Deciding Whether to Aim for the Senior Executive Service

By Lily Whiteman, author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job” and trainer on career advancement skills; Website: IGotTheJob.Net; Twitter: @Lilymwhiteman

Wonder whether to set your sights on the federal Senior Executive Service (SES)? If so, it might be helpful for you to consider what the SES is, what it would offer and demand of you, and what you would offer it. Some information to help you do so:


The SES is the federal government’s corps of executive leaders. With only about 8,000 members, this highly selective organization wields great responsibility and authority.


SESers devote the majority of their time to leadershipas in setting goals for their organizations and marching their organizations towards them. (Read: respect, power and influence.) To succeed as leaders, SES must form alliances with other executives, regularly communicate with staffers and motivate and evaluate them. They must also make high-impact decisions about the structure and strategic plans of their organizations and the allocation of large budgets, contracts and other resources.


SESers may earn the satisfaction of improving government programs that may impact the health, education, security and standard–of-living of people all over the world as well as the uses of worldwide natural resources. As one SESer says,” Everyone in government can make a difference. But in the SES, you have a chance to make a big difference.” Various other advantages of SES membership are covered in the table below.


SESers usually pursue management career tracks rather than technical tracks. Therefore, if you want to devote your time and effort to technical issues rather than to managing people, the SES might not be for you. Moreover, SESers must regularly interact with staffers throughout the hierarchy and implement tough decisions, sometimes unpopular ones. So if you are not people-centric, and are conflict-averse and meeting-averse, you might not be a good fit for the SES.

In addition, SESers must regularly commit to achieving specific quantifiable goals that may, for example, involve streamlining or automating processes, reducing costs or improving customer service. The pressure resulting from such rigid accountability energizes some personality types but overwhelms others.

Last but not least, SES jobs demand great quantities of time, devotion and toil. So, if you want to aim for the SES, you should be certain that, at this stage of your career, you are willing to spend more time devoted to your job , not less.


You’re a member of an elite corps. It’s an honor to be admitted into a selective, widely respected organization comprised of high achievers.  To your colleagues, you go from being “one of us” to being “one of them.”
You’re perched in a lofty position at the top levels of government. At Last! You’re in a position to translate your visionary ideas into reality. You’re a leader. You have arrived! 


Translating your vision into reality may be harder than it looks. To succeed, you must lead people with all of their foibles and resentments.   You have arrived at an organization that–like all organizations–is flawed. 


Your influence and visibility You advance the President’s agenda, and you can improve government on a big scale. When things go well, you get the credit – whether or not you deserve it. And because you’re working on a public stage, everyone sees you succeed.  You must advance the President’s agenda, whether or not you agree with it. When things go poorly, you get the blame–whether or not you deserve it. And because you’re working on a public stage, everyone knows it when you fail.
High stress, long hours and interruptions at home.  If you thrive under pressure, you’re in your element. Obvious disadvantages.
Your pay Your salary and bonuses are significantly higher than those of your previous GS-14 or 15 job (or equivalent). Plus, you’re eligible for Rank Awards.  You probably earn less than you would as a private sector executive.   And some SESers believe that the higher salaries SESers earn are not worth the increased responsibilities that they bear. 
Your community You receive a myriad of opportunities for training and for collaboration with other high-achievers.  Possibility of death by meeting.


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