Federal Coach

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

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Federal Coach: How to strengthen the Senior Executive Service

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

One might assume that a sizable majority of federal career employees who have reached the GS-14 and GS-15 levels would aspire to move up to the next and highest rung of government—to become members of the Senior Executive Service.

But a recent poll found only about half of these employees across the government expressed interest in advancing to the SES or to senior level non-executive professional and technical jobs. This is troubling when you consider the critical role that the career executives play in implementing policies and programs, and the fact that two-thirds of current executive corps will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

My nonprofit, the Partnership for Public Service, and McKinsey & Company recently examined the state of the SES. And we found four areas where increased focus could lead to improvements, potentially making the leadership corps a more attractive option and helping to better recruit and retain highly qualified applicants.

The four areas examined in the report, “A Pivotal Moment for the Senior Executive Service,” are culture, recognition and prestige; recruiting and hiring; performance management; and leadership development. While there are many ways to address these issues, several agencies are taking steps in each of these areas that could serve as a useful template for others to follow.

For example, a few senior executives at the Department of Education approached then-secretary Arne Duncan with an idea to enhance the culture of the SES – the department could help launch a forum for executives to meet, network and address challenges together. The secretary agreed, and together they launched the department’s monthly executive meetings. These meetings have built a bridge between the senior political leadership team and the career executives, allowing them to work more collaboratively on important and often sensitive management issues.

To improve recruiting and hiring, the Department of Health and Human Services started using behavior-based interviewing to evaluate SES candidates. Common in other sectors, behavior-based interviewing is built on research that suggests an individual’s behavior in previous positions is the best predictor of performance in a future position. In use at HHS since 2015, the early returns suggest that the technique is helping the department identify and hire the candidates best suited to the job.

In just about every federal workplace, there’s room for improvement when it comes to employee performance management. One such opportunity comes in reducing the paperwork and time required to complete performance reviews.

Some Cabinet-level agencies are using an online talent management system called inCompass. This system allows users to align their goals with department-wide strategic goals and lets executives update progress on employee goals throughout the year, rather than just two or three times a year.

Many executives are too busy to consider ongoing professional development, but the most effective executives recognize that continuous learning is essential to high performance. In an effort to address this conflict, the Securities and Exchange Commission created the College of Leadership Development in 2010.

The goal has been to accommodate the individual needs of leaders and deal with real-life, day-to-day challenges. The college provides courses, seminars, workshops and executive coaching to all of the agency’s senior leaders, and they report some of the highest levels of satisfaction with talent development among the SES. The SEC’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government score in 2015 for SES training and development was 89.1 on a 100-point scale.

There is still a considerable amount of work ahead for agencies looking to strengthen the SES, but these promising practices offer an important starting point for taking stock and taking action. If you have insights or know of other best practices, 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 Jul 11, 2016 at 7:40 AM

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
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