Government Leaders

Good governance depends on great leaders doing exceptional work.

The dedicated, mission-driven members of the Senior Executive Service are critical to the stability of our economy and the security of our nation. They ensure government continues to innovate so it can operate effectively and cater to the rapidly evolving needs of the American people.

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.

But ensuring the strength and stability of government’s executive leaders is challenging work, particularly in today’s federal environment where budget cuts, hiring freezes and massive retirements are always real possibilities. Our government leaders need to take immediate action to develop a pipeline of future SES members and ensure current executives have the support they need to excel in their roles.

Our Role

We’re committed to the long-term health of the SES. That’s why our research demonstrates the need for a strong Senior Executive Service, articulates current challenges for executive leaders and identifies strategies to help SES members meet future needs. We also work with agencies to support individual SES members and help them do their jobs effectively.


Our data analysis, research and interviews with senior leaders across government revealed the need to focus SES enhancement efforts in four key areas:

Culture, recognition and prestige

Only about half of current GS-14 and 15 employees across government expressed interest in joining the Senior Executive Service or advancing into senior level, scientific or professional positions, according to a recent Vanderbilt University study.

To strengthen culture, recognition and prestige and, by extension, the SES, agencies could aspire to:

  • Create opportunities for members of the SES to connect and collaborate with one another through formal and informal networks
  • Encourage senior executives to take the initiative to explore innovative projects and ideas
  • Celebrate SES accomplishments publicly through interactive events and forums

Recruiting and hiring

With the prospect of a looming retirement boom, agencies need to aggressively recruit and hire a diverse, highly qualified group of individuals. While the executive cadre in our federal government is more diverse than that of the private sector, the SES is less diverse than the group of federal employees they lead.

To improve how government recruits and hires senior executives, agencies could aspire to:

  • Use strategic workforce planning to anticipate future SES openings
  • Identify and groom high-potential GS-13 to 15 employees
  • Seek gender and ethnic diversity in candidates with diverse experience
  • Use more sophisticated screening and interviewing techniques, such as resume-based hiring and behavior-based interviewing, to identify and hire the highest-quality candidates

Performance management

Effective performance management systems are designed to produce better agency outcomes and help agencies fulfill their missions. Yet uneven distribution of performance ratings indicate that the SES performance management system is implemented inconsistently across government. At one Cabinet-level agency, 92.4% of career senior executives received a Level 5 in fiscal 2014—the highest performance rating available—compared to just 19.3% at another. Performance ratings skew high across government in general, with 89.7% of career senior executives receiving a Level 4 or 5 rating in fiscal 2014.

To strengthen senior executive performance management, agencies could aspire to:

  • Evaluate performance based on quantitative results linked to the agency’s mission and qualitative feedback
  • Connect rewards and recognition to performance review results
  • Conduct frequent performance conversations, supported by data and examples
  • Integrate results from performance reviews into succession management and talent development processes

Leadership development

Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® data show that senior executives who have leadership development opportunities are more satisfied with and committed to their jobs. Yet too often senior executives fail to undertake the types of talent development proven to be most effective: on-the-job experiential learning or training directly applicable to their day-to-day work. A survey conducted in fiscal 2011 found that just 21% of career senior executives have participated in an action learning project, and only 18% have participated in a developmental assignment lasting longer than 30 days.

To ensure that senior executives are well-positioned to do their jobs effectively, agencies could aspire to:

  • Make learning more experiential and action-oriented through rotations and coursework that lends itself to on-the-job application
  • Provide “stretch” or challenge assignments that match individual potential to agency needs
  • Use mentoring programs that demonstrate the importance of on-the-job learning and enable experts to share their knowledge


A Pivotal Moment for the Senior Executive Service: Measures, aspirational practices and stories of success

June 21, 2016

Publication Type: Research and Publications

Publication Topic: Develop Strong Leaders,Modernize Management Systems

A Pivotal Moment for the Senior Executive Service: Measures, aspirational practices and stories of success

The dedicated, mission-driven members of the Senior Executive Service are critical to the stability of our nation’s government, economy and security. With most members eligible to retire in the next 10 years, this elite corps is at a critical juncture. Inspired by President Obama’s December 2015 Executive Order – Strengthening the Senior Executive Service, the…