The aging of APA’s membership represents a potential crisis for the association, APA President Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, told nearly 100 attendees at APA’s 2012 Division Leadership Conference.

“Unless we engage the next generation of psychologists,” she warned, “APA will no longer be the influential organization it is today.”

Sponsored by APA’s Committee on Divisions/APA Relations (CODAPAR) and Office of Division Services, the conference brings division presidents-elect together to network with peers and meet APA executives and staff to learn about the services available to them.

Finding new ways to engage early career psychologists was an additional goal of this year’s event, held in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20–22. Another innovation was a keynote address by a motivational speaker offering tips on how division leaders can make executive boards more effective.

Engaging the next generation

In her welcome, Johnson emphasized the urgent need to get younger psychologists involved in divisions and APA as a whole. In 2010, she said, the mean age of APA members was 54-plus and the mean number of years postdegree was almost 21. Both numbers are increasing.

While members of APA’s divisions tend to be younger, said Johnson, their average age is still more than 40 and most are a decade or more postdegree. Just 20 percent to 25 percent of early career APA members join divisions, she said, adding that there’s a link between division membership and “staying power” in APA.

Those numbers prompted Johnson to make engaging young psychologists one of her presidential themes. But more senior psychologists can’t be the ones to figure out how to achieve that goal, she said.

“We need reverse mentoring, with early career psychologists mentoring us,” she said.

To make that happen, Johnson invited seven early career psychologists to the conference to give divisions feedback on how to best include early career psychologists in the future.

The group’s recommendations included reduced division membership rates, special outreach efforts during the transition from student to professional, two-way mentoring relationships with more senior members and designated slots on executive boards, an early career psychologist council and other leadership opportunities.

“Early career psychologists don’t just want membership in a division,” says Debra Major, PhD, of Old Dominion University, who co-chaired the working group of young psychologists with John Westefeld, PhD, of the University of Iowa. “They really want a role.”

Ensuring board effectiveness

Also new at this year’s conference was a keynote address on how to create a high-performing executive board.

Gary P. Latham, PhD, a past president of the Canadian Psychological Association and a professor of organizational effectiveness at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, urged attendees to become “activist presidents” of their divisions. He offered several tips on how to achieve that goal:

  • Find allies. New division presidents need key allies, including a “sage” who can share his or her institutional memory and past presidents and other champions who can offer support and advice. Latham urged presidents-elect to ask those with historical knowledge of the division what three things the best and worst presidents did and what three things they’d like to see that no president has ever done.

  • Create a vision and goals. To craft a vision that members can rally around, Latham suggested, ask why your division exists, who would miss it if it disappeared and what makes division members angry. When Latham headed APA’s Div. 14 (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology), for instance, his vision was enhanced visibility that would allow the division’s knowledge to benefit society. Use very specific goals and timetables to measure progress, he advised.

  • Acknowledge your board members. “Let people know they are heard and appreciated,” said Latham. In addition to soliciting input, use phone calls and emails to check in with board members regularly.

  • Keep your dream alive. Continue to be an activist even after you rotate out of the presidency, said Latham. Persuade board members to run for president and then convince division members to vote for them. Said Latham, “That’s how you get your dream to live on.”

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.