VA, OPM implement promising practices for next generation of SESers

Wednesday - 7/24/2013, 5:45am EDT

Federal News Radio's Jason Miller talks about the steps needed to create the next generation of SESers

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Nora Gardner of McKinsey and Company speaks with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp on the Federal Drive.

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More than two-thirds of all senior executive service members will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. And few agencies are doing enough to ensure the next generation of leaders are prepared for the SES ranks.

A new report by the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey and Company found inconsistencies among agencies in how they recruit and develop their SESers. That lack of standardized leadership development is causing some to question whether senior executives will be prepared to replace long-time managers.

Nora Gardner, partner, McKinsey & Company

"When we look at actual retirements, those are rising and have been rising since 2009. In fiscal year 2012, over 8 percent of the SES retired, so it is becoming more and more of a reality for federal government agencies," said Nora Gardner, the leader of the talent and leadership practice for McKinsey and Company, in an interview with the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. "The thing that is most difficult is that it requires a sustained effort over time. You don't just create a leader overnight. Even if you could put all of these practices in place, it actually takes time to develop a pipeline and have leaders move through it and become elevated to SES positions. It's the sustained effort required that is such a challenge for federal agencies."

Despite the report's gloomy facts and figures, several agencies have implemented promising practices, and the Office of Personnel Management also is sending help.

Treasury trains, surveys

The Treasury Department is one of those agencies. It created the Treasury Executive Institute to educate GS 13-to-15s and encourage mentoring and sharing with current SESers, said Nani Coloretti, the department's assistant secretary for management and chief financial officer.

She said the TEI is open to all federal employees on a fee-for-service basis.

Coloretti said Treasury, like many agencies, is developing a strategic plan required under the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act that will address workforce, among other things.

"What we also are doing in response to some of the changes coming our way is a top-to-bottom leadership assessment of every SES, and trying to really understand and tailor what's offered to what people really need," Coloretti said during a panel discussion sponsored by the Partnership in Washington Tuesday. "Two years ago, we did a 360-degree review in partnership with OPM of all of our SES candidates, and I think it's really great to get a whole look across all the bureaus at all of your SES. We are continuing to use that as an assessment tool, and it helps us understand how we compare to the rest of government on several of the leadership and executive qualifications across government."

She said the top-to-bottom review is taking place over the next few months.

Coloretti said this research will help Treasury understand how it's preparing leaders today and with succession planning. She said that data also will help inform the department's strategic plan and decide on what new courses are needed at the Treasury Executive Institute.

VA centralizes development efforts

Along with Treasury, the Veterans Affairs Department is putting a huge focus on creating leaders.

It stems from Secretary Eric Shineski's previous life as an Army general and the general officer approach he preferred in the Army, said Christine Kluh, the deputy assistant secretary for corporate senior executive management.

Christine Kluh, deputy assistant secretary for corporate senior executive management, Veterans Affairs Department

VA created a new office to oversee and centralize SES and senior leader development. She said VA officials at first pushed back heavily against the idea of a centralized SES process and oversight.

Kluh said VA holds sessions at the University of North Carolina to bring senior leaders together for training.

"We have VA senior leaders coming in. We have the inspector general coming, talking about red lines, talking about how you can derail and how you can get into a lot of trouble," Kluh said. "One of the things we've seen a lot of value in is bringing executives in VA together from across organizational lines. Some of them, when we started doing this, had never been in an event with executives outside their organization. That was the most amazing feedback we got, how much they appreciated that."

She said initially, VA had to force executives to attend the strategic leadership sessions.

"Some of them went kicking and screaming. Some of them had someone die every time a session came up. We have one who still has not gone," she said. "But by day two, you saw them start to unfold their arms a little bit and start to listen. By the end of the week, they were new change agents for us."

Kluh says online training is good and useful, but nothing replaces in-person training to create networks and trust relationships.

Additionally, VA created an executive review board made up of 50 SESers from around the country that have six-month terms to review candidates. That opened the door to many more candidates.

She said VA also simplified the process to apply for a SES position, no longer requiring three to five mandatory qualifications, which Kluh said basically froze out any non-VA or even non-federal applicants, to one or two mandatory qualifications that opened up the gates to many others.

More outside candidates hired

Kluh said the department is now hiring about 30 percent of all senior executives from outside of the agency, which is one metric that shows this type of training is working.

"For every executive in VA, there's an executive transition plan that's developed for every executive before he or she is hired. The executive transition plans looks at the requirements of the position and what that nominee brings to the table, and it addresses the gap for 90 to 120 days out," Kluh said. "Some of it, quite frankly, is technical. We are selecting the best leaders, but that individual … has no idea what's it like to deal with a union in government or employee relations or hiring. There is an intense crash course on that or there's a coach or mentor to help with that."

OPM is trying to take a broader perspective to assist agencies in refilling the SES pipeline.

It's playing two roles: one of training and the other around guidance that helps agencies develop their own leadership development programs.

Steve Shih, OPM's deputy associate director for senior executive services and performance management, said the agency is about to give agencies some help in both of the training and guidance areas.

"We actually just recently issued a supervisory training framework and guidance. This is a follow-up to our executive onboarding framework and guidance. The onboarding framework and guidance obviously focuses on bringing in new executives," Shih said. "The supervisory training framework and guidance provides an outline for the recommended and mandatory training for new supervisors and managers, as well as aspiring leaders. It basically gives agencies a structure on how to go about ensuring their new supervisors, managers and aspiring leaders really get the kind of leadership training they need."

Two more tools on the way

Shih added OPM is not trying to prescribe one approach for every agency or every new leader, but a set of basic standards and expectations the person needs to achieve.

Steve Shih, deputy associate director for senior executive services and performance management, OPM

"Within that framework, we give agencies flexibility to tailor their approach based on their own needs and resource levels," he said.

OPM also provides best practices and products that they benchmark across the public and private sectors. He said the goal is to provide standards to ensure consistency in how agencies develop future SESers.

To that end, OPM also is about to release two other tools for agencies in the coming weeks.

"We are developing currently a managerial development framework and curriculum, which will focus more on the senior supervisory level — basically, the individuals that are getting ready to go into the SES," he said. "We are hoping to issue this week an excellent online training product that I'm extremely excited about and very proud. It mirrors a lot of my personal as well as my current policy experience and philosophies. This training is going to be entitled Executive Excellence and Wellness through Strategic Leadership. The idea is to really focus on helping executives not only succeed in their jobs, but in their personal lives, so they are healthy and can continue providing excellent leadership to the federal government."

Shih said the executive excellence and wellness training focuses on teaching senior officials how to be strategic at work as well as in life by figuring out priorities and balancing their work and personal lives, and to stop being so reactive and random.

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