Federal Employees News Digest

Report offers insights on improving SES talent—now and in future

This week, FEND’s Nathan Abse interviews the Partnership for Public Service’s Mallory Barg Bulman, who serves as PPS’s director of research and evaluation. PPS and a partner organization, McKinsey & Co., last week released a report offering data, examples and recommendations on how to best recruit, retain and manage members of the Senior Executive Service. The report offers insights into how executive branch agencies can compare and improve their development and deployment of executive talent.


The most pressing issue in the report, it appears, is that 85 percent of the SES will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years—putting the spotlight on recruiting problems. But isn’t this a big opportunity for top-ranked leaders in the GS system?

Bulman: Yes, absolutely. Most SES are eligible to retire in the next 10 years, and even in the short term—the next three years—fully half of SES at most executive agencies will be able to retire. At three agencies—the Department of Justice, Department of Education, and the Social Security Administration, 50 percent are already eligible to retire, right now. So, when you think about critical national outcomes that people care about, these definitely include national security, teaching children, and Social Security and retirement. So we’re talking about jobs and people responsible for some of the most critical outcomes for our country. And—you’re right—it is a great opportunity for folks who can move into those positions.

So what are some of the problems in the way of that opportunity?

Bulman: Well, only about 50 percent of current GS-14s and GS-15s—in other words those just below the SES ranks—want to move into the SES ranks. Some might shrug that off, saying, well, not all GS-14s and GS-15s should become SES’ers. But, on the recruiting part, we have two major sources [that convey a more problematic picture]. We worked with Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Public Institutions, and its survey of about 700 GS-14s and GS-15s. We also used data from PPS’s own Excellence in Government Fellows program—a program made up of elite GS-14s and GS-15s. Even with these top leaders, whose agencies have vouched for and want to invest serious time—six months—into a leadership development program—well, even in this group, we find under 60 percent want to become SES’ers. Not great.

Why are so many top GS-14s and GS-15s currently reporting that it’s not worth it to try for SES? Your report notes sometimes there is no more money in it, but it’s a step up.

Bulman: In some cases, candidates for SES don’t know what’s involved and just don’t feel excited about the different aspects of the work. But, where greater efforts [to help SES’ers] are made and there are specific programs, for example mentoring, you see better results. For example, in the Department of the Air Force there is the “My Vector” program, where leaders volunteer to be mentors of current staff. It’s very popular—it is very recent and yet already has 120,000 registered users, with 14,000 of those registered as mentors. The program includes 60 percent of the current civilian Air Force staff. In another example, at some agencies there is a “job shadowing” program. At NASA, we have such a program shadowing Charlie Bolden, the administrator there—who took his people around during the shutdown as he closed parts of his agency. The people in the program saw it all—he made SES very accessible.

Can you tell us some other ways explored in the report to increase and deepen relationships among SES’ers, to improve the attraction and retention levels at SES?

Bulman: People often report they don’t have time to meet and grow relationships with colleagues. To improve this problem at the SES, in one example at the Department of Education, having found no forum to connect, two SES’ers approached the secretary to propose having executive cadres of SES’ers meet at monthly gatherings. Now, three-quarters of SES’ers at that agency participate regularly—it’s been a huge success. It has led to relationship-building, greater collaboration and a better SES there. There are many other examples in the report.

Let’s go deeper into the report. It’s divided into four parts, starting with one on improving the “Culture, Recognition & Prestige” of the SES. How can SES improve here—and without significantly more money?

Bulman: One example in this section discusses the development of Federal Executive Boards, and award and recognition ceremonies. The ceremonies don’t have to be elaborate—they usually involve reading out loud particular executives’ accomplishments. But the ritual can help a lot—some are moved, even brought to tears, just for being appreciated for their work. Surveys and data show that federal executives care a lot about their mission, and when they are recognized for their part of getting things done, it can make a big difference in their work. Another example is the Senior Executive Association’s Distinguished Rank Award winners, another ceremony with stories that makes you appreciate SES’ers tremendous accomplishments. This kind of ceremony and recognition, and growing them, really is a very important part of improving the SES.

The second section—on improving recruiting and hiring—calls for more strategic workforce planning, identifying high potential among higher GS-level employees, and greater gender and ethnic diversity, and more. But how do you make these things happen?

Bulman: This part of the report is focused on making it easier to get the best and brightest into the SES. President Obama’s executive order strengthening the SES requires that all agencies create executive talent management and succession planning processes. But we found in our research that [to date] only four of 14 top agencies had these things in place. Doing this is a very important first step, and it needs to be done—at each agency, you need to know what your plan is for tomorrow. It’s also about agencies building robust experiences to recruit diverse candidates. For example, we noted that the Agriculture Department signed MOU’s with over 15 affinity groups, and when a new position comes available, those groups know and encourage application. [On gender diversity] it’s a low bar, but we found that between FY 2010 and FY 2015, the percentage of female career senior executives  [increased], and over the same time, the minority percentage [rose significantly]. So these improvements are very significant at SES. The point is that just the intentionality of reaching out to affinity groups made a lot of the difference.

The third section covers improving performance management, versus an ongoing problem of grade inflation among senior executives. How can you change this—and why is it important to improve this?

Bulman: Research shows it’s very important to have transparent and credible performance management systems. Agency staff want to see meaningful distinctions—no one wants to hear “Oh, you’re all great.” It doesn’t help, and especially at the SES level, where bonuses are tied to these ratings. We haven’t got it right yet. Now, when you look to the private sector—and McKinsey’s work here was very helpful in private-sector benchmarks—there are some private-sector best practices. McKinsey’s findings emphasize the need to recalibrate this system every couple of years, so you don’t settle into a mean. Accountability systems cannot be everything.

There’s a fourth section, which covers improving leadership development to create a better SES at agencies. Why is this so important, and what helps most: more funding, more mentoring, more rotations?

Bulman: The biggest problem is that the things most important to SES are happening the least. Most of the time that’s because such things require an investment of time. Research—for example, a report from the Merit Systems Protection Board—shows that when senior executives are asked why development needs aren’t being met, most of them—70 percent—say it’s the inability to take time away from the day-to-day demands of their jobs. It really is this: they have to make time, and you have to be forced sometimes to try something new. Doing a rotation or developmental alternative can be tough and trying, but it can lead to greater things. We need high-level leaders who are willing to support these kinds of programs.

How would you have agencies actually implement those needed improvements—like rotations and mentorships?

Bulman: I think it depends on the agency. For rotations, some, like the Army, have been able to simply make it a requirement. Now, they did that over 10 years, but it was a requirement. It became an expectation over time. With mentoring, there is a lower barrier to change, a lower time commitment. Often you can just ask folks to do it, and it can happen with just guidance and structure. It does not necessarily require funding. Rotations are a harder thing, as I said. But these have to be implemented differently at different agencies. Leaders have to see and believe that these efforts are worth it.

See the report at:  http://ourpublicservice.org/publications/download.php?id=1106.


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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
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