Improving SES diversity takes work from leaders as well as lower ranks

Senior executives are in key positions to improve federal workforce diversity, but the numbers have not been encouraging.

Senior executives, GS-15s and GS-14s are in key positions to improve federal workforce diversity, whether through hiring decisions or promoting an inclusive and equitable office culture. However, the numbers have not been encouraging.

“Data shows that executives and those at lower senior management levels are leaving the federal government at a faster rate than they are starting,” Tyra Dent Smith, executive director of the African American Federal Executive Association and a retired member of the SES, said on a panel this week. “Additionally, current data of minority representation in the Senior Executive Service reflects little or no significant improvement in representation of minorities, and representation of women in SES has declined.”

Tuesday’s panel, assembled by the AAFEA, Executive Women in Government, Senior Executives Association and Management Concepts, meant to address specific steps leaders and all federal employees could take to address diversity and inclusion goals. The State Department’s Kerry Neal said these goals should be considered not as sprints but rather as marathons – long, deliberate and often resource-intensive exercises. Neal is managing director for Financial Policy, Reporting and Analysis at the Bureau of the Comptroller and Global Financial Services, and he said it takes focus and “it’s habit forming, almost kind of like muscle memory-type dedication that works toward achieving the goal. And then you reset the goal – the goal must be further advanced and improved upon. I consider it iterative.”

When it comes to “lifting up” the next generation of leaders, senior executives need to remember that their words matter. Roland Edwards, deputy chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said that often, those future leaders are not coming from “the typical two-parent home with a dog and the picket fence … And so there’s the notion of sometimes folks are struggling against where they’re coming from to get to where they want to go to.”

Neal said he was impressed by messaging from new Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the past 30 days about the importance of diversity in both the civil and the Foreign Service. The secretary referred to the Carl T. Rowan chapter of Blacks In Government and the Rangel and Pickering fellowship programs, for example, Neal said – avenues for opportunity for historically underrepresented groups.

Sometimes it’s not just words – there are policies and procedures that stifle upward mobility through the ranks. Wonzie Gardner, office head and chief human capital officer in the Office of Information and Resource Management at the National Science Foundation, said in these cases, it’s not that individuals are inherently bad but rather they are put in tough situations to make detrimental decisions about others. His organization has a racial equity task force to look for hindrances embedded in internal policies, he said.

He also emphasized the need to expand the recruiting pool for agencies: “If you fish in the same pond all the time, you’re gonna catch the same type of fish.” NSF is expanding where it looks for scientists, administrators and program officers, he said.

Neal said just his showing up in places and spaces to voice his opinion has made conversations different – a testament to impact of diversity of people and thought within organizations. He also serves on executive review boards, recruitment and promotion boards for senior executives, qualification review boards with the Office of Personnel Management, assesses qualifications for initial placement into the career SES, and serves on performance review boards. He helps assess pay-for-performance systems, which is how SES salaries, and performance bonuses, are set.

Patrina Clark, deputy director of the Office of Agency Services at the Farm Credit Administration, agreed with that message of intentionality. That idea is why she worked on a project with the Government Accountability Office she referred to as “the unwritten rules.” It identified aspects of the workplace culture that, although not explicitly stated in any handbook, reflected the reality of people in the organization and impeded their success.

She said that mid-career hires need specific attention because they have a tendency to flame out quickly. They face pressures to come into the job on a high note and only exceed expectations. The Farm Credit Administration likes to pair those hires with long-time agency employees to act as “translators,” she said.

“Whenever I’ve gone into an organization above the [GS-15] level, I’ve always said, ‘Please don’t let me blow myself up on a landmine. Tell me that I’m about to blow myself up before I step on it,’” Clark said. “And we as new entrants into these organizations have to be willing to ask people to do that for us to allow ourselves to be humble enough to say, ‘Hey, I need your help to succeed here.’”

Gardner said leaders have to be mindful of how they present to others, that sometimes being very aggressive or straightforward does not work. However, giving people opportunities to develop leadership skills early on, and pointing out weaknesses or mistakes then, will help them cope better, later.

At the same time, panelists agreed that employees seeking to climb the ranks need to be honest about their abilities too, and be their own advocates when necessary. Applying to positions for which you are not skilled or ready is not a great recipe for success. But if your organization does not offer executive development, whether for lack of initiative or lack of resources, research available programs elsewhere, panelists said. Gardner said if someone tells him they have applied for a job and been rejected several times, he may help them get a job in another agency.

“We have a cross-[pollination] of people going from different agencies. So I tell my folks all the time, ‘I can’t promote you within, I’m going to help you get a job with another agency,’” he said. “I think a diversity of experiences inside the federal government makes you a better SES.”

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