Why we stay: SES in their own words

The SES has lost its luster in recent years, in part because of constrained program budgets, increased scrutiny from Congress, and a sense among members that po...

SES members: Eddie Ribas, FERC; Jeri Buchholz, NASA; Barbara Sisson, Army Reserve; Joe Ward, Interior; and David Bray, FCC
Political appointees come and go with administrations. Military leaders assume a command for a few years, at the most. In contrast, the average career member of the Senior Executive Service has spent 23 years with the government.

  • There are 7,802 career SES members in the federal government.
  • They’ve worked 23.5 years, on average, for the federal government.
  • They earned $168,608, on average, in fiscal 2013.
  • More than half could retire now.
  • 64 percent will be eligible to retire next year.
  • Three-quarters work in the Washington, D.C. area.
  • Two-thirds of SES members are men.
  • 4 out of 5 are white.
  • 11 percent are African-American.
  • 4 percent are Hispanic.
  • 3 percent are Asian.
  • 254 members joined in the first nine months of fiscal 2014. 681 members left.
  • Two of them were terminated or removed for reasons of discipline or performance.Data from the Office of Personnel Management and the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget of the United States Government

“The [Senior Executive Service] provides an amazing continuity, for better or for worse,” said Barbara Sisson, now on her sixth SES position as assistant chief of the Army Reserve. Sisson said she thinks of military generals, political appointees and CEOs in the same light. “They are all looking for an 18- to 24-month return on investment,” she said. “We’re not thinking about getting another star, making a return on investment for stockholders or winning the next election. I’m just here trying to help the organization be successful to the maximum extent possible. That’s really the focus of the SES.” The SES has lost its luster in recent years, in part because of constrained program budgets, increased scrutiny from Congress, and a sense among members that political appointees are assuming more of the leadership responsibilities once reserved for them. Findings from an exclusive Federal News Radio online survey, conducted in late December and early January, underscored the toll that those external factors have taken on the SES. Just 43 percent of current SES members said they would join the service today. The view is worse from the outside, however. Only 24 percent of General Schedule employees who took the survey said they would join. In part two of Federal News Radio’s special report, Fixing the SES, Sisson and four other senior executives said they chose the SES because they wanted to be leaders. They believe they’ve made marks on their corners of government and they’ve had rewarding experiences that they could not have had otherwise. Together, they make the case that while the SES may have its faults, it is not broken.

David Bray, chief information officer, Federal Communications Commission

David Bray explains what attracted him to the SES.

David Bray is the type of senior executive the government would like more of. For one thing, he’s 37 years old and, potentially, has many more years of government service ahead of him. For another, he has a millennial’s attitude toward work. He said he is more focused on making his mark as a leader, and less on job security and salary. Good thing, considering Congress has hinted at legislation that would strip senior executives of some due process rights and give agency leaders the power to claw back performance awards and bonuses. Bray landed his first federal job when he was a high-school freshman. His computer simulations at science fairs got the attention of Navy recruiters. They convinced him to join an expedition in the Sea of Cortez led by the famous explorer Robert Ballard. It was a formative experience for Bray. “They hooked me at an early age to, one, do exploration and two, to do things I’ve never done before,” he said. “If I look at the jobs I’ve picked, if it’s something that someone else has done, I don’t want to do it. And three, the service element both from the military perspective and the civilian perspective. I have a lot of respect for those people.” Eight years later, he was working as an IT specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when terrorists struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. In the blurry weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks, he saw the CDC’s career executives instilling calm in the midst of chaos. “I saw senior executives playing the role of, ‘We can get through this, hold together and work across agencies.’ It inspired me to want to be that,” he said. Now he is leading the FCC’s efforts to move its data from on-site servers to the cloud. The process has made some of his employees uncomfortable, either because they are skeptical about the change or they are upset that the agency will shed long-time contractors who have become friends. Bray keeps a copy of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling on his office door to remind him that leadership is not about the accolades. “A good leader recognizes, when they step outside expectations, there will be friction,” he said. With his technical skills and management experience, Bray has fielded more lucrative offers from the private sector. To date, he has turned them all down. “I work long hours. I could go into the private sector and make more. I sometimes wonder if I’m a crazy altruist. But there’s a joy to making sense out of confusion, to being a calming presence and a camaraderie,” he said. “While there will never be an IPO, there’s a reverse IPO: an opportunity for positive impact.”

Joe Ward, director, Interior Business Center

Joe Ward explains why he took a pay cut to work for the government.

Joe Ward, a former airman, equates being in the SES with being a general in the military. His organization, which provides administrative services like payroll to more than 150 agencies, has a workforce of more than 1,000 employees and a budget of $200 million. He calls his job the best in the government. “I think it’s a privilege to be in the SES. As an SES member, I have the opportunity to transform government at a very high level,” he said. “I have a seat at the table. I can express my opinions based on my experience and hopefully make some changes that create good government.” Ward worries that it’s a minority view. Whenever his department hires a new senior executive, it holds a ceremony similar to those the military holds when a general officer assumes a command position, he said. “So many people come up to me and say, ‘I never knew what that keystone meant, what the SES is about,'” he said. “In the military, everyone knows when you’re promoted to a general, it’s a big deal. When you’re promoted to the SES, a lot of people need to be educated about that.” But being in the SES has meant sacrifice for Ward, who is putting his last of four children through college now. After leaving the military, he worked for KPMG and Deloitte Consulting. He knows if he were still at a firm, he’d be earning a lot more money than he does now. “That’s not advertised widely, but it’s true of me and people I’ve hired from industry,” he said, adding that, for some, the pay cut has approached six figures. While he doesn’t regret his decision to work for the government, Ward said he will rejoin the private sector someday. “The reality is, for me and others I know, most of us are going to retire from these SES positions, go back to industry and try to make up some of the difference from being in the federal government,” he said. The Office of Personnel Management has surveyed departing SES members and found that’s often the case. The majority say they plan to work elsewhere.

Jeri Buchholz, chief human capital officer, NASA

Jeri Buchholz talks about what surprises new SES members about the job.

Six years ago, Jeri Buchholz became restless. She was a human resources director with a rank of GS-15, which gave her many more job protections than she enjoys now. For example, SES members do not have the same extensive rights to appeal negative personnel decisions. In some cases, they earn less money than GS-15s. But Buchholz believed she was not using her talent for strategic planning to its fullest. “I had the perspective that the SES is different from being a GS-15 manager in that it gives you access to a broader range of people and influence across government,” she said. “I really did want, at the end of my career, to look back and say, ‘I did that and, as a result, different people work for the federal government than would’ve worked for the government had I not been part of the service,'” she said. As a member of the federal CHCO Council, Buchholz shares her positions on human-resources policies with others across government. She also has helped the White House draft policy and legislative proposals to boost employment of people in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. “It’s really the opportunity to have access to those people with whom you can create collaborations and partnerships, and therefore create enduring influence,” she said. She does not regret giving up the job protections she had as a General Schedule employee. While it’s easier to fire or discipline SES members, Buchholz said she is confident in her abilities. She accepts that criticism from Congress, leaders and the workforce is part of the job. But newer SES members often are caught off guard by that, she said. “You’re responsible for executing — to the best of your ability — the policies and programs placed in front of you. The idea that you’re going to do that with self confidence, that you are going to let the criticism roll off you like duck feathers, have that resilience to continually be pressing forward, and pressing the edge of the envelope without going over the edge, I think, is something that catches people by surprise,” she said.

Eddie Ribas, chief human capital officer, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Eddie Ribas talks about his first SES experience.

For some, wearing the SES pin is the culmination of years spent in the trenches. Eddie Ribas got his first federal job in 1989 as an entry-level human resources specialist at the Office of Personnel Management. He rose through the ranks, becoming a branch chief, then a division director at OPM before moving on to other agencies. “As a GS-15, you’re carrying out someone else’s vision. As an SES, you’re providing the vision,” said Ribas. “Able to serve as a conduit between political leadership and the rest of the workforce, be involved in the strategic management of the organization, be seen as a problem solver, a go-to individual for the organization, be a leader — it’s something I wanted to do.” Ribas admits he had second thoughts about making that transition a dozen years ago, when he took his first SES job as OPM’s associate director of Human Capital Services. “Once you’re selected, you’re elated. It’s the achievement of a long-time goal,” he said. “But once it sets in, you think, ‘What am I getting myself into?'” There had been a lot of turnover in that position. Staff expected he wouldn’t stay long. On top of that, the Government Accountability Office was warning the government that it was at high risk of failure in human capital management. Under that pressure, Ribas needed all of his employees to pull their weight. “A lot of being a senior executive is building your coalitions, your partnerships and rapport with other people,” he said. From that first SES job, he learned that he didn’t have to have all the answers. He got more done by involving his employees in the hunt for solutions. That’s the type of skill the government needs in SES members, he said. “When you look at some of the problems we’re faced with and the issues in all of our agencies, you need a leader who can bring together a group of federal employees to deal with the nation’s biggest problems,” he said.

Barbara Sisson, assistant chief, Army Reserve

Barbara Sisson explains why she believes the SES is an essential part of government.

In many respects, Barbara Sisson is the type of senior executive that Congress envisioned in 1978, when it drafted the law that created the SES. The quintessential SES member would have the management and people skills to lead any federal organization and they would move around to meet the government’s needs. While that vision, writ large, has not materialized, Sisson has held six different SES positions across the departments of Energy, Transportation and Defense. Her roles have taken her from Washington, D.C., to Tampa and San Antonio. “I enjoy change. It knocks the cobwebs off and refreshes you in a way that nothing else does,” she said. But politics nearly drove her out of the SES and the government 15 years ago. She had risen up through the GS ranks, where she was largely insulated from the decision-making process of political leaders. She remembers that she got a shock in her first SES job, when she worked for a supervisor who once had been a political appointee. Despite repeated requests, he refused to delineate his priorities for the organization. “He said, ‘If I tell you what my priorities are, then someone won’t be happy because they won’t be on the list,'” she said. “That was a very difficult way to achieve meaningful success, especially when you’re trying to rally your workers towards a particular goal. That’s when I realized I’m dealing with a political animal here and I’m not political.” She briefly left the government to join a federal contractor, but she missed working directly for the American people, she said. Nowadays, she sees her role, as the top civilian in the Army Reserve, as a stable counterbalance to military leaders, who rotate positions frequently. The current chief of the Army Reserve, Lt. Gen. Jeff Talley, will move on in two years. But Sisson will stay to help the incoming chief make a smooth transition. She believes that the nation’s founders would have wanted things this way. “Our forefathers, when they set up the government, the whole point was to slow things down,” she said. “They put a system together so that no one group of people could run off with our wonderful country. I like to think of the SES as the continuity regardless of where you are.” Coming up Monday, Feb. 23, in part 3 of our special report, Fixing the SES, Federal News Radio digs deeper into the challenges facing the institution, including the lack of mobility among its members. MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, FIXING THE SES: Part 1: ‘This used to be an honor. Now it’s a joke.’

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