While she was a Ph.D. student, Jeanne Mason decided she wanted to pursue a career in human resources, because it was a field where she felt she could make an impact. As an HR professional for more than 30 years, including the last 13 as head of HR for Baxter International Inc., Mason’s been able to make that impact, in part working with high potentials – i.e., the organization’s top performers with the most promise for leadership positions.

We spoke with Jeanne recently about her background, high potentials and cultivating talent.

Q: You’ve said in other interviews that one of your early goals was to be the head of human resources. That’s interesting – it’s not something you hear too often. How did you land on that goal?

JM: That’s true. Early on, I often would mention my interest, and the reaction would be, “What is that?” Some people still don’t know what it is. But I was studying organizational psychology in graduate school, working on my Ph.D. at the time, and I was doing a lot of research and reading about a lot of things, and I discovered the field of human resources. Frankly, before then, I had never encountered it, but I realized that the head of HR is responsible for the human capital of a business and getting things done through people. For me, it was really like being the leader of a real-time science project. You’re trying to predict who’s going to be successful. You’re trying to get results in the organization through people. I’m sure many would say that being the head of human resources is the last job they’d ever want. But, for me, it felt like a place of high impact.

Q: As an HR leader, you keep a close watch on talent. In your experience, how does aptitude compare with attitude among employees? How do you assess or measure attitude versus aptitude?

JM: They’re both important. You need to have a baseline of aptitude, which is essentially made up of capabilities and intellect. Attitude is the multiplier, the secret ingredient. You can have all the aptitude in the world, but if you don’t have the right attitude, then you’re not going to be successful. I can count on one hand, half a hand, the number of times I’ve seen someone fail because of aptitude. By the time they’ve been put into a role, they generally have the capability to do it. Where people fail is around the soft side, it’s the behavior. They’re both important, but I’ll often say that I’ll take 10 fewer IQ points if you give me 10 more points on the attitude side.

Q: You’ve worked for five CEOs, including two at Baxter. How has your view toward development evolved under different leaders, specifically when it comes to high potentials?

JM: I have had the good fortune to work with some great CEOs. It might be because I previously worked at General Electric, and back in the day they were known for developing very capable CEOs. I had that foundation, and then I came to Baxter. Both of the CEOs I’ve worked for here are very committed to the development of talent. Of course, high potentials are a tricky group – they’re always ready for the next thing or think they’re ready for the next thing. They’re sort of the wild horse that you’re trying to tame and put in the right race. Whether you’re training high potentials or top talent of some stature, my view is that it’s about giving them experiences.

We think of development here as 70 percent experience, 20 percent mentoring and coaching and 10 percent more formal training. With high potentials, it’s even more important to focus on the experience you give them. If they come out of that experience having succeeded and being ready for the next experience, then they are the high potential that you thought they were. If they’re truly high potentials, they’ll get it done – whether it’s an international assignment overseas or a big project with very complex solutions and you give them a position with few resources but enough influence to make a difference. That’s how you retain high potentials, because once you stop giving them those experiences, that’s when they’re going to leave you.

Q: Do you have an example of the work you’ve done with high potentials that stands out?

JM: Several years ago, there was an individual based outside the US whose role was going away due to an organizational change, so he was being considered for some different things. We offered him a role in the U.S., a commercial role, and that kind of transition can be tricky. He asked me, “Jeanne, what’s in it for me?” I told him it was a really different experience working in the corporate setting and in the commercial U.S. environment. I encouraged him to give it a shot, and he did – and he was hugely successful. After a couple years, he was tapped for another role in the company. Here was a high potential who, if he had not taken a risk, would not have had the career opportunities he has today.

Q: I’m guessing working with high potentials and talent generally was challenging when it came to the Baxalta spinoff in 2015?

JM: It was, but we had a systematic process to determine out of 50,000 people, who was going to go where. Some of it was very obvious. But we had to divide up all of the corporate functions and, frankly, it’s just as important for the spinoff company to have high potential talent. We needed to staff up corporate functions across both organizations. We went into our succession plans for all the functions to determine whether the person in the position should remain or the successor should take the role. It was really about using the tools we already had in place to stand up the new organization – but it did deplete the backup talent for both organizations. Once you’ve taken the succession plan to stand up a new organization, then it takes a while to rebuild the pipeline for a new organization – and we’re still doing that.

Q: How do you feel about developing high potentials who then might leave the company?

JM: It’s always a disappointment when someone leaves, but if the high potential is going to a job that isn’t available to them in the company, well, good for them. I don’t want anyone who doesn’t want to be here to stay. I’m realistic – sometimes you’re growing someone under a really strong talent and the person has been in-waiting for four or five years and then they are ready for that role, but it’s not going to open up. I look at those situations and think maybe they’ll come back – as long as we’ve done everything we can to grow them. I never get angry at someone for making that decision, even if it’s sad and disappointing.

Q: Your current CEO has made it a priority to improve the engagement of women throughout Baxter. How do you balance that against the needs of the overall company and workforce — and how does that relate to business results and measurable outcomes?

JM: We’ve been driving for representation of women in leadership positions for some time at Baxter, and I think we’ve made progress – though not as much as we’d all like. We’d love to have leadership at 50-50 with women and men, but we recognize there are supply issues. We look at the benchmarks, and we’re at the benchmarks, but we obviously want to do better than that. So, we’re always looking for the things within our organization that will attract more women. We’re always going to hire the best person for the role; we just happen to believe that 50 percent of the time the best person out there should be a woman. We’re very candid that we believe women add diversity of thought to an organization. We should have that kind of diversity in the organization, as you need to have women in leadership roles to attract more women to leadership roles. We believe that’s the way to get the best leaders into the organization.