The Ultimate Guide to the Senior Executive Service

Many nonprofit, business and political leaders aspire to join the federal government in various executive roles. Executive roles within the federal government are highly competitive and covetable for a myriad of reasons. According to a 2015 survey of retiring federal executives, over two-thirds of them would recommend the Senior Executive Service (SES) career path to qualified and interested candidates.

This speaks highly of the benefits and attractiveness of SES roles and reflects how profoundly competitive the SES application process can be. There are many components to the application process, including the crucial Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs). These should be thoughtfully and carefully addressed for any candidate who aims for their application to be successful.

The following information will help prospective candidates assess their readiness for an SES role. Additionally, this article will offer some tips and techniques for preparing an SES application, including the professional resume and SES ECQ writing services of CareerProPlus.

What Is the Senior Executive Service?

With the Civil Service Reform Act becoming effective in 1979, the United States federal government established the Senior Executive Service. Today, the SES consists of executive-level positions that can be found at the top of nearly every federal agency, including the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Veterans Health Administration and many more.

In the 40+ years since the SES was established, these positions have become very attractive and covetable by executives and professionals from many different backgrounds. Consequently, the application process for obtaining an SES-level role is highly competitive and comprehensive. It requires extensive preparation and a significant investment of time and energy.

Qualities of the Ideal SES Member

Before a prospective candidate embarks on the rigorous SES application process, they will want to carefully consider if they feel ready to commit to a career in an SES leadership role. Some questions a candidate may want to ask themselves include:

  • Can I confidently and clearly communicate with diverse peoples and groups, both in person and through virtual means?
  • Do I display leadership qualities in my day-to-day life?
  • Am I comfortable making hard decisions and handling large amounts of responsibilities?
  • Am I confident in my ability to debate effectively?
  • Do I thrive when working in collaborative environments?
  • Do I enjoy leading a team, and can I inspire others?

These questions and others can help guide candidates as they self-assess their readiness for a career in SES. Candidates can also seek advice from trusted family members, supervisors and mentors who have seen them grow throughout their careers.

What Is the SES Candidate Development Program?

If a potential candidate is interested in the SES but does not wish to apply directly to an open SES position, there is another option. The SES Candidate Development Program (SESCDP) is a professional management development strategy through which many government agencies identify and train potential senior leaders.

Each SESCDP program must last for a minimum of 12 months. Graduates of the SESCDP who pass evaluation by the Qualifications Review Board (QRB) are automatically eligible for SES appointment. This method is a popular option for entering the SES, especially for career government employees and executives from other sectors.

What Is the SES Hiring Process?

The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) offers guidance and insight into the SES application process. According to the OPM, the application’s basis is founded by the Executive Core Qualifications. ECQs represent the core competencies the SES looks for when evaluating potential candidates. ECQs are written responses that a candidate submits as a part of their application.

In most cases, discussion and explanation of the ECQs will be major conversation points throughout the interview stage. As such, preparing strong, comprehensive ECQs is a crucial part of the SES application process. Candidates can also reference the OPM Desk Guide, which can give critical insight into the Senior Executive Service to potential candidates.

The Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) was created by legislators to combat corruption in the Civil Service and to ensure a higher level of public service standards — and standardization — throughout the federal government and its various agencies. The ECQs, then, are an important tool for evaluating a prospective candidate’s adherence to the core competencies of the SES. Regarding the SES application process, the ECQs exist as a method for candidates to demonstrate their skills and commitments to the competencies and qualifications in question.

When you write your ECQs, you must demonstrate you have developed strong competencies in each of the given ECQ categories, as well as a commitment to continue developing in those — and other — professional areas. An SES candidate must effectively display their experience and capabilities in each of the categories to be successful with their application.

ECQs break down into five different categories: Leading Change, Leading People, Results Driven, Business Acumen and Building Coalitions.

1. Leading Change

The first ECQ is Leading Change. A candidate’s capacity for innovative, forward-thinking leadership is one of the most important qualities needed to succeed in an SES position. With this ECQ, candidates have the opportunity to demonstrate how their backgrounds and experiences have prepared them for the SES career path. The OPM breaks down the Leading Change ECQ into the following six segments:

  • Creativity & Innovation. An SES role requires creative thinking and innovative problem-solving. An SES executive will be able to think of original and innovative solutions while questioning traditional ways of working. As a leader, you will also be able to inspire creativity in your team members.
  • External Awareness. External Awareness refers to the degree to which a potential SES executive engages with and is informed about external factors that can impact the function and role of their team or overall department. These factors can be anything from local, state and national news to global political events and economic trends. A skilled SES executive will be aware of the role their department plays in wider society.
  • Strategic Thinking. Strategic thinking refers to an executive’s ability to make tough decisions while meeting goals and eliminating as many risks as possible. This ability includes both day-to-day problem-solving and brainstorming and long-term objectives.
  • Resilience. As is true with any position, numerous challenges and setbacks can occur in any federal department, which will impact the work and vision of any SES executive. Possessing the ability to overcome setbacks while staying positive and remaining calm under pressure is the key to success in any SES role.
  • Flexibility. This characteristic goes hand-in-hand with resilience and strategic thinking. Even with the best, most comprehensive planning, there will naturally be unforeseen events that may impact your department. Remaining calm and focused in the face of these events demonstrates a candidate’s flexibility and adaptability. Any SES executive must be able to adapt to new information and processes throughout their tenure.
  • Vision. Vision refers to the candidate’s ability to develop and implement innovative ideas while also inspiring their co-workers and teammates to buy into their vision. With this skill, you will have great success at creating change within your organization and convincing others to help turn your ideas into realities.

2. Leading People

Leading People measures a candidate’s ability to work with and manage diverse groups of people — from employees to colleagues to external stakeholders. A successful executive must be able to create teams that work productively and efficiently while fostering a respectful, comfortable environment in which each person can excel in their own work and collaborate with one another.

  • Conflict Management. Wherever groups of people assemble, conflicts naturally arise. As a leader, it is your responsibility to facilitate conversations and resolve conflicts effectively. A leader encourages their team members to speak freely and communicate dissent in ways that are both meaningful and respectful.
  • Team Building. Team building is so much more than just a buzzword. Building and managing effective teams is one of the most important things an executive-level leader can do. In this ECQ, the candidate should demonstrate their commitment to encouraging collaboration among diverse groups of people, good morale, team pride, team spirit and a general feeling of trust among team members.
  • Leveraging Diversity. Diversity can have many meanings in the workplace. Regardless of how and where diversity exists in your teams and agency, it is always a benefit. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to encourage diverse thoughts and work styles while seeking individuals with various backgrounds and educational experiences. Embracing and celebrating diversity is crucial for any executive, but especially those on an SES career path, as they represent a public service mindset that must work for all Americans.
  • Developing Others. Effective leaders must be able to develop and cultivate the skills and abilities of others on their teams. Investing time and energy into the development of other individuals can be one of the most challenging yet important and effective ways for an executive to ensure the long-term viability of their vision, processes and department.

3. Results Driven

This ECQ allows potential SES candidates to demonstrate their capacity for delivering on goals and promises and meeting objectives efficiently and effectively. Candidates should use this ECQ to share quantifiable results from their careers thus far.

  • Accountability. A respected leader will take responsibility for their failures as well as their successes. Ultimately, the department’s performance reflects directly on its executive. The executive, then, must be willing to be held accountable for a myriad of strategies and outcomes.
  • Decisiveness. While careful consideration and planning are important to an executive’s decision-making process, it’s equally crucial for an executive to be decisive. An SES executive must feel comfortable making high-level decisions in the moment with minimal outside input. This ability also reflects the importance of flexibility under the ECQ Leading People.
  • Entrepreneurship. Though working within the infrastructure of the federal government, an SES executive will be expected to bring a spirit of entrepreneurship to their role. This skill can manifest through various ways, from seeking new partnerships and opportunities to developing innovative ways to streamline productivity and maximize budgets.
  • Customer Service. As an SES executive, you work not only for your department or agency, but for the American people. As such, a mindset of genuine, committed customer service is crucial to a successful career on the SES path.
  • Problem-Solving. Effective problem-solving is only possible when you have demonstrated your abilities to be flexible, decisive and accountable. A successful leader will harness all of these skills and others to identify problems and develop and implement strategies for resolving them.
  • Technical Credibility. Technical credibility refers to how well a candidate can leverage existing systems, regulations, rules and policies to lead and innovate effectively. Technical credibility can be measured by a candidate’s ability to demonstrate their competencies in specialized areas of expertise.

4. Business Acumen

Though SES executives hold federal jobs within the government, they must be able to demonstrate much of the same business savvy as executives in the private sector. This includes being able to manage multiple resources to execute their plans and objectives for their departments. As an SES executive, this ECQ requires you to be up to date on:

  • Human Capital Management. As mentioned in earlier ECQs, most prominently with Leading People, the ability to work with, inspire and manage diverse, talented groups of people is a critical skill every SES executive must possess. Human capital management is another term used to describe this set of skills, from hiring, training and developing employees to meeting everyday staffing and budgeting needs. SES leaders must hire talented people and equip them to best develop their skills and abilities for the agency’s benefit.
  • Financial Management. Financial management is an essential part of any executive’s workload and responsibilities. As the department or agency leader, anyone who holds an SES position will be responsible for understanding the department’s finances and budgets. You will oversee all spending, including the establishment of priorities, the management of contracts and other financial considerations. Cost-benefit thinking will be an essential skill to have in this role.
  • Technology Management. Executives also bear a responsibility to implement state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technologies and technological solutions for their department or agency. Technology is an important avenue for streamlining the workflow and optimizing outputs, making it an essential part of the Business Acumen ECQ.

5. Building Coalitions

The ability to create lasting, meaningful partnerships and coalitions is critically important for SES leaders to protect their organizational visions and goals and support the overall department. You should also be able to collaborate with other federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, international organizations and foreign governments to successfully realize your agency’s goals.

  • Influencing and Negotiating. As an executive, you will need to feel comfortable and confident in your ability to be persuasive and negotiate effectively with others — both internal and external stakeholders. Effective SES leaders use their power and influence to negotiate partnerships and contracts beneficial to their vision and their overall department.
  • Political Savvy. As an SES executive working within the federal government, you will need to be flexible and savvy, especially as political parties and changing administrations may influence your department’s budget and operating goals. As a part of executive leadership, you must be able to lead your team and stay focused throughout potentially divisive political situations.
  • Partnering. Similar to Building Coalitions, the Partnering component of this ECQ refers to a leader’s ability to collaborate with others in meaningful and effective ways. You should be able to reach across boundaries to build productive partnerships and achieve common objectives.

The ECQs represent the core competencies SES uses throughout the application process. ECQs allow federal job candidates to demonstrate how their experiences and training make them uniquely well-suited and qualified for highly competitive and demanding SES roles.

Other components of the SES hiring process include:

  • The Qualifications Review Board. The Qualifications Review Board is the final step in the hiring process for the SES. During this stage, the candidate is evaluated by the QRB, which is an independent, OPM-administered organization. There are multiple QRBs, and each is composed of current SES members. This step of the application is a critical component of the process, as it is another safeguard against corruption and nepotism. In addition to the ECQs, the QRB will also consider a candidate’s leadership, professional integrity, worldview and overall commitment to public service.
  • Pay and compensation. SES members hold some of the most prestigious and authoritative roles within the federal government. SES positions are compensated according to the level of leadership, experience and responsibility these roles necessitate. SES employees are not subject to the wage schedule that dictates compensation for most government positions. Federal agencies are free to dictate the pay for their SES employees, given that no SES worker earns more than the Vice President. The minimum pay for an SES position is 120% of the rate for GS-15. While not as well-paid as their counterparts in the private sector, SES employees are among some of the highest earners in the federal government.

How to Apply to the SES

The SES application comprises several components, each of which is highly important to your potential success. These elements include standard background information and a curriculum vitae, (CV) as well as the ECQs and QRB assessment. Some candidates may include professional references with their application. You might also look into leadership training opportunities, which can help build out your resume and sharpen your existing leadership skills as necessary for taking on an SES role.

There will be specific formats to follow when submitting your application for consideration — this is why it’s vital to have expert help when crafting your materials. For example, using the Challenge-Context-Action-Results (CCAR) method for communicating your ECQs will be helpful in making this information memorable, accurate and effective. You can give quantitative, actionable statements regarding your experience to make it more easily digestible for the hiring team — plus, it’ll be simpler for them to review your major achievements in an organized structure.

Each of CCAR’s steps includes the following information:

  • Challenge: What is a particular issue you’ve had to manage in a previous position?
  • Context: How did you deal with the problem?
  • Action: What specific steps did you take the resolve the issue?
  • Results: What positive results came from the actions you took?

There are two different pathways through which a prospective candidate can apply to the SES. With the first method, you can apply directly to a federal agency for a specific SES job opening. The second pathway is through the SES Candidate Development Program, which you can also apply to directly.

Contact CareerProPlus for SES Resume Services

CareerProPlus offers comprehensive services related to nearly every aspect of federal job searching, including resume writing, applications and interview prep.

With nearly 40 years of experience, we have established ourselves as a proven industry leader in career coaching, resume writing and more. We assist prospective Senior Executive Service candidates at every step of the application process. Over 99% of our clients report satisfaction with the support and services received, and those clients number over 65,000 in total.

We know there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution with resume writing and job application advice. When candidates partner with us, they can feel confident in the personalized attention and service they will receive and their expected results. For candidates interested in pursuing the SES career path, we offer significant insight and support throughout the process of writing and crafting successful ECQs. This includes ECQ examples and writing support services, resume writing services and many other SES application offerings.

If you are interested in leveling up your federal job applications, including your SES or SESCDP applications and ECQ prep, CareerProPlus is an excellent partner for any candidate. We pride ourselves on having a client service mindset and are dedicated to achieving the best possible results for clients.

To request a consultation, contact CareerProPlus today. For general questions and support, reach out to us by phone at 800-471-9201.

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