SES Candidate Development Program: Sharpening the Executive Core Qualifications

Sharpening your ECQs for the SES Candidate Development Program

If you’re a federal government employee with Senior Executive Service (SES) aspirations, it’s a good time to be looking at your next career moves. Earlier this year, we wrote a couple of articles about changes in the wind for the SES and the need for transformational leaders. Over 65% of current SES members are now eligible for retirement and efforts to rejuvenate the service are coming both from the administration and directly from SES executives themselves.

It follows that there is an increasing focus on succession planning within the agencies and departments of the federal government. While SES position postings on USAJobs may be filled from the higher echelons of government service or from the private sector, senior executives in federal agencies understand the importance of developing a reliable pool of candidates for the next generation of leadership.

That’s where SES Candidate Development Program (CDP) comes in. Targeted primarily towards senior managers at the GS-14 or GS-15 level, CDPs provide a guided track for entry into SES ranks. SES development programs are showing up regularly on USAJobs, the federal government’s online recruiting site. As of the date of this post, there are three active CDPs posted, all open to applicants from any federal agency.

SES CDPs: It’s all about the ECQs

List of the 5 SES ECQsExecutive Core Qualifications (ECQs) and the 28 leadership competencies that go along with them are the defining criteria for acceptance into the SES. They also provide the framework for the candidate development plans. From accountability to political savvy, the ECQs and competencies paint the entire spectrum of management skills that SES candidates must demonstrate to qualify for the service. CDPs typically assess the strengths of each candidate then customize a plan to enable each individual to build the remaining experience required to qualify in each of the ECQ categories.

The criteria for CDPs are detailed in the Code of Federal Regulations (5 CFR 412.302), but there are variations between agency programs. CDPs are open to federal employees at the GS-14 and GS-15 levels, and most maintain the compensation of the candidate’s current position. Duration of the programs is a minimum 12 months, but some programs extend to 18 or 24 months. Components of the program can also vary between agencies, but typically include:

  • Individual assessments, including 360 degree assessments
  • Development of an individual Executive Development Plan
  • Formal mentoring
  • Additional executive education – at least 80 hours of formal interagency training that addresses ECQs and their application to SES positions government-wide, plus agency-sponsored training.
  • A developmental assignment or rotational assignments at the executive level that extend outside of the candidate’s current agency or organization.

At the end of the process, candidates submit an ECQ package to a Quality Review Board (QRB) comprised of three SES executive volunteers from different agencies. The QRB review evaluates the candidate’s ECQs against SES standards and either accepts or rejects each candidate’s submission.

The Big CDP Benefit – Approved ECQs

SES Candidate Development Program Approved StampCDPs provide a leg up, but not a free ride. With QRB approval, candidates don’t need to worry if their ECQs will pass muster when they apply for an SES position. The CDP postings usually contain a phrase that reads something like “QRB certification allows for non-competitive placement into SES positions. Note: Participation in the program does not guarantee placement in a SES position.”

In practice, CDP graduates don’t risk disqualification because of insufficient ECQs, but still compete on their merits against other candidates. Other factors, including the number of years spent at GS-15 level positions, interviews, and Veterans preference, influence the final decision.

Beating your Competition for the SES Candidate Development Program

Participating in a SES Candidate Development Program can certainly be a good career move, but getting accepted into a program requires some effort. CDPs are competitive. Each program is managed by an agency Executive Resource Board that is responsible for staffing the program, recruiting candidates, and assessing progress during the term of the class. Frequently, hundreds of applicants will be winnowed down to a class of 20 or 30 candidates.

It may seem ironic that the very ECQs that the programs are intended to develop are also the criteria for acceptance. In some cases, applicants must include ECQ statements with their CDS applications. More frequently, a five page resume is submitted that emphasizes the ECQs and competencies.

It makes sense. Because the ECQs describe the management capabilities required by the SES, they are the ultimate criteria both for entry and success in high level federal positions. For executives who are targeting the SES, the CDPs shouldn’t be considered a shortcut, but rather a final step in a strategy that builds a portfolio of career experience that aligns with the ECQ competencies.

Communicating the Accomplishments – CareerPro Global Can Help

Ultimately, the success of your SES strategy and your CDP application revolves around the ECQs and your ability to communicate your accomplishments in relation to the 28 associated career competencies. You may be absolutely qualified for a SES Candidate Development Program, but passed over if your resume and ECQ submissions don’t set you apart from other applicants. Preparing a successful application requires sharp qualifications and finely honed language.

Pencil PointsThe same goes for the ECQs that you’ll develop during the program. They must be comprehensive and worded carefully to pass muster with the Quality Review Board. That’s where CareerPro Global can help.

If you’re committed to writing your own ECQs, CareerPro Global offers online training and ECQ writing courses to help you prepare the application package. If you don’t feel comfortable with the do-it-yourself method or if you aren’t getting results from your efforts, we can also help with professional writing services.

CareerPro’s Senior Executive Service Resume Writers have years of experience with SES resumes, writing and editing ECQs, and helping senior federal employees with preparation of CDP applications. We hope you’ll contact us if you’re considering application to a SES Candidate Development Program or if you’re applying directly for a SES position.


1 State of Federal Career Senior Leadership, Deloitte Development, LLC / Senior Executive Association, 2017. 

2 Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program, Department of the Interior, USAJobs, 8/22/18.

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