Running start… to a great career: Becoming a leader

Want to be APA president one day? Here’s how to start.

By Rebecca A. Clay

Brittany Pratt, PsyDBrittany Pratt, PsyD, became a leader by accident: A friend who chaired the Missouri Psychological Association's Early Career Psychologist Committee asked her to become assistant chair, then unexpectedly stepped down, making her chair. "It fell into my lap, but it has been a great experience," says Pratt, a psychologist at Midwest Assessment and Psychotherapy Solutions.

"There are a number of challenges facing our profession today, particularly for those of us just starting our careers," says Pratt. "Having a voice in those issues is incredibly important."

Katharine Hahn Oh, PhDAnd early-career psychologists have much to contribute, says Ohio Psychological Association (OPA) President-elect Katharine Hahn Oh, PhD. For one thing, she says, they have the most up-to-date knowledge of the field. And they're typically more diverse than later career counterparts. The ability to help shape the field isn't the only plus, she adds. The mentoring and leadership experience she has gained through OPA has helped her become a better leader in the workplace, too, says Oh, who directs Cleveland State University's Counseling Center.

Try these tips for getting involved:

Think broadly. Leadership doesn't have to mean a formal title, says Pratt. Start flexing your leadership muscles by speaking up at meetings or sharing your thoughts on a listserv. "Simply using your voice — that's being a leader," she says.

Start small. Volunteer to serve on a committee or subcommittee of your state association or APA division, suggests Oh. Ask what's needed and determine how your interests intersect with those needs. Do whatever tasks you're assigned well, which will lead to more responsibilities. If you enjoy the work, says Oh, you could move into the role of chair or beyond.

Marta Miranda, PsyDFind a leadership mentor. "Council can be confusing when you walk in the first time," says Seattle private practitioner Marta Miranda, PsyD, the early-career representative on the APA Council of Representatives' Council Leadership Team. "My mentor sat next to me and said, 'This is what's going on, why that person said that, why the chair did that.'" Leadership academies offered by state associations and divisions can help prepare you for leadership roles more generally.

Don't overcommit. You may discover that a leadership role — at whatever level — takes more time than you can give. If you're struggling, says Oh, let people know. "Things happen," she says. "Say, 'I have too much on my plate and may not be able to do as much as I'd like in this role' and ask if they'd like you to step down."

Be persistent. You may not get the position you covet, especially when it comes to APA positions, says Oh. "Not being chosen doesn't mean you don't have a lot to offer," she says, noting that the group may not have room for you or may need a different set of skills or perspectives. "Try again." And don't underestimate yourself, adds Pratt. "We have the knowledge, ability and skills to be leaders in our organizations and communities," she says. "Just take the risk and go for it."

For more information, visit Early Career Leadership Development.

This column is geared toward early career psychologists working in practice settings. "Running start... to a great career" features topics typically not covered in graduate school and includes tips and advice from psychologists.