Counseling Today, Features

Sue Pressman: ACA president and practitioner-in-chief

By Bethany Bray July 1, 2020

Deirdre Magee recalls the first time she met her now-friend Sue Pressman, 18 years ago. The two professionals were facing off as adversaries on opposite sides of an intense negotiation process.

Magee, a human resources practitioner, was seeking a federal contract for a small private-industry vendor she was representing. Pressman, a Washington, D.C.-area career counselor and, as of July 1, the president of the American Counseling Association, was negotiating the contract on behalf of a federal agency. Both women had been instructed to broker a deal that would maximize the bottom line of the organization they were representing.

Magee walked into that first meeting with strict instructions from her boss not to “take any baloney” from the contract negotiator, whom he knew by reputation as “Dr. Sue.” But, Magee recalls, instead of diving head-on into negotiations, Pressman introduced herself and asked if it would be OK to first chat and get to know each other.

“I met her going into a very competitive situation. Sue had come into [our] meeting straight from meeting with her bosses,” Magee says. “In that first hour that we talked, she inspired a lot of trust in what we were going to do going forward.”

That first conversation flipped the tone of negotiations, Magee says. For a short time, the two women went back and forth between their bosses, both of whom felt they weren’t getting enough out of the deal. They eventually called a meeting between all parties in hopes of being able to see eye to eye.

“They [the bosses] then had to listen, and Sue drove that,” Magee says. “She’s an excellent facilitator and brings out the best in people. … Her preference is to get everyone’s feedback and try to understand people’s resistance to things and the emotions involved.”

Pressman was able to artfully explain the context of why she thought Magee’s company wasn’t suited to get top dollar for the contract: Although the vendor had a history of successfully executing contracts with large private companies, it didn’t have much past experience with government work.

The situation resulted in a win-win, Magee says. The company she was representing ultimately won the contract, even if not for the full amount her boss had wanted. But securing the contract allowed the company to establish a track record that paved the way for it to win other bids, including with the federal Commerce and Treasury departments.

“Sue was able to inspire and engender trust and turn a competitive situation into a collaborative situation,” Magee says. “Both clients were better off and got work that was in line with what they needed. I’m very proud of that.”

That first interaction between Pressman and Magee in a potentially contentious environment instead turned into a friendship that has remained steadfast through the years. Magee describes Pressman as a caring and genuine builder of relationships who just so happens to possess a great sense of humor and a knack for bringing out the best in people.

“She knows who she is and what she’s about, and so does everyone else,” Magee says. “There’s no hidden agenda. What you see from Sue Pressman is what you get.”

Pressman becomes ACA’s 69th president this month, succeeding Heather Trepal. S. Kent Butler, elected earlier this year by ACA members to be the association’s 70th president, will assume the role of president-elect as Pressman serves her one-year term as president.

Career trajectory

Like many professional counselors, Pressman took a circuitous route into the profession. Growing up with a father who was deaf in one ear sparked an interest for Pressman in becoming an audiologist. She completed an undergraduate degree in speech pathology and then started — and almost finished — a graduate degree in audiology.

However, Pressman’s life took a different turn when she met her future husband and moved to the Washington metro area. She began working on the campus of Gallaudet University, an institution committed to the education of those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Out of curiosity, Pressman decided to take a single class, titled Introduction to the Helping Professions, in Gallaudet’s graduate-level counseling program. Gerald Corey’s textbook Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy was the required reading for the course.

Pressman says she “fell in love” with the program after that one class and ended up enrolling to study rehabilitation counseling. Working and studying at Gallaudet also led her to learn and become fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).

As a graduate student, Pressman worked as a summer job coordinator in the university’s counseling and placement center, an office that offered mental health services in addition to career and job placement counseling for students. During her first summer there, she forged a relationship with Yellowstone National Park, which recruited and hired 20 Gallaudet students to work at the federally managed park for the summer. During Pressman’s second summer at the counseling and placement center, the connection expanded to Yosemite National Park, with Pressman traveling to both parks to offer training on integrating deaf employees into the parks’ staffs.

It was a win-win, Pressman says. Visitors and staff members at the two parks were able to see the benefits of employing and working with employees who were deaf, whereas the students gained job experience while also having a cohort of peers to socialize with when they weren’t working.

Pressman’s summer successes at Gallaudet’s counseling and placement center led to full-time positions as a job placement and career counselor at the center after she graduated with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling.

This was in the 1980s, when a movement to uncouple mental health and career counseling on university campuses was gaining momentum across the U.S. Pressman was asked to serve on a committee formed at Gallaudet to explore the establishment of an on-campus career center, separate from the school’s mental health counseling office. When the committee was ready to present its findings to the university’s board of trustees, the school’s dean asked Pressman to make the presentation — in both spoken English and ASL. She rose to the challenge, and the trustees accepted the proposal to create a career center at Gallaudet. Ultimately, Pressman was named its director.

She worked at Gallaudet for 10 additional years, gaining career counseling certifications along the way and securing her license as a professional counselor once licensure was established and offered in Washington, D.C.

After leaving Gallaudet, Pressman did ASL interpretation work — including at ACA conferences — and began working on a doctorate in counselor education. From there, she established her career counseling business and transitioned into contract work for government agencies.

For decades, Pressman has contracted with federal agencies, including the intelligence community, to create and execute career development, assessment and training programs for their employees. One piece of her work involved designing an internal certification program that prompted employees to learn about career development, planning and assessment, in addition to communication styles and disability awareness. Magee was the lead on that project, and she hired Pressman to create the program with an eye toward improving employee retention for a particular department within a top-secret agency. Pressman’s certification program was so well received that the agency ultimately opened it up to all of its employees, and it ran for 10 years, Magee says.

Pressman strives to do her best not only for the organizations for which she is working but also for the people within those organizations, says Magee, who describes Pressman as adaptive and democratic.

“In government, it’s usually ‘do it my way,’ and that’s not Sue at all,” Magee says. “Even though she is a creative person and, I think, a visionary, authoritarian is not a style that she leans the most toward. She is collaborative and [focuses on] looking at the potential in people.”

Through the decades, Pressman has presented to, trained and consulted with countless federal employees in various positions all across the pecking order. She is comfortable leading negotiations, presenting to boardrooms, creating and analyzing reports, and talking with people across the spectrum.

“I’ve been in the trenches,” Pressman says with a chuckle. That will come in handy as she takes the helm of ACA, an organization with more than 50,000 members across the globe.

Right place, right time

Given her decades of experience running her own business, managing budgets and facilitating meetings, Pressman’s friends and colleagues believe she is well suited to lead ACA through a challenging time, as the world struggles to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic downturn as well as issues of racial injustice.

Karol Taylor, a longtime friend of Pressman’s and a fellow career counselor, says she nominated Pressman for the ACA presidency because of her business savvy and wealth of experience. Pressman also knows the ins and outs of ACA, having served two terms on ACA Governing Council and as president of an ACA division, the National Employment Counseling Association (NECA).

“Sue seems like the perfect person to lead us through this era, with a unique vision, a unique approach and [the skills to know] how to move forward,” says Taylor, an ACA member and a past president of both the Maryland Counseling Association and the Maryland Career Development Association. “She has a vision for ACA and an idea of where she wants it to go during this time, and she will negotiate through that in a way that will help people. She understands how things need to be done and will bring her skills to the organization in a way that will be effective and valuable.”

Taylor has worked for Pressman on several contracts and says she “has a knack for finding the right people for the right fit.”

“She can discern your skills and put you in the right place where you can add value. … Sue regularly says to me, ‘There’s no one better to do this than you.’ That’s very affirming and makes me want to work with her more,” Taylor says. “She is kind, but she’s not intimated. She’s not a pushover. She has a big heart and would do anything for you, and in return, she expects you to present yourself in a way that reflects well on her. She is highly professional and expects the same of you and of others.”

Michael Lazarchick, a licensed professional counselor and career counselor in New Jersey, has worked closely with Pressman in NECA. He believes Pressman’s flexibility, down-to-earth style and collaborative focus are tailor-made for the current circumstances.

“She’s got the skills that are needed right now. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m excited about the contributions that Sue will make. She’s such a good human being. She’s smart, very capable, very experienced, and she really cares about others,” says Lazarchick, an ACA member and a past president of NECA who has known Pressman for 20 years. “We can send her, as ACA president, to anywhere or anyone, and she’ll be able to talk easily [with them]. She knows what it’s like to work with people who are at the bottom of the totem pole and those who are treated like second-class citizens, but she’s also experienced with dealing with hotshots, those at the top and people in government. She’s fluid and capable [of working] with all of those in between.”

“This is the right time to have a practitioner out there [as ACA president] who can talk to people in the field because we’re going to have to redesign the whole way we do business” in the wake of COVID-19, Lazarchick asserts. “Everything’s changing. This [pandemic] is here, and we have to deal with it, and I really like the idea that we [as counselors] have a president who will be out there and able to deal with a lot of changes.”

(Right to left) Incoming ACA President Sue Pressman is pictured with National Employment Counseling Association (NECA)’s president-elect Sujata Ives and incoming president Carolyn Greer. Photo courtesy of Sue Pressman.

The year ahead

Pressman has multiple issues on which she’d like to focus as ACA president, including enriching ACA’s international presence and “expanding the voice of the practitioner” within the association.

Pressman and Heather Trepal, ACA’s immediate past president, will collaborate on a task force to support and enhance the work of ACA’s International Committee in the coming year. Pressman says she would like to expand ACA’s reach and impact to continents and countries beyond where the association already has partnerships.

“I would love to see ACA have a bigger footprint internationally,” Pressman says. “I feel like we have such an amazing, talented membership of counselor practitioners, counselor educators and many people from sister disciplines that join us from other arenas. … I feel like we could do a broader job of expanding our pool of talent to the rest of the world that is underserved, in mental health and career development. My vision is really to look at how we could have the rest of the world take advantage of what we offer.”

As a proud practitioner herself, Pressman says she would also like to boost practitioner involvement in the association. She hopes to highlight the perspectives of counselors serving as practitioners in private practice, community agencies and other settings outside of academia.

“We need to engage and expand the abilities and capabilities of counseling to Capitol Hill and state legislatures but also expand the knowledge of the career practitioner as well,” she says. “Counseling is a broad field. It’s not just one-sided. It’s got many dimensions, and I want to get that out to people. It’s about all of us getting the word out and looking at the intersection instead of looking at turfism and fragmentation. We all need to come together to make the profession stronger, as opposed to this one [faction] going in that direction and this one going in that direction.”

Most of all, Pressman says she hopes that ACA members will see her as a collaborative and approachable leader. “It’s not always about work and what you produce, but about who you are and how you interact with people,” she says.

“From early on in my career, I’ve always tried to help people feel included,” Pressman continues. “As a leader, it takes a lot of courage to stand up and make yourself vulnerable. I’m not afraid of that, and [I] try to create environments that are open and inclusive. … I want [ACA’s] whole team to be successful, not just me. I want to put our heads together and use our collective ideas to become better. Collectively, we’re stronger than we are individually.”

All in the family

Pressman lives in Arlington, Virginia, with her husband, Allan Dosik, a doctor of optometry who practices in Northern Virginia. Their daughter, Lianna Dosik, is a professional singer-songwriter who lives and performs in California under the stage name Lele Rose. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lianna has been back in Virginia with her parents but continues to make music and perform via social media and other online platforms (see more of her work at lelerose.com).

Family is a very important part of Pressman’s life, and ACA is intertwined with that, she says. Lianna has grown up going to ACA conferences and even performed at the opening night party for attendees at the 2014 ACA Conference & Expo in Hawaii.

When Lianna was severely injured in a surfing accident several years ago, Pressman missed an ACA Governing Council meeting while she traveled to be with her daughter. The family received an overwhelming outpouring of support and well-wishes from ACA friends and colleagues as Lianna recovered, Pressman remembers.

“ACA is part of us, part of my family,” Pressman says. “My family and my career have been really important to me, and they’re interwoven. I can do what I do because I have a really supportive family. I am really fortunate.”

She is also fortunate to have supportive peers and colleagues in the counseling profession. Pressman didn’t seek to be nominated as a candidate for ACA’s presidency, so she was taken by surprise when she received a call — “out of the blue,” she says — from leaders of ACA’s Southern Region, asking if she would accept their nomination. Pressman ultimately won the election by an associationwide vote of members in 2019.

“It’s kind of like a fairy tale,” she says. “It [being ACA president] wasn’t a goal, but it’s a dream come true.”

 

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Meet Sue Pressman, ACA’s 69th president

  • Licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor, national certified career counselor, master career counselor, board-certified coach, global career development facilitator instructor
  • Lives in Arlington, Virginia, where she is president and CEO of Pressman Consulting, a provider of human resources services specializing in career management and counseling, strategic workforce planning and development, training, mentoring, disability programs and organizational development
  • Past president of the National Employment Counseling Association, a division of the American Counseling Association; also served six years on ACA Governing Council
  • Chaired ACA’s Counselors Compensation Task Force
  • Has a Ph.D. in counselor education from Virginia Tech, a master’s in rehabilitation counseling from Gallaudet University and a bachelor’s in education and speech pathology from the University of Florida
  • Fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) and is a founding member of the nonprofit organization Deaf & Hard of Hearing in Government
  • When not working, likes to cook, work in her garden and sew
  • Fun fact: The first ACA Conference & Expo for which Pressman provided sign language interpretation was 1991 in Reno, Nevada — and she still has the T-shirt from that conference! She no longer does much interpretation herself but continues to coordinate ASL interpretation services for ACA conferences

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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