Federal Careers

The penultimate leadership opportunity in the career federal service is the Senior Executive Service (SES). While we all know people who are in the SES that perhaps shouldn’t be, ideally, the SES represents the best of the best the government has to offer.

If you are thinking about becoming a SES think about whether you really want to be a leader – or are you a better manager? Warren Bennis, a well-known author on leadership defines a leader this way: “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” A strong organization needs both managers and leaders. Take some leadership assessments. Engage in a little self-reflection. Is the SES really for you?


Here are some questions to ask yourself:

• Are you in a place in your life where you are able to make the personal and professional commitment to the SES?
• Do you have a vision? Is your vision enterprise-wide or technically-focused?
• Are you a strategic thinker? Or do you prefer to implement things?
• Do you truly like getting work done through others or would you prefer to do it yourself and avoid the hassle of working with others?
• Are you truly willing to take input from stakeholders both inside and outside your organization? Including the input of those with whom you seriously disagree?
• Are you willing and able to work in an environment where there is significant second guessing, extensive social media feedback, and even the simplest things seem to have political impact?
• Do you have 10 specific examples of your strategic leadership from the last 10 years—that fit the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ)?
• Are you a supervisory GS-15 or equivalent? Or, if you’re in the private sector, are you in a true leadership role? If not, why do you think you have the qualifications for a SES position? Yes, volunteer work counts, but that volunteer work needs to be at the executive level—and you need to have at least a year of it (equivalent to 40 hours a week). Being in charge of cub scout troop or leading a choir will likely not be seen as executive experience. And it is true that there is no time-in-grade for the SES but current GS-14’s – especially nonsupervisory 14’s – will have a difficult time demonstrating executive leadership.
• What are your examples of executive leadership? Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance recommends that you have 10 specific (and different) examples of your executive leadership; those examples should be from the past 10 years (5-7 if you can), and address the relevant underlying competencies for each ECQ.
• Is your executive resume up-to-date? You will need an executive resume to apply for the SES. Your resume should include leadership language (review the ECQs for ideas about language to use), metrics / numbers to give your work context (think how many, how much, and how often), and achievements that demonstrate the “so what;” how did you add value / make a difference to your employer? Today’s SES executive resumes are typically 5 pages. In fact, there are a number of agencies using “the resume method” for SES applications. What this means is that all of your executive experience, including evidence of your possession of the ECQs, is included in your resume. If you are selected for the SES, then you will need to submit ECQs.

If you can meet the above, and have your SES package (executive resume and ECQs) ready, you should start applying for the SES. If you’re missing a competency or two, consider applying for a SES Candidate Development Program (CDP); you can find announcements for CDP on USAJOBS. Be sure to set your USAJOBS “search agent” to send you CDP announcements so you don’t miss an opportunity. Not interested in a CDP but still missing a competency or two? Consider requesting a detail to fill in any gaps in your experience. Check out Open Opportunities on USAJOBS (OpenOpps.USAJOBS.gov); this site posts detail opportunities at agencies across government. Gaining experience and exposure outside your current agency is a great way to broaden your career.