Moving Up

Seven ways to prepare for executive leadership.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. Mistakes have consequences beyond teaching a lesson; they can be costly to a career. Acquiring the skills and knowledge needed for senior- level responsibilities, while avoiding costly mistakes, requires astute career planning.

Competition for senior leadership positions always has been stiff, but today, constricted numbers of positions combined with changing responsibilities of public sector leaders make it even more challenging. The Senior Executive Service turnover rate is around 8 percent. About 120 SES positions are vacant at any given time and each generates up to 150 applicants. There are 7,900 SES jobs. Thirteen percent of SES members change jobs each year, and just over 33 percent are eligible to retire. The feeder groups for these vacancies are people at the GS-14 and 15 levels; there are about 93,000 GS-14s and 57,000 GS-15s.

The competition is made even more difficult by the fact that the federal workforce is among the best educated in the world. Preparation, therefore, is critical for middle and upper-middle managers to gain an edge in the competition for senior spots. Those who aspire to the executive ranks must plan their own development and acquire the special skills needed. Here are seven ways to prepare for advancement to leadership positions.

  1. Make a list of target positions. Not everyone can reasonably seek a senior position. If you realistically aspire to the executive ranks, you will have a track record. It is likely to be in a technical or administrative specialty. Research and develop a list of executive positions for which your experience and training reasonably equip you to compete, and base your development planning on their requirements.
  2. Look for role models, good and bad. Everyone has had experience with executives who were admired for their abilities and those who were not. Both are valuable as role models. Learning firsthand which leadership styles succeed and which don't can guide you in developing your style and help you avoid mistakes.
  3. Be candid with yourself. Assess your readiness. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses is the first step toward closing any development deficit.
  4. Get advice and counsel. Address your development needs by seeking help from trusted colleagues and mentors. The mixture of advice-givers is important. You might seek out technical advice on specific work-related matters, or aid in interpreting cultural or political issues. Learn to solicit and value feedback and incorporate it into your developmental strategy.
  5. Be systematic. Use a structured approach that distinguishes between training, development and education.
  6. Leap at chances to lead in new situations. Look for opportunities to serve as a task force or special project leader outside your usual area of interest. Every new leadership experience will teach you something about yourself and will be invaluable in building your executive qualification profile.
  7. Never stop learning. Unlike university training, professional development is not neatly divided into hours and semesters. Instead, it is a career-long process whose objectives shift over time as political and governance conditions change. The more senior your position, the more essential advanced learning, not only to improve as a leader but also to guard against surprises.

The shifting emphasis from seniority to performance in evaluating senior executive candidates magnifies the importance of preparation. Structuring your plan to gain experience in leading amid ambiguity, inspiring people, handling change, building coalitions and managing risk will provide a valuable edge on the competition.

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