The dedicated, mission-driven members of the Senior Executive Service are critical to the stability of our economy, the security of our nation and the effective operation of our government. Senior executives are responsible for leading the federal workforce, and have a hand in developing and implementing nearly all the government’s policies and programs. Good governance depends on these 7,000 leaders doing their jobs well.
These case studies are examples of great work already being done. Our hope is that they will inspire agencies across government to innovate and build upon these practices to strengthen the Senior Executive Service.
In late 2014, two senior executives at the Department of Education approached the secretary with an idea. Noting that Education did not have a forum for senior executives to meet, network and work together to address challenges, the group proposed a standing monthly meeting and asked the secretary to help launch it. The group hoped the meetings would foster a stronger sense of community and enable senior executives to communicate to political leadership with one voice. The secretary agreed, and what became known as the “Executive Cadre” was born.
Executive Cadre meetings take place once a month and last between 1.5 and 2 hours. Only career senior executives are invited and they must attend in person—no call-ins—to protect confidentiality. The meetings follow “Vegas rules,” according to Mark Washington, performance improvement officer and founding member. That is, what happens in Executive Cadre meetings, stays in Executive Cadre meetings.
Attendance, while voluntary, routinely numbers around 50 people–a sizable segment of the department’s 68 career senior executives. The cadre typically addresses between two and four topics at each meeting, and receives an agenda and background reading material in advance. At the end of each meeting, participants suggest topics for future meetings and decide the location of the next gathering. Meetings rotate among Education’s Washington, D.C. offices for two reasons: It ensures that everyone gets to host a meeting, and it exposes Education’s workforce to a broad segment of the department’s leadership.
Education’s monthly gatherings foster a stronger sense of community among its career senior executives, according to Denise Carter, deputy assistant secretary for management and a founding member of the cadre. “Because some of Education’s programs are stove-piped, executives did not have an opportunity to network as a group,” she said. “They didn’t have a forum to talk about their goals, priorities and challenges.” That changed when the cadre was created. Now, as Washington observed, “People connect before, during and after the meetings. Previously, some of these folks hadn’t met or didn’t know each other well.”
Monthly meetings also led to more constructive communication with political leadership, and political leaders have acknowledged the need to engage their career colleagues in the decision-making process. “When we first started this group, people were so angry because they felt disconnected as part of the leadership,” said Chief Human Capital Officer Cassandra Cuffee-Graves. “Now we see career executives discussing how to partner with their political counterparts to prepare for the [presidential] transition.” When management challenges arise, the cadre gathers, has a discussion and attempts to coalesce around an Executive Cadre position. A member then briefs political leaders on the Executive Cadre’s position.
While less than two years old, the cadre has already worked successfully with leadership to address a handful of concerns. For example, the department’s Executive Resources Board was once comprised entirely of political executives, but the cadre presented its case for more career representation and was granted two seats. In addition, the cadre secured coveted changes to the department’s performance review process.
The Department of Education’s monthly Executive Cadre meetings work because participants trust one another to keep the group’s conversations confidential and feel comfortable speaking to one another with candor. Yet it took time to build trust. “We were initially very risk averse and not very trusting of the environment or each other,” Washington said. “People started out very cautiously, but over time realized it was a safe space as they saw their colleagues speak up without any fear of retribution. Our colleagues feel that they’re coming to participate in something unique and special.”
Federal Executive Boards in Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles recently took creative steps to recognize the accomplishments of senior executives. In late 2015, the Greater Los Angeles FEB hosted a luncheon for local senior executives and their families. The event proved so successful that the Greater Boston FEB made plans to hold one of its own in June 2016. And for the first time, the Baltimore FEB opened its annual Excellence in Federal Career awards ceremony to senior executives. The events in these three cities were all motivated by the understanding that even the most senior level employees could use a pat on the back.
SES Recognition Luncheons in Los Angeles and Boston
In December 2015, the Greater Los Angeles Federal Executive Board invited all 35 senior executives in the area to a luncheon. The senior executives, representing multiple agencies, were encouraged to bring their families and heard a keynote address from a top official from the Office of Management and Budget, Lisa Danzig. Each executive was presented with a medal as their accomplishments were read aloud. The luncheon exceeded expectations to such a degree that the Greater Boston FEB’s executive director decided to replicate the event for her local senior executives.
Baltimore Federal Executive Board’s “Excellence in Federal Career” Awards Ceremony
While the Baltimore FEB held a different type of event, its purpose was the same—to acknowledge the accomplishments of senior executives. For 49 years, the Baltimore FEB has hosted the Excellence in Federal Career awards program, designed to recognize employees of agencies located in the Baltimore region. Since the program’s inception, only General Schedule employees have been eligible to receive an award.
That changed in 2016, when seven SES award categories were created: Outstanding Executive of the Year; Rookie of the Year; Executive Innovator of the Year; Outstanding Executive for Diversity and Inclusion; FEB Executive of the Year; Combined Federal Campaign Executive of the Year; and Federal Executive Board Chair and Executive Director Human Capital Leadership Award.
Agencies nominate their senior executives, and winners are selected by a blue ribbon panel comprised of business, academic and nonprofit leaders in the Baltimore area. Winners are announced at a ceremony featuring the U.S. Coast Guard Baltimore-area Color Guard, and a keynote speaker delivers remarks. First, second and third place winners selected from each award category receive glass-matted, framed plaques with gold, silver or bronze finishes.
The “Intrinsic Value”
Events like those in Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles boost the morale of senior executives whose hard work and mission-critical contributions are often overlooked. “What the event in Los Angeles showed me is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a GS-2 or a senior executive, you want to be appreciated for your contributions,” said Dr. Reginald Wells, chief human capital officer at the Social Security Administration. “Some of the people in Los Angeles were on the verge of tears. One woman said she had never been treated this well, and all we did was host a luncheon, read her biography and give her a medal. It really does speak to the intrinsic value of doing these kinds of events.”
The Social Security Administration runs programs to cultivate the agency’s top talent and groom its next generation of leaders. The Leadership Development Program is for GS-9 to GS-12 employees while the Advanced Leadership Program is for those at the GS-13 to GS-14 level. The highly competitive programs last 18 months and require participants to complete a host of developmental activities, including three rotational assignments lasting six months each that are aimed at expanding their skills.
Advanced Leadership Program
For the intensive and highly selective Advanced Leadership Program, open to full-time employees, SSA selects about 35 participants from the 800 to 1,000 applications typically received. To be considered, candidates complete an application and answer 25 multiple-choice questions about various leadership situations, such as, “How would you respond to two arguing coworkers?” They also write personal narratives addressing five to six leadership competencies and provide a supervisor’s evaluation. Finalists participate in role-playing activities at an assessment center that aim to shed light on how candidates behave in unfamiliar, stressful circumstances.
Participants attend orientation and receive a mentor at the GS-15 level or higher. They complete a wide range of assignments over the course of the program, including five e-learning leadership classes, three readings on leadership, a pre- and post-program 360-degree competency assessment, and two one-week training sessions on a host of leadership competencies, including diversity and inclusion, problem-solving and effective communication. Participants also must interview three executives and complete three, day-long shadow assignments with a senior executive. Most importantly, participants complete three, six-month-long rotational assignments designed to broaden their abilities.
These “stretch” assignments are designed to build leadership skills and broaden participants’ knowledge of SSA. Leaders of components within the agency submit written proposals for the six-month assignments. For example, a deputy commissioner might propose creating a short-term assistant deputy commissioner position for a participant in the Advanced Leadership Program. Program participants consult with their mentors and identify their top three choices.
Next, SSA’s Executive Resources Board reviews the selections to make sure they will be effective. “We want our program participants to receive challenging leadership experiences that provide personal and professional growth,” said Matt Gottlieb, team leader for career development. “We don’t want program participants sitting in cubicles filling in spreadsheets all day.”
To force participants to rely on and develop leadership abilities, they must select assignments that fall outside of their comfort zones. For instance, employees based at headquarters who have not worked in a field office in the past five years must take an assignment in the field. The same principle holds for field office employees who lack recent tenure at headquarters. All rotational assignments must be located in a different office and involve work unfamiliar to participants.
Temporary promotion and certificate of eligibilitySSA takes creative steps to encourage its best talent to seek a spot in the Advanced Leadership Program. Participants entering the program receive a temporary grade promotion valid until the end of the program. Participants then revert to their original grade level but receive a certificate of eligibility that entitles them to one non-competitive promotion for a non-bargaining unit position within SSA, as long as they meet the requirements of the open position. This helps graduates ascend to higher-level management positions.
Leadership Development Program
The Leadership Development Program for GS-9 through GS-12 employees is similar to the ALP in purpose and process, and interest also far exceeds capacity for this program. It typically garners between 1,000 and 2,000 applications for 25 to 30 spots.
Geared toward providing high-potential employees with rigorous leadership experiences early in their careers, the LDP also runs for 18 months, offers classroom and online training sessions and requires three rotational stretch assignments of six months each. “In field offices, the first level of supervision is an operations supervisor,” said Gottlieb. “So if a [Leadership Development Program] participant is a claims representative, he or she might rotate into an operations supervisor position, which means supervising people taking claims. If he or she is an operations supervisor, he or she might rotate into an assistant office manager position. We try to rotate people up into the next level of management.” Mirroring the ALP, participants receive a temporary grade increase and a certificate of eligibility upon successful completion of the program.
The Advanced Leadership Program and Leadership Development Program are integral components of SSA’s succession management plan. With a large number of senior leaders eligible to retire, it is important to build a pipeline of future leaders with an array of leadership experiences and broad knowledge of the agency. “Our ALP and LDP programs provide the Social Security Administration with a diverse group of future leaders,” said Gottlieb. “Through training and developmental assignments, program participants receive an array of leadership experience and enterprise-wide knowledge. These programs continue SSA’s strong tradition of employee development, succession planning and developing a pipeline of future leaders.”
Behavior-based interviewing is grounded in the assumption that individuals’ behavior in previous positions is the best predictor of how they will perform in the future.
The Department of Health and Human Services ran a pilot program in 2015 that used this technique to evaluate candidates for the Senior Executive Service. According to Jason Saltz, an HHS human resources business partner trained in behavior-based interviewing, this approach increases the likelihood that organizations will identify and hire applicants best suited for the job, resulting in better job performance and lower turnover.
Interview questions are designed to prompt SES candidates to describe a situation involving the knowledge or skills the department seeks. If a senior executive position at HHS is likely to require an executive who can help groups reach agreement, for example, an interviewer might ask SES candidates to describe a work situation that required them to use consensus-building skills.
The questions may assess one or more of the five core qualifications required at the SES level, and they can be tailored to fit the unique challenges that arise in different positions. The important aspect is that the questions reflect situations the candidate is likely to encounter. For example, to assess the Executive Core Qualification of “Building Coalitions,” HHS interviewers asked the following question:
“In this role, you would be asked to proactively build coalitions and align other senior leaders across all levels of the government and other agencies. Often, when confronted with an organizational issue, a group of strategic leaders will have differing opinions about which action to take. Describe a situation in which you were able to bring together a group of people with conflicting interests and viewpoints to quickly resolve a complex problem.”
In developing its approach, human resources employees crafted interview questions and consulted with subject matter experts to create a rating scale to assess the quality of interviewees’ answers. This “behaviorally anchored rating scale,” (see Rating Scale below) which includes sample responses, helps reduce the effect of unintentional bias, according to Saltz, who assists HHS hiring managers and human resources staff with developing strong questions and conducting effective interviews.
Interviewers rate the quality of candidates’ responses from one to five, using the Office of Personnel Management’s definitions of proficiency, which range from “awareness” at one end to “expert” at the other. When creating the scale, HHS tailored OPM’s definitions and created illustrations of answers at each level.
The person providing an answer rated as “expert,” for example, demonstrated proficiencies such as being “a key resource and a leader of leaders,” or “understands political issues and effectively works with Congress to receive legislative approval.”
When HHS interviewers assessed candidates’ answers during the pilot, they focused on four aspects: the challenge, problem or goal the candidate described; the context in which it took place, including the people or groups the candidate interacted with and the environment in which it happened; the specific actions the candidate took in response; and the results achieved that demonstrate the quality and effectiveness of the candidates’ leadership skills.
When candidates gave hypothetical or incomplete answers, interviewers asked follow-up questions to elicit a more concrete response. They had prompts at their disposal that guided them to question candidates further. Follow-up prompts for the interview question above included:
The agency was able to evaluate candidates effectively against the Executive Core Qualifications using behavior-based interviewing, Saltz said, and interviewers gave good feedback about the process. The interviewers reported that the model and structure were helpful in determining the most qualified candidates and ensured consistency.
But there were challenges, he added. At times, it was difficult to get candidates to describe examples of their past behavior. Some candidates gave general, hypothetical answers, and the panel had to continue asking follow-up questions to get sufficient information about a real-life situation.
In the HHS pilot, the panel conducted eight interviews over two days, each lasting 90 minutes. About 10 minutes was allotted for responses to each of the nine questions.
For future interviews, HHS will shorten some questions so they are clearer and more focused, Saltz said. The department also plans to allow more time for each question to get more comprehensive responses.
|Proficiency Level||Proficiency Level Definition||Proficiency Level Illustrations|
|Level 5: Expert||
|Level 4: Advanced||
|Level 3: Intermediate||
|Level 2: Basic||
|Level 1: Awareness||
One of the toughest challenges related to performance is understanding how individuals’ work affects the organization. A large Cabinet-level federal department is tackling that challenge with an electronic system for managing talent, called inCompass. One of its many features is the ability to generate reports and provide data that leadership can use to review progress on strategic goals.
“That’s the holy grail of performance really—being able to see improvements in organization performance through individual performance,” an interviewee from the department said.
The inCompass system, offered by a federal shared service provider, enables users to view performance data in real time, enhancing their ability document progress on performance goals and increasing accountability. And it helps employees connect their individual performance goals to other employees’ goals as well as department objectives in the system.
Features, or “modules,” in the system help with performance planning, learning and development, compensation, succession planning, competency assessments and more. Although each module can be used separately, it is most valuable to use several at once to integrate talent management, one interviewee said. That way, users can tap into many aspects of talent management in one place and do not have to log into multiple programs.
InCompass also helps employees view connections among interrelated aspects of their work, such as their performance plan and development opportunities, as well as how their work relates to the department’s mission.
The department requires senior executives to create performance plans using inCompass. After they write their individual goals, they use a pre-populated drop-down menu to select the department goals or objectives that align with their goals. Mid-level employees can connect their performance goals to those of a senior executive’s and see how their role helps advance mission-critical objectives. That linking also allows leadership to track which staff are contributing to each strategic goal.
A system such as inCompass provides several benefits, including the ability to view data in real time, said the interviewee, an inCompass expert. Supervisors using the system can review and comment on a senior executive’s performance plan, and all employees can track and document progress toward their goals throughout the year, rather than only at the end of the performance cycle. This ongoing visibility into employees’ progress makes it possible for employees and their supervisors to continually hold conversations about performance and make mid-course corrections during the performance cycle. At the end of a performance cycle, leaders can see all the consolidated information in a performance summary.
The department improved the performance management process for senior executives with a feature that allows members of the Performance Review Board to view and comment on performance plans at the beginning of the year. At year’s end, these board members make final comments, and the board chairperson can consolidate and use the comments for a final recommendation, and to close out the performance cycle.
Before using inCompass, the department’s performance review process was paper-driven and labor intensive, an interviewee said. An executive services committee had to compile huge binders for board members. Now, members comment in real time, in a chat-room format, and the system compiles all the information.
InCompass contains valuable data that employees can use for repopulating other features in the system. For example, a senior executive can create an executive development plan in the learning module with the information that he already entered into the performance planning module.
When senior executives create executive development plans in the system, they also have access to talent development opportunities. They can pick a course that appeals to them, add it to the plan, register and immediately launch the training if it is available online.
The department can use the system to verify how performance goals of front-line employees, managers and senior executives align with the organization’s strategic goals, enabling leaders to evaluate whether staff are working effectively to carry out the organization’s priorities.
Although inCompass received favorable reviews, the transition to the new system has not been without challenges, a department interviewee said. Some people may be resistant to moving to a new system or process simply because it is different, he said. The department turned to change management strategies to move the process along.
The system’s tools are new to many users and not all executives warmed to them immediately, he added. For example, inCompass gives executives the ability to track goals with colorful dashboard features such as progress bars. But this tracking method with progress bars had not typically been used to provide updates on performance, and executives reacted differently, depending on their existing approach to writing and tracking goals. Some executives use the system more comprehensively than others.
The potential is there, however, the interviewee added. As employees begin to use and understand the system’s many features, such as the ability to break goals into measurable milestones, they are more likely to accept them, he said.
The Securities and Exchange Commission created the College of Leadership Development at its headquarters in 2010, with the understanding that senior leaders are more likely to participate in training and development if the opportunities are sophisticated and designed to accommodate individual needs. The college, a component of SEC University, offers courses, seminars, workshops and executive coaching led by people from inside and outside of government with applied leadership development expertise and industry savvy that senior officers respect.1
Training and development offerings
The SEC’s senior officers are enthusiastic about the college’s offerings, in part due to their high quality and sophistication, according to Christelle LaPolice, Dean of the College of Leadership Development. The college provides content for all senior officers, regardless of their tenure or the length of time they have to commit to training. Offerings include courses, known as electives, as well as opportunities such as Senior Officer Seminars and Senior Officer Workshops, with content that changes each year to meet the officers’ shifting needs and interests. To determine what to add to the curriculum, LaPolice collects feedback from executive coaches, supervisors and their direct reports, and meets with senior officers to learn about their challenges and identify their interests.
In-person courses, aimed at developing leadership acumen, are streamed live for field offices when possible, and last between two hours and two days. One course, “Leading with the Brain in Mind,” draws on cutting-edge research in neuroscience to help leaders influence, interact with and manage others more effectively.
Additional courses offered in 2016 include: Understanding Your Personality at Work; Team Facilitation Skills; Reactionary to Visionary; Working Smarter Not Harder; Overworked and Overwhelmed; Stamina, Effectiveness, and Presence Under Stress; Executive Presence; and Transformational Leadership.
For senior officers with less time to invest, the college offers Senior Officer Seminars, one-and-a-half-hour sessions every six weeks that provide a forum for executives to share leadership strategies and challenges. Guest speakers from the public and private sectors guide discussions on topics designed to correspond with OPM’s Executive Core Qualifications and needs identified by senior officers.
The college also hosts Senior Officer Workshops, a program capped at 15 enrollees, open to everyone but geared toward senior officers with less than one-and-a-half years of tenure. Over eight months, participants attend six sessions, each lasting between four and eight hours. The workshop is so popular, enrollment typically closes within a day, and there is usually a waiting list. While the workshop is not considered formal onboarding, it is designed to help newer senior officers transition to a broad focus on strategic leadership across the organization, a change from their previous focus on narrower areas of operational management. The curriculum includes small group discussions, interactive sessions led by subject matter experts, and case studies and simulations on topics including enterprise-level vision and collaborative decision-making.
Keys to the College of Leadership Development’s success
A smartly branded, high-quality product coupled with leadership support helps drive the college’s success. Recognizing that senior officers are intellectually curious but very busy, LaPolice and her colleagues make training and development a worthwhile commitment by ensuring that it meets senior officers at their level. “Our senior officers see the qualifications of the people selected to teach the classes and they appreciate the high-quality product they’re getting,” LaPolice explained. She also underscored the value of thoughtful marketing, noting the appeal of a college, an annual course catalog mirroring those found in universities, and sharply designed glossy promotional material. Support from the highest levels of leadership is also vital. The SEC chair sends the message that no one is too busy or accomplished for training and development by regularly attending Senior Officer Seminars and the opening and closing sessions of Senior Officer Workshops.
1 Senior Officers at the Securities and Exchange Commission are the equivalent of SES members elsewhere in government.