Mary Jo Potter: An Educator and Organizational Change Agent

by Katharine Duke

Since graduating in 1973 and moving to California, Mary Jo Potter has worked for several consulting firms and cofounded three of her own "If you would have told me before I came to Northwestern that I was going to pursue a career in business, I would have laughed at you," says Mary Jo Potter, managing partner and CEO of Highperlink, an international human capital management consulting firm. "I didn't even know what business was. I remember thinking that the Wall Street Journal couldn't be a good paper because it didn't have ads or comics."

After spending six years as a Dominican Sister teaching philosophy and religion to high school students, Potter decided to pursue a master's degree from Northwestern University's School of Education because she wanted to go into vocational counseling. At Northwestern, she took several business classes in addition to her regular coursework and discovered she really liked business. She also discovered that her degree in education would give her the tools she needed to succeed in any field. In fact, she credits her organizational behavior class as being the "springboard" to what she has done most of her life.

Since graduating in 1973 and moving to California, Potter has worked for several consulting firms and cofounded three of her own. For the last 30 years, she has become nationally and internationally known for her work helping individuals and organizations improve performance, plan for the future and undergo change, most recently with Highperlink, a company she founded in 2004. The constant throughout her entire career has been her ability to help others effect change — in the classroom, the conference room and the boardroom.

"I love the process of helping people and organizations change and learn," she says simply.

An entrepreneur at heart, Potter co-founded her first company in 1979, a consulting and software services organization called Oxicon, which focused on helping sales and service-driven organizations increase productivity and evolve their organizations. "Essentially, we were applying the principles of education with adults in the corporate world," she notes. When Potter moved to Omega Performance Corporation, a consulting firm specializing in individual and organizational performance improvement in the financial services sector, she first headed up the consulting division and then later established offices in Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia. She had always wanted to work internationally, she says, ever since she took a class at Northwestern with a professor who wasn't from the United States. "I remember thinking how much fun it would be to do international work, and this was my first chance to do it," Potter remembers.

In 1991, Potter set out on her own again, creating Corporate Alliance Inc., a professional services firm also dedicated to improving the effectiveness of organizations. Eight years later, she took this company to Sibson, a consulting firm that helps organizations restructure, acquire companies and optimize talent. Potter decided to open her current company in 2004 to focus her efforts on fewer and deeper relationships with clients. "I may work with them for years, helping them reorganize, restructure or go in a different direction," she says.

The most rewarding part of her work, Potter continues, is watching her clients move their organizations in a positive way thanks to her influence.

Even outside of work, Potter works diligently to help people effect change. She sits on many nonprofit and corporate boards, including several that help disadvantaged children. The most rewarding part of her board work, Potter says, is helping organizations learn and evolve.

As both an executive in the consulting arena and as a board member for a public company, Potter says that she applies the principles and methods she learned at Northwestern on a daily basis. For example, she says, when she is leading client projects, she encourages groups to interact, create structures and processes, helps facilitate thinking, and manages conflict — much as a teacher does in a classroom. And of course, she uses the insights gained at Northwestern on much of her board work.

"I've often said to people that if they can get an education degree, they'll use it wherever they go," she says.
By Katharine Duke