Senior Executive Pathways: Part I

I am always amazed when I hear of those employees being honored in my work unit for 20, 30 even 40+ years of service. These individuals have left a lasting impression on their agency and very big shoes for millennials and generation-y feds to fill. This also means that there will be more Senior Executive Service (SES) vacancies and Senior Level (SL) equivalent positions available and a need to fill mission critical support positions throughout the federal government.

Many of us have set our sights on helping to bridge that gap, with lofty goals of serving in the elite corps of senior executives. We are self-described change agents or agents for change, myself included. I knew when I first began my federal career in January 2010 that I wanted to join this elite corps of executives to inspire innovation, promote dialogue and connect with others like me wanting to make government better. We’re aspiring leaders in our own right, whether it’s leading a small team on the agency home front or steering a larger scale interagency initiative. For SES consideration, every career step counts.

I’m a big believer that if you want to achieve something you can absolutely make it happen. Dreams don’t have to be dreams, but you can make them your reality. That’s my motto. On my desk I have a printed copy of OPM’s Guide to Senior Executive Qualifications (somewhat coffee stained) that I look at each and every day. It may sound a bit juvenile, but that little pamphlet is my inspiration and hope for getting there. It’s always there waiting to meet me when I come in to the office each morning.

The reality, of course, is that there’s a lot more work to do first before you or I can compete for that SES vacancy on USAJOBS. In a recent interview with Suzanne Logan, Director, OPM’s Federal Executive Institute, I found out more about the SES program and qualifications that I wanted to share with my readers who desire a similar career path. Suzanne and I explored the SES program in depth, unpacking many of the key ingredients that lead to a successful career appointment. This post is part one of a two-part series on senior executive pathways.

What is the Federal Executive Institute and what services does it provide?

The Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute (FEI) is an executive and management development center for senior governmental leaders located on a 14-acre (57,000 m2) campus near the center of Charlottesville, Virginia, less than a mile from University of Virginia. Founded in 1968 and celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, FEI offers learning and ongoing leadership development for senior leaders at its Charlottesville, Virginia campus, and at agency sites throughout the U.S. and the world. FEI improves the performance of government agencies by working with federal executives who are exceptional leaders, understand their constitutional role, possess a broad corporate view and take pride in serving the American people. In addition to custom programs, FEI’s core programs include the following: The Lab at OPM, International Leadership Development Programs, SES Leading EDGE (Senior Executives Delivering Government Excellence), and Leadership for a Democratic Society, the flagship program for GS-15/SES.

How would you describe the Senior Executive Service?

The Senior Executive Service (SES) is an executive personnel system created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 to “ensure that the executive management of the government of the United States is responsive to the needs, policies and goals of the nation and is otherwise of the highest quality.” Members of the SES are federal executives who serve in key agency positions just below the top Presidential appointees. SES members are the major link between these appointees and the rest of the federal workforce. They oversee and operate nearly every government activity in approximately 75 federal agencies. At any one time, approximately 7,000 SES employees occupy SES positions across the U.S. government with most being career SES. Individuals are selected for SES positions for their leadership qualities as defined by OPM’s Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs).

There are also several other executive personnel systems which are substantially equivalent in rank and pay to the SES such as senior-level executive positions and senior professional and technical executive positions. Some federal agencies have SES equivalent executive personnel systems.

According to OPM, there is an official SES certification process. Tell us what that’s like.

For the purpose of this conversation, I will speak only to the career Senior Executive Service. This is a two-step process. Agencies first hold a merit-based competition for each career SES position. Agencies establish an Executive Resources Board (ERB) to oversee and participate in the merit staffing process. The ERB recommends best qualified candidates to the Agency’s selecting official. Once the appointing authority chooses and certifies the candidate, the agency submits the candidate’s application package to an OPM-administered Qualifications Review Board (QRB). The QRB review and certification is the last critical step in the SES selection process. The QRBs are OPM-administered independent boards consisting of senior executive service members who assess the Executive Core Qualifications of SES candidates. All SES candidates must have their executive qualifications certified by an independent QRB before being appointed as career members of the SES. QRBs certify that an SES candidate possesses broad leadership skills.

Once the QRB certifies the agency-level selection, this allows for the appointment of the SES candidate. For details, visit the Senior Executive Service Selection Process webpage.

There are many benefits of joining the SES ranks, but what would you say are some of the drawbacks?

I would not cite anything as a drawback, but there are aspects of the SES responsibilities some may find difficult or frustrating. The most significant aspect is sometimes referred to as “life in the fishbowl.” Those in SES positions are very visible as strategic leaders in the federal government. Actions or decisions of an SES are open for evaluation and criticism. Working effectively with the political leadership of the government (regardless of party) can also be challenging. Finally, the complexities and challenges of modern governance often mean leading across traditional organizational and institutional boundaries.

What should a resume with Senior Executive Service potentially look like?

An SES resume must demonstrate mastery of technical and executive core qualifications for the advertised position. OPM published a Guide to Senior Executive Service Qualifications, which includes guidance on writing executive qualifications statements with specific examples. It also covers what the QRB is reviewing to validate its decision.

I’ve heard of career development programs (CDPs). How would participating in one of those help prepare me for a career in the SES?

SES Candidate Development Programs or CDPs are one succession management tool agencies may use to identify and prepare aspiring senior executive leaders to meet their organizational missions. An SESCDP is designed to further develop SES candidates’ competencies in each of the ECQs. Agencies generally design their SESCDPs to provide candidates with government-wide leadership challenges, various developmental opportunities, interaction with senior-level employees and senior executives, and mentorship.

Graduates of SESCDPs, who are certified by OPM’s Qualifications Review Board, may receive an initial career SES appointment without further competition. Note that completion of an SESCDP nor QRB certification does not guarantee placement in the SES, and SESCDP participation is not required for selection into the Senior Executive Service. For details, visit the Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Programs webpage.

My thanks and gratitude go out to Suzanne Logan, OPM’s Office of Human Resources Solutions, and OPM’s Office of Communications for their contributions to this article.

Check out next week’s post for a continuation of my conversation with Suzanne Logan, Director, OPM’s Federal Executive Institute!

For more reading on Senior Executive Service, check out these articles:

Senior Executive Service GovLoop Posts

Blake Scates  is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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