Hanging On

Many executives would be willing to defer retirement.

For at least a decade, the Government Accountability Office and the Office of Personnel Management, among others, have warned that 75 percent of the Senior Executive Service will be eligible to retire soon. But despite the collective hand-wringing, there has been little systematic response to this well-anticipated challenge.

According to a recent survey by Experience Matters, a firm specializing in career and retirement planning, the lack of strategies to retain senior executives has led many to leave public service earlier than they wanted. The survey also suggested several incentives that could be developed to retain scarce executive talent.

In a February survey of 110 SES members, none of the respondents said they planned to retire on their assigned date. Thirty-three percent said they were considering staying between three or four additional years. Almost 30 percent indicated that they would stay on for an extra five years or more-especially if given incentives to do so.

The good news is agencies still have a brief window to adapt their human capital management strategies to hold on to these experienced leaders. The bad news is most executives near retirement prefer not to reveal the date they plan to leave government. Many fear lame-duck status if they discuss their retirement intentions. Without an honest conversation about late-stage career expectations, most succession plans are difficult to establish.

A second important finding was that there is an appetite for new assignments late in senior executive careers. A remarkable 65 percent of both active and retired executives said they would stay on (or would have stayed on) for a new assignment at their own or another agency. They had "been there and done that" in their current jobs and wanted new challenges.

For the most part, mobility in the SES has been limited. Preparing executives to move into new assignments often requires special resources, including coaching, training and other initiatives to support mobile employees. The survey also indicated a strong interest in acquiring new knowledge- 25 percent of respondents said they would defer retirement if offered learning opportunities. OPM's Federal Executive Institute and other career development resources could be called on to play a key role in boosting retention.

Other factors found to influence executives' decision to retire included the economy and meaningful work. One-third of the group said they could not afford to leave public service, and just as many said they found their work mattered too much to leave it now. But almost 25 percent reported they have stayed in place because they are not sure what they want to do next. The implication: The unsure cohorts might be willing to extend their government service if offered help in discovering the benefits of another meaningful assignment.

Twenty-five percent of the executives said they would be willing to continue working in government if they could take a short sabbatical of 90 to 120 days. Many are physically and emotionally exhausted. Agencies need to use whatever flexibility they have to allow their senior professionals to rest and re-energize when needed.

Twenty-five percent of those surveyed said they would leave federal service immediately if their "good boss" leaves or they get a "bad boss" during the presidential transition. Political appointees in the new administration, below the Cabinet level, might not be in place until next spring or summer. In the meantime, agencies can help career executives prepare to make a positive first impression and get new relationships off to a good start. Many need help explaining their skills and accomplishments in succinct business terms.

Agencies should identify mission-critical jobs and which of their executives might have an interest in filling them. Effective succession planning requires candid give-and-take between executives and their agencies about creating the best job fit. It also requires a willingness to rethink the opportunities offered to senior executives within five years of their retirement eligibility date.

Pre-retirement planning programs at agencies are limited because they focus on financial considerations. Such programs should be expanded to help them identify engaging and satisfying work in a new and meaningful assignment within the agency-or elsewhere.

Investing in a mature workforce pays significant dividends. Not only are mission-critical jobs filled with experienced talent, but younger executives are encouraged to stay because they foresee that they too will benefit from ongoing learning and meaningful career opportunities.

The world of work is moving from a buyer's to a seller's market for executive talent. This trend is going to continue for a generation, and executives will enjoy a new freedom of choice in their careers. But as the survey reveals, farsighted agency leaders who invest in retention strategies are likely to hold on to experienced executives well beyond their retirement eligibility date. Conversely, agencies that do not adapt can expect an accelerating loss of senior talent in a debilitating downward spiral deep into the years to come.

Tina Sung and Peter Sherer are the co-founders of Experience Matters: the Executive Transition Experts, located in Silver Spring, Md.

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