The Development Ceiling of the SES

Imagine an organization where the highest paid executives have job satisfaction rates 25 points higher than the employees they lead:

• Where 50% of them have not completed a development plan even though it is required by regulation.
• Where 30% of them claim they not being developed at all.
• Where 48% of them say their developmental needs are not even being assessed.

I have just described the very privileged, very white, and very male members of the Senior Executive Service (SES). You know the folks I am talking about. They normally make between  $148,700-$203,700 a year as the crème de la crème leaders in the federal government.

These findings were culled from a December 2015 report to the President and the Congress from the Merit Systems Protection Board, entitled “Training and Development of the Senior Executive Service: A Necessary Investment.” They document a blatant violation of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 which mandates the “continuing systematic development of highly competent senior executives.”

The report also found a huge gap in the kinds of competency skills that qualify someone for the SES and the actual skills needed by executives surveyed. In the early days of the SES, only leadership skills were seen as the primary entry requirement. Executives were seen as utility players are on a baseball team; managers and leaders who could play multiple positions.

According to executives surveyed, only 21% of them feel that their current positions could be filled with just leadership competency skills without requiring additional technical expertise. On top of that, nearly 25% of then feel that nearly 50% of their job is technical in nature.

Too white, too male and now add too underdeveloped to the narrative of the titular leaders of the federal government.

That raises another deeper question. If our leaders are underdeveloped, where does that leave the rest of us? Much like an elder once told me: If the blind are leading the blind than both of you will fall in the ditch.

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Mark Hammer

1) The observation that a noticeably higher proportion of SES and equivalents express more satisfaction, engagement, etc., than their subordinates appears to be common to government, period. We get the same results here in Canada, and a recently released report from the Australian government sees the same thing. It’s good to be the king/queen.
2) There is a difference between “training” and “learning”. The former fills in gaps/holes with skills and knowledge required for higher-level roles, based on what the organization already knows, and *knows* that it knows. Much of what governments provide for staff development consists of training, in order to provide feeder groups for succession planning. It is less nimble at providing “learning”, which I view as opportunities to acquire knowledge the organization doesn’t even realize it needs to know.
Why is this? Perhaps it is because “training” fills a perceived deficit, which is something leaders are not supposed to have. After all, how can *they* be the boss of me, or anyone else, if they still have deficits? The social psychology (and maybe even anthropology) of leadership requires that a leader be perceived as flawless and complete. But it is also likely because “training” implies filling gaps we know to exist, using tried and true methods. And what many middle and senior managers need for development may be rather amorphous, and not the sort of thing that formal training can be provided for.
Our own federal government (in Canada) requires that all executives (SES equivalents) be bilingual. Having attended language-training centres several times for my own job, my impression was that executives were mostly resentful of this “training” obligation, because it implied they didn’t already know how to do their job. Granted, the struggle that mastering a second language requires (often upwards of 6 months of full-time immersion) only served to increase the resentment. But at the heart of it was the fact that these were mostly older staff, who perceived themselves as competent enough to do their own jobs, and close enough to retirement that they didn’t feel they *needed* any more schooling; nor would it benefit them or enhance their future career objectives.
3) What exactly *would* SES “development” consist of? Certainly, those of us in the trenches can think of a great many weaknesses in our overseers/leaders. But these tend to be lapses of character and wisdom, often stemming from personality. I don’t know how one “develops” a better personality at that age. Moreover, how on earth do people in such roles maintain their confidence and leadership posture if their assessment says “Well, Mark. We’ve assessed you every which way, and the areas identified for improvement are your jerkitude and insensitivity. So, we’re sending you for a 2-week seminar in how to be a better person to your staff and clients. You might even see some spillover effects at home, too.”? Development, yes, but the sort that one would have to keep secret, and tell staff you were attending “a management retreat”.
More commonly, development of senior managers consists of doing placements/rotations in other agencies or branches of their own agency. Fair enough. Always good to see how the other half lives, and learn about organizational contexts. Unfortunately, this is disruptive to organizational functioning, as such folks breeze in and out. Malcolm Gladwell piece about the impact of such regular “high-flyer” rotations on the collapse of Enron (http://gladwell.com/the-talent-myth/) provides an excellent cautionary tale.
So, they are more than welcome to complain about lack of development, but my sense is that the entire architecture of leadership roles and succession planning precludes the offering of anything like development, apart from friendly advice from others at the same level, with more experience.