortunate to have marketed brands in just about every segment of our industry - from upscale to fast casual restaurants. Over the past 25 years, I've had the opportunity to work with many tremendous restaurant industry leaders and have found that the best leaders are great listeners. As a CMO, I'm constantly seeking out opinions, and fortunately, there is no shortage of passionate opinions regarding food. Whether I'm sitting in the Corner Bakery Cafe Test Kitchen talking with guests over grilled panini or hanging out with millennials in their living rooms, I am constantly observing what makes people passionate about the food they eat and their favorite restaurants. But most importantly, I'm drawn to how food is used to define life's moments - it's the currency that brings people together.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I think the most successful careers are those that don't have definitive lines between work and life, especially in today's connected world. The key is making sure you love what you do. Norman Brinker, a former boss and one of the most influential leaders in our industry, once said, "Work is like play and we play like hell." Fortunately for me, food is the core of my work and my personal life. My husband and our kids are all foodies...we love to entertain and bring people together in the kitchen. I'm blessed in that it's that same philosophy at work...bringing people together over great food. I see that same passion for hospitality among our franchisees and leadership team at Corner Bakery. When I'm not at the office or hosting a gathering, I love to travel, garden and work out.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Corner Bakery?

One thing is for sure...there are never two days alike in the restaurant business. When the economy crashed five years ago, there was quite a bit of shake up in the restaurant industry. Not only did consumer wallets tighten, but we saw a demand for greater transparency and flexibility. During this time, we introduced several new menu items - including smaller cafe portions of our salads and pastas that allowed our guests to enjoy dining out within their budgets. We also were one of the first brands in the restaurant industry to post calories on our menu boards. These two changes resulted in Corner Bakery Cafe outpacing all of our competition for consumer value perceptions and intent to recommend while setting the stage for the success and tremendous growth we're experiencing today.

In 2008, I joined the Share Our Strength executive team to tour some of the hardest hit areas of post-Katrina New Orleans -- one of the most memorable and emotional experiences I've ever had in my career. Seeing the floodwater marks left behind on the elementary school walls and crayon drawings of children's storm memories was gut-wrenching. But walking outside, I saw busy children happily planting gardens and enjoying healthy lunches. This was in part due to the tremendous work of Share Our Strength's mission to end childhood hunger in the U.S. In 2008, Corner Bakery Cafe joined the first Dine Out for No Kid Hungry and over the past six years, our franchisees, our guests and our team members have raised over $1.2 million to end childhood hunger in the U.S. Today, along with Corner Bakery Cafe, over 8,500 restaurants across our industry have united to make a difference - one kid, one meal at a time.

What advice can you offer women seeking a career in marketing?

It's interesting that your question is posed as "women" seeking a career in marketing. Perhaps because I grew up with two brothers, I've never really identified gender barriers in personal or professional settings. I'm quite often the only female in board meetings. I've always been pretty transparent and I value transparency in return. I do think that many women have a hidden strength to peel back layers and seek to understand. I also think that everyone sees themselves as marketers and we can use that to our advantage. "Thinking out loud" is one of my favorite expressions and involving others in the strategic and creative process benefits everyone. Any would-be barriers are dropped immediately.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

What was that old song by Helen Reddy..."I Am Woman"? It used to make me crazy! I think the louder women shouted that they were "Super Mom, Super Executive, and Super Everything", the more their separate worlds fell apart. I learned early on in my career that my work and personal life had to blend and I would never be perfect at all of it. The more I talked about our children, the more I found that my male counterparts were free to express their own balancing challenges. When I run into industry colleagues I haven't seen in a while, I love that they ask first about my husband and our children well before the conversation turns to business.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I have been very fortunate to have many great mentors throughout my career. Most of them are now CEOs of great brands throughout the restaurant industry. A common trait of all of them is their humility and the courage to try new things. More often than not, my mentors challenged me to get outside my comfort zone, but I always knew they had my back. In turn, I see developing that same confidence among my team as one of my greatest responsibilities. We're all driven to try new things and to take on new challenges and it's important that my team knows that I support them.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Interestingly, I don't have to look far for a female leader that I admire -- my daughter. She's EVP of Digital Strategy for a large international public relations firm. I'm continuously learning from her insights and experiences. Interestingly, she has worked within my industry and I have had business colleagues Tweet me from the audience as she has addressed a large conference of my peers. Pretty amazing when your children become some of your most trusted professional advisors. Talk about full circle!

What are your hopes for the future of Corner Bakery Cafe?

We're on a fast-paced path of growth, with plans to more than double our footprint over the next couple of years. Much of this growth will come from franchising and I look forward to the knowledge and wealth of experience that we will gain from new franchise partners. With their help, my hope is that the little bakery that started on a corner in downtown Chicago over 22 years ago will continue to evolve and flourish as we enter new markets across the country.