Agencies see low interest in joining SES as most executives near retirement

With 85 percent of current Senior Executive Service members eligible to retire within 10 years, agencies are looking to their rising leaders at the upper echelons of the General Schedule to replace them.

But those employees might not be interested.

Roughly 55 percent of employees at GS-14 or GS-15 expressed interest in joining the SES, according to a recent report from the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company.

In some cases, the situation is more urgent, as the administration looks to the career executive corps to lead the upcoming presidential transition. Half of the 7,000 current SES members are eligible to retire within the next president’s first term in office. And 50 percent of SES at the departments of Education and Justice, as well as the Social Security Administration, are eligible to retire now.

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“While there are some pockets of excellence, the SES is not as strong as it could be,” Stacey Dietsch, associate partner with McKinsey & Co., said June 21 at a Partnership event in Washington. “The health is not as strong.”

The administration is in the middle of helping agencies implement the requirements of the executive order President Barack Obama signed last December.

With about six months left until the presidential transition, it’s also trying to advertise what some agencies are doing to attract and retain the best and brightest to the SES, hoping other agencies might do the same.

“I’ve learned that the best way to make rapid improvement in the federal government is to find someone who’s doing something well, share that experience and let someone else borrow it, copy it, steal it, but leverage it,” Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert said.

The Health and Human Services Department is seeing some success recruiting and retaining new SES members through a behavior-based interviewing pilot.

“The idea was to first of all make it easier for the candidate to come in,” said HHS Chief Human Capital Officer John Gill. “[It’s] resume-based and go[es] deeply into his or her background through the behavior-based interviewing process.”

With this interview style, Gill said HHS had a better idea of the candidate’s Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) and their general skills. The agency built those insights into the executive’s individual development plan.

But low morale among the current cadre of senior executives is one of the biggest detractors for potential candidates to the SES, the report said.

“There are a lot of people out there, even locally, who would step up if they thought they were going to be supported in stepping up,” Reginald Wells, chief human capital officer at the Social Security Administration said.

Current senior executives largely say they do not feel appreciated and recognized for their work. And while many SES members praised the opportunity they had to meet with other senior executives and hear from President Barack Obama in person in 2014, those opportunities for recognition do not come often.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, SES satisfaction and commitment at the Veterans Affairs Department is the lowest among all other Chief Financial Officer Act (CFO Act) agencies — a score of 64.5 compared with NASA’s high of 96.

Wells said he’s learned that many senior executives are just looking for a “thank-you.” He’s visited SES members at Federal Executive Boards across the country.

“It’s really pretty amazing the feedback you get from them,” Wells said. “We had one senior executive in Los Angeles indicate that had he known that people cared so much about his contributions, he might not have retired at his optional retirement date.”

Better performance management, leadership development

Senior executives also indicated that most agencies are still struggling to implement a consistent performance management system, and the wide range in the distribution of performance ratings emphasizes this, the report said.

At the State Department, for example, 92.4 percent of its SES earned the highest performance rating in fiscal 2014, the report said. At the VA, however, 19.3 percent of its employees earned the highest score. Nearly 48 percent of SESers governmentwide earned the top performance rating.

If too many SESers all earn “outstanding” ratings, agencies often have a difficult time identifying the true top performers, which can impact the organization’s succession planning, the report said.

One interviewee told the Partnership, “when there is a perception that some senior executives receive undeserved outstanding ratings, high performers are ‘absolutely disheartened.'”

In many cases, senior executives said opportunities for leadership development — rather than higher pay — were often the main drivers behind their job satisfaction.

The President’s executive order requires agencies to put more of their SES members on short rotations within other offices in the same department or at another organization altogether.

The Department of the Army, for example, has required its senior executives to rotate into new positions every five or seven years. Since the Army began this process about 10 years, it’s tried to be more transparent and communicate more thoroughly with its SES members not only about their specific rotational assignments but also about their general aspirations and career goals.

“Over time, we developed a talent management board or a process where we wanted to know where an SES want to go,” said said Suzie Torres, chief of the operations division at the Army’s Civilian Senior Leader Management Office. “What do they want to become? And how do we help them get there?”

Roughly 53 percent of SES said they have not changed positions while in the service, the report said. Yet 83 percent of SESers who have completed a rotation and developmental assignment said it was “very or mostly effective.”

Torres said that kind of transparency and communication has helped SES members feel more comfortable about their rotations and confident that the assignments will help them solve agency problems and advance their careers at the same time.

From the Office of Management and Budget’s perspective, it wants to see agencies make these programs and instill this kind of thinking permanently into their missions.

“How do you link it to the business objectives?” said Lisa Danzig, associate director for performance and personnel management at OMB. “How do you make this really driven by the urgent needs of the organization? This isn’t about doing rotations. This is about actually solving problems, and you need the best talent to do that.”

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