Cover Story

Shilo Shaw Tippett, PhD, remembers her toughest assignment from the Women's Psychology Leadership Seminar, a group of five women psychologists who meet weekly at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, to work on leadership skills.

It came from the group's coordinator Ann Cotton, PsyD, who exhorted the women to be more assertive in their workplaces.

Speaking up comes easily to Cotton, who is the Opioid Dependence Team Leader at the Puget Sound center and coordinates addictions treatment for more then 200 patients. She supervises four case workers and oversees a treatment team of about a dozen people. But Tippett, a postdoc in the VA's Deployment Health Clinic, found it difficult to share her thoughts during team meetings, when psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and social workers reviewed specific cases as a group.

"I was afraid I wouldn't make sense, that I wouldn't sound great," she says.

But never one to shirk her responsibilities, she gave voicing her opinions a try. "I went ahead and started taking more of those risks," Tippett says.

Tippett then came back to the meeting and shared her story with other group members, including Edyta Skarbek, PhD, who was completing a postdoc at the Center of Excellence in Substance Abuse Treatment and Education. A first-generation immigrant from Poland, Skarbek also had trouble opening up to her colleagues and seeking input from fellow professionals.

"It gave me some guts, and some fuel, to do the same thing. It's like a chain reaction," she says.

At the suggestion of Tippett and VA postdoc Lori Phelps, PhD, the five women started meeting as a group in October to work on leadership skills as they transitioned from being interns to early-career professionals.

"It's a great asset to have people I can bounce ideas off of," says member Rachael Guerra, PhD, another VA postdoc. "I don't feel like I'm out on my own trying to figure things out."

So far, they've brought in six guest speakers, usually women psychologists such as Jennifer Vasterling, PhD, psychology service chief for the VA's Health Care Center in Boston, who talk about their own experiences and personal challenges as leaders.

"What was most helpful for me was to hear them talk about the skills they learned to help them be an effective leader," Phelps says.

Group members work on personal assignments to cultivate leadership skills and determine their leadership styles. They practice interviewing skills and brainstorm answers for anticipated questions from potential employers within the larger VA system. They also work together to understand the "big picture" of how the VA operates, and concluded that part of being picked for a leadership role is understanding how the VA evaluates performance from its staff. The group discusses issues as varied as self-assessment, giving people feedback, inspiring colleagues to pull together as a team and processing patient grievances.

Recently, the group has had occasion to celebrate as well: Phelps landed a post at the VA hospital in Madison, Wis., while Guerra was hired by the VA medical center in Menlo Park, Calif.

"It's kind of like therapy for the professional self," Phelps says.

--C. Munsey