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Midlife Crisis of the Senior Executive Service

Midlife Crisis of the Senior Executive Service

Posted by Gavan O'Shea on 06/10/2015

The Senior Executive Service is at a crossroads. For the venerable corps—whose members serve just below top-level political appointees and reflect less than 1% of the nation's two million federal employees—recent years have seen ominous trends. Many report frustration with their agencies' increasingly political environments and relatively low pay. In fact, fewer than half of those responding to a recent Federal News Radio survey said they would join the corps today.1 Ethical scandals and crises driven by ineffective leadership at the VA, IRS, and GSA have roused the ire of many in Congress, who have responded with bills making it easier to fire SES members. Senior executives fear these proposals will only further damage an already politicized corp. Or, in the vivid phrasing of one SES member, "It will convert the SES into a cadre of political hacks."2

Government Executive's Kellie Lunney says that the SES, at 37 years old, is in a "midlife crisis." That crisis—and a feeling of being misunderstood, underappreciated, and besieged—radiates from recent graduates of the "Leadership for a Democratic Society" program at the Federal Executive Institute.3 FEI instructor Michael Belcher invited the graduates to complete the sentence "I wish the public knew..." He reports that the "outpouring of responses was immediate, insightful, and inspiring." Here are some of my favorites:

"I wish the public knew... truly committed to public service the majority of federal employees really are. That what they read on the news is the exception, not the norm."

...I left a job with better pay and benefits to do this."

...I have a government job because I want this great country to flourish, and be a better place for my children."

...federal employees work hard, and in many of their tasks and roles will never interface with the public they serve. They are dedicated even though those they work for will never be able to say thanks."

What will turn the tide? Below, I highlight two areas that hold promise as ways to revitalize and improve the SES:

  • Leadership Development through Rotational Assignments: Leadership development experts have long recognized how critical novel and challenging experiences are to one's growth as a leader. Decades ago, the U.S. military pioneered the notion of rotational or "joint duty" assignments, where senior executives work temporarily within other service branches. Similar cross-agency programs have recently been developed in the intelligence community. Though the original intent of the SES was to spread knowledge and leadership excellence throughout the government, senior federal executives' lack of mobility may be stifling this goal: a 2012 report4 found that nearly half stayed in the same job once reaching the SES. Addressing this "mobility void" is one of the key goals of President Obama's White House Leadership Development program.
  • Revitalized SES Performance Management: As a HumRRO colleague recently noted in another blog post, many performance management (PM) systems have considerable room for improvement. This may be particularly true within the SES. The lack of clear SES performance standards (at least in some cases) and the strong link between PM ratings and bonuses are likely some of the forces driving the fact that approximately 85% of SES members received either "exceeds fully successful" or "outstanding" ratings within the 2010-2013 time frame.5 Even assuming that SES staff are the cream of the crop, this "Lake Wobegon effect on steroids" makes it very challenging to identify true performance differences across SES members.

I welcome your contribution to the dialogue, so please share your comments and questions.

1Kopp, E. (February 9, 2015). Fixing the SES: ‘This used to be an honor: Now it's a joke.' Federal News Radio (
2Lunney, K. (April 1, 2015). Senior execs to Congress: Making us At-Will employees will ‘destroy' us. Government Executive (
3Belcher, M. F. (May 7, 2015). Hear what federal employees have to say to ‘I wish the public knew...'. Government Executive (
4Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey&Company. Mission-driven mobility: Strengthening our government through a mobile leadership corps. (
5Lunney, K. (February 24, 2015). Are there too many ‘outstanding' senior executives? Government Executive (

About the Author

Dr. Gavan O'Shea is HumRRO's Director of Federal Talent Management.

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