After a troubling year, and with their former chief executive officer, Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., retiring on December 31, the American Psychological Association was in a bit of a bind. With no one set to take the position, the board of directors called upon Cynthia D. Belar, Ph.D., ABPP, to step in as interim CEO, holding down the fort until a more permanent replacement could be identified.
Coming out of retirement was difficult, Belar has said, but worth it for the organization that held a special place in her heart. Belar, formerly involved in teaching, clinical practice and research, had most recently served as the APA’s executive director of education and has also had past experience as a division leader and a member of the APA governance.
On the one-month anniversary of her taking the helm, Belar spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her goals for her time as CEO, however long that may be.
Q: You have said that you were very happy in retirement. What made you decide to accept this position?
A: Well, I love the American Psychological Association and I love its mission. Even though I loved my retirement maybe even better, I was persuaded by people I spoke with that I may have something to offer during this period of time. After all, they are going to have a new person come in for a CEO and at least they know me and I know the organization. The fact that I care so much about the staff and the mission of the organization, I began to believe maybe I could contribute something at this important time in our history.
Q:: Why did they ask you to take this position? What in your background led them to offer this to you?
A: You would have to ask the board that question, I guess. I think you could say I had a good track record. I had been executive director for the education directorate and I had worked with a complex set of administrative and management issues and also with and among a broad spectrum of the psychological community so I had both the management administration and the breadth of psychology experience that they felt they needed at this time.
Q: What had you been doing in retirement that was so difficult to leave even if temporarily?
A: I was traveling, spending time with my husband and I have had many adventures and spent time relaxing. It was wonderful. I loved it. In all honesty, none of my friends or my husband wanted me to do this. They are definitely supporting me but they didn’t want me to get back into work which I can understand. If it hadn’t been APA and this situation I would not have.
Q: Being a placeholder for the person coming in, how do you see that role?
A: What that means is that I need to be in an active listening phase. I need to carefully assess what’s going on, what things I can do and what should be left for the new CEO. Certainly, the main goal is to provide stability for a forward-looking organization for the new CEO to take over.
I won’t know what those specific things are until I have more time to listen and learn. I have been busy meeting with a lot of different people and doing an assessment of the situation.
I plan to do whatever it takes to help successfully transition to the new CEO.
Q: Not knowing how long you will be in this position can make it difficult to plan. Still, at this point, what are your goals for your time as CEO?
A: As interim CEO I would want to focus on hope and the future while not ignoring APA’s rich history and lessons learned. Actions that seem especially important at this time include respectful listening to the concerns of members, staff and other communities of interest, providing positive, trustworthy and respectful leadership while promoting reflection and continuous quality improvement processes and preparing a
welcoming, stable work environment for the new CEO.
Q: You have been there one month – what surprises you most in coming back?
A: That we were shut down five days for a snowstorm! That was a bit unusual. I lived in Washington for many years before and we never had a big snowstorm like that.
Here in the office, I would say that there were no real surprises. Obviously, I was surprised by some of the things I read in the independent report, though.
Another major goal will be following through with the Ethics Blue Ribbon panel and other board and council policies. There are a series of resolutions that the board passed related to the independent review that will be followed up on.
Q: The Ethics Blue Ribbon Panel was an outcome of the APA-commissioned report that identified undisclosed, and possibly unethical, collaboration between APA officials and Department of Defense psychologists around interrogation practices used on terror suspects. As you are stepping back in, do you see a big change within the organization as a result of that whole maelstrom? Is there upheaval or maybe a new sense of energy and focus?
A: I’m seeing both. The organization went through and continues to go through significant trauma and that is not over. But I also see the energy and commitment to continue a lot of the good work and do even more good work for APA and for psychology and for the public good. It’s not that the organization is paralyzed in any way but it has been deeply affected. Things are not “business as usual” but we are a very strong organization and we are financially sound and we have people who are committed to the mission and it is around that we will rally. Humans are resilient so psychologists are resilient too.
I believe that this is an important opportunity for APA to reaffirm its commitment to its 501c3 mission, a mission that is essential to the future health of both the discipline and the profession.
Q: How do you describe the mission of the APA?
A: What is the mission of the APA? To advance psychology in the service of promoting human welfare in the areas of health, education and public welfare. Any way we can use psychological science and its application to provide for a better society and better human welfare. That is the bottom line here.
A primary overriding theme for me is the reaffirmation of the APA mission. I mean this both internally and also it needs more recognition externally. Internally, we need a razor focus on this and externally, just look at the criticism we have received. Not that it has been completely accurate, but it shows that we need to make sure that the public understands that this is our mission.
By Catherine Robertson Souter