Psychologist Profile

Whether by design or happenstance, many psychologists find themselves in major leadership positions. And leading and managing organizations of all kinds are ideal uses of psychologists' skills, says I. Marlene Thorn, PhD, president of the Society of Psychologists in Management (SPIM) and president of IMT Consulting Associates in Bethesda, Md.

"Many of the psychological skills we learn are very related to leadership and management," says Thorn, formerly an executive at the International Monetary Fund. She cites as examples understanding individual and organizational behavior, listening, planning, analyzing, understanding motivation and problem-solving. "Business schools are beginning to recognize the importance of a psychological background and the emotional and social intelligence needed for leadership and management."

Today, psychologists are executives and leaders in organizations. They are running universities, coaching other leaders and starting their own businesses. To better understand how training in psychology prepares future leaders, the Monitor talked to five psychologists in major leadership positions.

A university president

Judith Albino, PhDJudith Albino, PhD, began her career as a professor of behavioral sciences in the School of Dentistry at the State University of New York in Buffalo. Her dean thought she could do more and recommended her for a yearlong program in academic administration run by the American Council on Education. The next thing Albino knew, she was promoted to associate provost. And that position led to yet another, she says.

"I've been a dean four times, an academic vice president once and the president of a university twice," says Albino.

Administration is a far cry from Albino's training — a 1973 doctorate in measurement and evaluation in psychology, education and communication from the University of Texas at Austin. Nor is it directly related to her research interests, which focus on social and behavioral approaches to improving oral health. But she loves leadership.

"It's a little bit like conducting an orchestra and trying to listen to all the different sounds from all the different kinds of instruments and pulling it all together," says Albino.

From 1991 to 1995, Albino was president of the University of Colorado's four campuses, where she was charged with raising money, building collaborations with public and private organizations and overseeing admissions, accreditation and overall program issues. Under her leadership, the university undertook its first major capital campaign and set a new record for money raised — $270 million over five years. In 1997, Albino became president of Alliant International University, overseeing its merger with United States International University.

Albino's psychological training has served her well in all her leadership positions, she says. "Psychologists go first to what motivates people," she says. "It's all about how can I make this a win-win situation for everyone."

Now, Albino is back at the University of Colorado, serving as associate dean of the new Colorado School of Public Health. At the same time, she is running a National Institutes of Health-funded research center called the Center for Native Oral Health Research, which is devoted to reducing oral health disparities among American Indians and Native Alaskans.

And as director of the yearlong Senior Leadership Training Program offered by the university's Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, she and other faculty provide a team-focused leadership skills program for deans, department chairs, lab directors, training directors and others who seek training for leadership. The program includes multiple assessments and focused work on such topics as conflict resolution, feedback, the intergenerational workplace, decision-making and other management topics.

"There's nothing I like more these days than coaching and supporting people as they move into leadership positions for the first time," says Albino. "I view the academic leaders whom I have coached as my greatest accomplishments."

Executive coach

Robert J. Lee, PhDFor Robert J. Lee, PhD, of New York City, leadership development isn't just something he studied in school. Although he earned a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology from Case Western University in 1965, he has mostly learned by doing.

"It was a natural evolution," says Lee, who also serves on the board of the Foundation for the Advancement of Psychology in Management (FAPIM). "The understanding of leadership and management just naturally led to doing it."

Lee launched his own consulting practice in 1974. He soon took on a partner, hired more staff and opened three regional branches. Eventually he sold the company to a parent company that went national. Today, the firm — now called Lee Hecht Harrison — is an international business with 200-plus offices, several thousand employees and services that include career transition and leadership development. "That got me into a leadership place, both as a practitioner and a doer," says Lee, who cites his father — who owned a retail store and then a broadcasting business — as a role model.

After two decades, Lee moved to Greensboro, S.C., in 1994 to become president and chief executive officer of the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit that is the world's largest leadership research, training and publishing organization. Three years later, he returned to New York to launch an executive coaching business.

Lee also devotes himself to coaching executive coaches. "When you get to a certain age, you want to give back and help create the next generation," he says. In 2002, he founded iCoachNewYork, which offers training and supervision to new and seasoned coaches. Now, he and four other coaches offer a certificate program through Baruch College of the City University of New York, a course at the New School and in-house training at client organizations.

Last year, Lee and his iCoachNewYork colleagues published "Becoming an Exceptional Executive Coach: Use Your Knowledge, Experience and Intuition to Help Leaders Excel." Lee's earlier books include "Discovering the Leader in You" (2011) and "Executive Coaching" (2005).

Lee's own coaching clients are primarily executives in New York-based financial, advertising, media and pharmaceutical companies who are coping with such problems as how to inspire followers, manage political alliances within an organization or handle power. He has also coached APA Past-president Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, helping her figure out how she could make the biggest impact during her one-year presidency. Lee takes his own advice, too, such as the need for leaders to delegate — something he struggled with when starting his first business.

More psychologists should get involved in leadership, Lee believes.

"Those of us who understand leadership have an obligation to participate in it," he says. "And the benefit goes the other way as well: By actually doing it, we certainly learn things that help us understand leadership better and so can help others better."

A CEO

 Allen L. Parchem, PhD"I'm a two million-mile flyer," says Allen L. Parchem, PhD, of Oak Park, Ill. And that sums up what life was like as part of RHR International, a Chicago-based firm of management psychologists and consultants who help senior executives enhance individual, team and organizational performance: jetting off to meet with clients in China, Russia, Europe and all over the United States.

"It's a different kind of life," says Parchem. "You're often not office-bound; you're doing on-site work with clients."

Parchem didn't start out in management. After earning his doctorate from the University of Vermont in 1972, he became a psychology professor at Ohio's Denison University. But when the opportunity came up to direct human resources at a manufacturer called Reading Industries, he jumped.

"I liked getting things done," says Parchem, explaining that he soon found himself immersed in labor negotiations, efforts to improve employee productivity and other tasks that drew directly on his psychology training. "I was trained as a social psychologist, so leadership within systems was something I found fascinating."

In 1979, Parchem joined RHR International, where he began moving up the ranks until he became president in 1994, CEO in 1996 and board chair in 1997. "I had a real belief in what the company did," says Parchem, adding that the firm's emphasis on hiring psychologists is unusual in the management consulting field. "There's a multiplier effect in being a leader that I enjoyed."

At RHR, Parchem helped the firm boost its revenues and staffing. "We grew the organization pretty steadily, partly by going out and talking to psychologists about how rewarding a career in consulting psychology is," he says. "Your job really is to draw on the literature to help executives be successful in competitive environments."

In his own consulting work, Parchem helped clients at major national and international corporations. Services he provided included helping senior executives identify staff with high potential, assess executives, develop senior leaders, integrate new leaders into organizations, implement major organizational changes and plan for leadership transitions.

Parchem retired in 2009, but still consults with executives and organizations. He also puts his skills to other uses. He chairs his church's finance committee, which manages a multi-million-dollar endowment. He teaches high school students about philanthropy. He's a trustee emeritus of Macalaster College, his alma mater, and he's a board member of SPIM.

"After 30 years on the road and being involved in consulting, I wanted to give back," he says.

A dean and vice chair

Connie Rath, EdDConnie Rath, EdD, vice chair of the Gallup Organization and the company's dean of education, was born to the trade. Her father, educational psychologist Donald O. Clifton, PhD, launched Selection Research Inc. in his basement and grew it into a large human resources consulting firm that bought Gallup in 1998. "My dad was my model psychologist," says Rath, who also serves on the board of FAPIM.

Rath began her career as a high school guidance counselor, then joined Selection Research. There she studied what makes top teachers so good and helped create a selection instrument to help schools identify the best candidates among potential teachers. In 1970, she earned a master's degree in educational psychology, then a doctorate from the University of Southern California in the late 1990s.

Rath has been at Gallup and its predecessor organization for almost 40 years. She spent half that time leading the company's human resources department. "One of the things I'm proudest of is the people we've hired over the years," she says, adding that she looked for people who wanted to get better all the time — people who have what Gallup calls the "maximizer" strength.

These days, Rath focuses on Gallup's educational efforts, which include Gallup University. The university offers courses and certifications for managers and other leaders interested in learning more about Gallup's approach to measurement and its practical applications. Executives, managers and employees learn how to make the most of their talents to boost individual and organizational performance, how to interact effectively with customers and how to use measurement to make decisions and solve complex problems, for example.

Rath uses those strategies — and Gallup's focus on strengths — herself. "It's hard for me to work with a person or have any kind of interaction about a work goal without thinking about what does this person do well, is this the best person for the job and what do we need to do to help them get the job done with quality?" she says.

On a practical level, Rath uses this approach in her work with the educational community, both K–12 and higher education. Gallup helps schools hire teachers, develop teachers and principals and measure staff and student engagement.

For Rath, the work puts the principles she learned in her training as an educational psychologist into practice.

"We have certified almost 50,000 people over the years in how to hire better educators and managers," she says. "In many school districts, there are better teachers because of this work."

Consulting firm founder

A. Dale Thompson, PhDIt's easy to find examples of "catastrophic leadership," says A. Dale Thompson, PhD, founder and CEO of Leadership Worth Following, LLC, a consulting firm providing individual and organizational development services in Irving, Texas.

In contrast to common failures that only hurt individuals and their immediate families, says Thompson, catastrophic leadership not only takes down entire companies but also everything that depended upon them, such as vendors' livelihoods and employees' retirement accounts. Thompson points to the ethical lapses among leaders that brought down Enron in 2001 and WorldCom in 2002 as just two of many examples.

Helping such clients as Boeing, Wal-Mart and Mattel avoid such disasters and identify and cultivate leaders worth following is now Thompson's mission. Leadership Worth Following assesses individual leadership potential, provides executive coaching and offers organizational development services.

Before earning his doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Minnesota in 1986, Thompson went to work at Personnel Decisions International (PDI) and spent four years helping launch the leadership development company's coaching services. Thompson later became executive vice president of the company's North American offices. Still later, Thompson co-founded a global business and information technology consulting firm called Hitachi Consulting, going on to become head of human resources.

In 2004, Thompson decided to create Leadership Worth Following. The company's leadership model focuses on what Thompson calls the three Cs: capacity, commitment and character to lead. Through self-assessment, scientific testing and inventories, simulations and 360-degree evaluations, the company helps its clients identify employees and leaders who embody these characteristics and so have a greater chance of success.

One of his clients is a large transportation company facing big changes as baby-boomer managers with long tenures start retiring and struggling to identify potential leaders among their employees. "They have a huge need to identify who has the greatest chance of on-the-job success, who can grow fastest, who can make fewer mistakes and who can handle the stress of the pressure for growth," says Thompson. For another client, Leadership Worth Following has an ongoing coaching relationship that helps leaders further enhance their skills. "A lot of clients just have an interest in making sure they end up with the right CEO," says Thompson.

Counseling psychology is perfect training for such work, he adds.

"Psychology has a lot to say about what works when it comes to skills like how to build morale, drive energy into an organization, support change efforts, deal with adversity and help people grow in their careers in ways that are aligned with their organizations," he says, adding that counseling psychology was originally the study of healthy people and careers. "These are all super-important questions psychology can help us with."


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

Further reading

  • Hedge, J. W., & Borman, W.C. (2008). The I/O consultant: Advice and insights for building a successful career. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Kilburg, R.R. (2006). Executive wisdom: Coaching and the emergence of virtuous leaders. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Kilburg, R.R. (2012). Virtuous leaders: Strategy, character, and influence in the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Lowman, R.L. (2006). The ethical practice of psychology in organizations (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Marquardt, M.J., Leonard, H. S., Freedman, A. M., & Hill, C. C. (2009). Action learning for developing leaders and organizations: Principles, strategies, and cases. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Thompson, A.D., Grahek, M., Phillips, R. E., & Fay, C. L. (2008). The search for worthy leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(4), 336–382.