Agencies need to 'quit whining' about SES

Monday - 3/5/2012, 1:41pm EST

Ariane Whittemore is one of those type-A Energizer bunnies. Just check out her resume:

She started off in financial management in the Marine Corps. Then she moved to the Navy comptroller's office. Then she tried her hand at logistics before moving to Hawaii and working for the U.S. Pacific Command in military strategy and policy. Then she moved back to Washington to work for the Secretary of Defense in human resources. Now she's back at the Marine Corps, as the assistant deputy commandant of programs and resources.

She's done all of that in her 16 years with the Senior Executive Service.

"I like to learn new things and do new things," she said. "If you've been at a job three to five years and you've learned it and done it well, then you start getting stale at it."

Whittemore exemplifies the mobile manager that Congress envisioned when it created the SES in 1978. But a new report from the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Co. shows that just half of career senior executives have changed jobs within their SES careers.

The report's authors argue that senior executives who shift jobs "are less insular in their thinking." They are nimbler and more team-focused than their peers.

Treasury Chief Financial Officer Dan Tangherlini, who has a varied career history himself, said many senior leaders wouldn't agree with the report's conclusions.

"People identify very, very much with their agency rather than with the broader mission of the government," he said. "Particularly at an institution like the Treasury Department, that is the culmination of many people's careers. They want to be there. They want to stay and they can't imagine a world outside."

Those who work for senior executives are similarly skeptical.

"How can they lead if they know nothing about the work being done?" said one commenter on FederalNewsRadio.com, identified as "obscurechemist," and who once worked at NIH, according to the comment. "Can you imagine sending some SES poly-sci major to oversee NIH? Pure outrage and pure arrogance."

But rather than view the SES as the pinnacle of a career spent in one field, Education Department Chief of Staff Joanne Weiss said the program should be set aside for management experts. "We have to make sure that the SES isn't just the next promotion for the GS-15 who has been in that job the longest and is due for a promotion," she said.

She said the Senior Executive Service should be considered a continuing education program.

'Quit whining ... and make it happen'

But senior executives don't have a lot to gain, at least financially, from moving around. While agencies sometimes shell out big bucks for training executives, those who change jobs risk losing bonuses or pay increases and they often have to pay for relocation themselves.

"Just quit whining about it and make it happen," Office of Personnel Management Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey said. "If we want to have folks willing to go into a different area, then pay for it."

Bailey said OPM cannot and does not want to micromanage the process. But one of the problems that the report identifies is that there's no central entity in charge of senior-executive development. No one has a good idea of who the 7,100 senior executives are in the government.

Bailey said creating an SES council of high-ranking officials could help "make sure that wherever our highest priorities are — whether it's health care, education, a mining accident, or whatever — we come together and have this array of expertise that we could deploy to different areas."

But the report cautions that there is no one-size-fits-all fix for improving the SES. It suggests that agencies could change the paradigm by reserving the SES for managers like Whittemore and using more "senior leader" designation for subject-matter experts.

Not all SES created equal

"The 7,000 SES positions in the federal government aren't all equal," said Whittemore, who served on a focus group for the report. "Some have a lot higher technical content than others."

But as a manager, she said, she never ran into problems leading a team of technical experts. The problems came earlier. She orchestrated all of her job changes and had to convince the agencies that she was capable of serving in each capacity.

For example, when she applied for the human resources position in the Defense Secretary's office, she said, the hiring manager was skeptical.

"It was, 'How was this person who has no human-capital management experience going into this job?'" she said. "It was a leadership position. I had a staff of human-capital management experts. I had the leadership experience, and I learned enough in the first few months to operate well in that arena."