Strengthening the Senior Executive Service (SES)
On December 15, 2015, President Obama issued an Executive Order designed to improve the performance and return on investment made in the Senior Executive Service (SES), a government wide program managed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).
The SES Program consists of executives charged with driving the transformation of government. These leaders are specially selected for their range of experience and commitment to public service, and they help serve as a bridge between political appointees and their respective organizations. They serve at executive levels in 75 Federal departments and agencies, and, as members of this select corps, can move between departments and agencies to help spread the vision, strategy, and tactics of creating change in the Federal government.
In the Executive Order, President Obama calls for reform of four major components of the SES Program to help develop this cadre of leaders, while at the same time improving the service it provides to the Federal government. The reform rollout is taking place in three phases over several years, so that some organizations can lead the way by piloting programs, while OPM and other organizations can benefit from the lessons learned during implementation. These four areas of Reform focus include:
Succession Planning: Succession Planning looks at the strategic needs of the organization in relation to the current and future executive corps. It identifies and seeks to develop “bench strength” and creates a formal plan that will enable seamless transitions and progress toward the organization’s goals, by tracking executive capabilities and developmental needs on an ongoing basis. It promotes long range planning to ensure the health of the organization over time, and directly impacts the engagement of executives, which trickles down to the rest of the workforce. Organizations that create a succession planning-based culture benefit by gaining a deeper understanding of its strengths, weaknesses, and ability to maintain continuity of operations if a planned – or unplanned – change in leadership takes place.
Development and Rotations: At the Executive level, it becomes more difficult to find truly developmental activities; traditional classroom experiences may not suffice. Action learning as a developmental strategy offers the promise of learning in a protected environment while delivering value to the organization in the process. One element of the current SES Program is that by agreeing to become members of the cadre, executives agree to the possibility of rotating into 4-month assignments within or outside the Department in which they serve. Rotations can be a powerful developmental tool, in the right conditions. Executives would leave their current assignments for the express purpose of developing greater acumen in their new temporary assignment, while, at the same time, bringing their already-acquired skills to bear on the needs of the hosting organization. When they return to their original assignment, they bring the new skills and depth they acquired during the rotation, so everybody benefits from the experience and knowledge gained. The ability of an organization to cope with an executive temporarily transferring out is an indication of its maturity and reflects the strength of its succession plan. Many organizations simply throw money at trendy, high-ticket training or degree/certification programs, or worse, ignore the ongoing learning needs of their executives and risk having them stagnate or seek additional development elsewhere. This turnover creates significant risk, which, with some planning and creativity, can be mitigated or avoided relatively easily.
Streamlined Hiring: USAJobs.gov has made applying for a position in the Federal government more streamlined. Unfortunately, not all SES positions have benefitted by this innovation. SES positions traditionally require submission of lengthy write-ups describing skills and experiences related to Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs). The prospect of writing upwards of 20 pages of essays related to specific skills and activities that may be part of the new position can be daunting, and may scare away applicants who don’t want to invest the time until they know they are being seriously considered for a position. In addition, the prospect of reading all of those submissions during the selection process can be overwhelming for those involved in hiring the new executive. Mirroring the private sector’s use of the resume or curriculum vitae as a starting point can help streamline the hiring process. By introducing the ECQs into the hiring process after the list of qualified candidates has been narrowed, the Federal government may attract those with more diverse experience to bring fresh perspectives into the SES corps. At a time when the risk of retirement-eligible executives moving on is at all-time high, organizations that can streamline and focus their executive hiring processes will be best equipped to fill those vacated positions by either hiring from outside, or by invoking the succession planning strategy, allowing them to maintain essential organizational capabilities with minimal disruption.
Onboarding: Onboarding refers to the process by which an organization helps incoming executives become comfortable, and accelerates their ability to perform at top levels. This usually takes place from the moment an individual signs a letter of acceptance to anywhere from 3-12 months into their tenure. Many organizations could improve how they help enculturate new staff; managing this onboarding process as a strategic organizational asset potentially will serve to attract qualified executives to join the organization, feel more supported upon arrival, and become effective more quickly. Everyone wants to feel welcomed and wanted when they accept a new position or role. Understanding a new arrival’s development needs, and providing a tailored infrastructure of support based on those needs will help them adjust more quickly, regardless of the challenges they may face while learning the ropes of the new organization. Helping executives seed their internal network of contacts, understand the uniqueness and complexity of the culture, and understand their role, the challenges they face, and how to address those challenges, will go a long way in accelerating their timeline to effectiveness in the role. Managing onboarding will benefit the organization by building the reputation among executives that the organization has in interest in making the executive feel welcomed and supported for a successful tenure.
In a few weeks, I’ll come back with tips to consider if you are charged with helping to implement SES Reform within your Department or agency.