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How to pass an SES qualification review

Candidates for elevation to the highest echelons of public service make some crucial mistakes surprisingly often.

Jan. 9, 2014 - 05:19PM   |  
By JAMES B. BALOCKI   |   Comments
James B. Balocki is a career senior executive service member in the Department of Defense who has served on two OPM Qualification Review Boards. He has 32 years of federal civilian and military service and a passion for executive coaching and enabling career advancement strategies.
James B. Balocki is a career senior executive service member in the Department of Defense who has served on two OPM Qualification Review Boards. He has 32 years of federal civilian and military service and a passion for executive coaching and enabling career advancement strategies. ()

I've served on two Senior Executive Service Qualification Review Boards for the Office of Personnel Management. I want to let you in on a surprising secret: nearly half of the aspiring candidates we evaluate failed to pass our panel's muster on first review. Let me tell you why, and provide several tips to ensure your success.

Designation as a SES leader is a distinct honor. There are approximately 8,000 senior executive leaders in government. They represent the top 0.2 percent from among the almost 4 million members in the federal workforce. Entry into this select cadre requires certification of an SES candidate’s executive competencies.

OPM assembles a cohort of three-person qualification review boards each quarter to independently evaluate and certify Executive Core Qualifications after an agency has completed its recruitment and hiring process, and selected a candidate for a SES position. These panels, comprised of experienced senior executives, conduct an independent review to ensure each selected candidate demonstrates executive experience and potential.

The QRB will review and decide on a set of ECQs only twice. If the first review results in a negative decision, the agency may resubmit the package, after making revisions based on the board’s feedback. After two unsuccessful decisions, the agency's selection will not receive certification and must wait one year before a subsequent review for the same position.

This should create ample motivation for aspiring SES candidates to get it right the first time. I was astonished at the large number of packages that did not pass our panel's muster on first review. So what is the problem?

First, and most surprising, candidates are not all following OPM's guidelines, which can be found at the OPM web site, in their "Guide to Senior Executive Qualifications." The booklet even includes model ECQs! My first and most strident recommendation is to use this resource as your roadmap. Follow the guidance and examples consistently.

As reviewers, our panel was chartered to ensure each candidate fully addressed each of the five ECQs: Leading Change, Leading People, Results Driven, Business Acumen, and Building Coalitions. This is achieved by relating your experiences in narrative form to demonstrate 'competence' in each ECQ. OPM's Guide lists the unique competencies associated with each ECQ and the six fundamental competencies, essential elements found in all ECQs.

Failing to specifically address required competencies was the most common defect among those ECQs we returned for re-write or were outright disapproved. In several instances candidates addressed only a single competency in an ECQ; this was insufficient, in our panel's view, to fully demonstrate executive qualifications. My second recommendation is to ensure you address at least half of the listed competencies under each ECQ.

The third most common problem was a difficulty finding Results. Many of the ECQs we returned did an adequate job, following the recommended “Context, Challenge, Action, Results” framework, to describe appropriate competencies. However, the candidates either did not demonstrate any Results, or the Result was so vague as to be meaningless.

We were looking for Results that fell into one of four descriptive categories, quicker, less costly, better quality, or safer, and were tied to the organization's mission in some way. The best did this extremely well in every ECQ. Those we rated as "Needs Rework" or “Re-Write” frequently missed this mark.

Therefore, my third recommendation is to ensure Results are present in each ECQ narrative. As reviewers, we sought clues to help us see the results. Inserting a phrase like, "which resulted in..." and completing the sentence, is a strong and helpful clue!

One final hint to help guide reviewers in recognizing the competency you are writing about is to insert its title, for example "vision" under Leading Change, in the basic text of your narrative or parenthetically at the end of your vignette.

My point is this: writing ECQs is hard work. Following the suggestions here won't guarantee success; but it will better communicate your competencies to a QRB and go a long way to accomplishing your intended outcome - certification as a Senior Executive.

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