Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Tips for becoming a senior government leader

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

For those interested in becoming senior government leaders, the process can be daunting.

It takes time, effort, patience and the development of critical management skills to become an executive in government, but there are steps you can take to better understand the process and requirements, and to increase your chances of success.

Solly Thomas, an experienced former federal executive and one of the coaches for the Partnership for Public Service's leadership training programs, recently hosted a session about making the jump from first-line supervisor or second-line manager to the Senior Executive Service (SES)—the civil servants who hold the top managerial and policy positions in federal agencies.

As a starting point, he advises examining the Office of Personnel Management's (OPM) five Executive Core Qualifications. These are "leading change" (the ability to establish and implement an organizational vision), "leading people" (the ability to foster the development of others, manage conflict and facilitate teamwork), "results driven" (the ability to meet organizational goals, solve problems and meet customer expectations), "business acumen" (the ability to strategically manage human, financial and information resources) and "building coalitions" (political savvy, negotiation skills and the ability to work with internal and external partners).

Of course, there are other fundamental competencies that come with the territory, including interpersonal skills, oral and written communication, integrity, a knack for continual learning and motivation for public service.

The core qualifications are the basis for agency decisions, and understanding these requirements can help you assess your own personal strengths and determine where you may fall short. Take the time to honestly evaluate yourself relative to these standards.
Then, to build your resume, you will need experiences that challenge and foster your professional growth.

Seek out challenging assignments, including positions that require problem-solving opportunities, jobs that need to be started from scratch, a role on an interagency task force, or rotations to other offices or agencies where you can learn new skills and new ways of doing things.

If your supervisor wants to reward you for a job well done, consider asking for an opportunity to attend a management development program. All the members of the SES I know have had diverse leadership experiences and training to help them develop the skills and knowledge that they needed to move up the career ladder.

As part of your personal development, you should also seek out some successful agency leaders as mentors. You do not have to make a formal mentoring request, but you can ask leaders you respect and admire for insights into what’s helped them advance in their careers and overcome adversity.

If you hit it off with one or several of these executives, you can also ask them for advice about moving into the SES. They can offer an honest assessment about whether you are ready, provide insights into positions that may be a good fit, or offer strategies for strengthening your application into the SES.

You also will need to understand the rules of the game, and in particular, the hiring process for executives.

Individuals can enter the SES by applying for a specific vacancy or by graduating from an OPM-approved Candidate Development Program.
You will want to familiarize yourself with your agency’s Executive Resources Board and the Qualifications Review Boards, which are keys to the SES selection process.

Every agency has an Executive Resources Board that reviews the qualifications of each candidate and makes recommendations to the appointing official. After the selection has been made, a Qualifications Review Board run by OPM must certify that the individual has met the Executive Core Qualifications.

Although there are many hoops to jump through, President Obama recently issued an executive order that seeks to improve the process of recruiting, hiring, onboarding and developing new SES members. One part of the order requires agencies with 20 or more SES positions to submit a plan by May explaining how they will increase the number of rotation assignments for their executives.

In this vein, I have a final piece of advice. While you might be able to stay in one organization for most of your career and rise to the top, agencies are increasingly seeking people with experience in multiple organizations and work environments when filling their senior positions. To advance, you may very well need to move out of your comfort zone.

Senior executives, how did you make it into the SES? What advice do you have for aspiring federal leaders? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Mar 07, 2016 at 11:50 AM

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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