Gotta Move?

Some say mobility would make senior executives better leaders.

The government encourages but does not require senior executives to move among agencies to gain leadership experience. Most stay at one agency for the majority of their careers, building expertise in a particular field. Indeed, many stay in one office at one agency. Would mobility make them better leaders?

That question is stirring much debate across government as the 30th anniversary of the Senior Executive Service approaches. Congress established the SES in 1978 to encourage the formation of a cadre of executives who would switch agencies and assignments, responding to the government's needs with talents and skills honed during a career full of varied experiences. Instead, most SESers rise through one office, developing specialized and technical knowledge that grooms them for top jobs there.

There are obvious advantages to the system as it has evolved, rather than as it was envisioned. Executives who stay in one place become carriers of vast institutional knowledge, seemingly indispensable to the operations of their offices. They provide continuity of knowledge and management, as political appointees and military officers cycle through the temporary slots that oversee the career bureaucracy. They understand the highly technical work that their agencies undertake. They develop long-term relationships within their agencies, and with executives at other agencies, contractors, congressional staff and outside groups in their fields. Such strong connections cannot be overrated.

Nonetheless, several agencies this year have taken up reviews of the SES, and the mobility factor in particular. "To be successful as SES members and fully support the enterprise, [executives] need to acquire a progressively broad, diverse and complex portfolio, undertaking whatever development activities are necessary to perform at an ever higher level," said a summary report produced at an Office of Personnel Management forum in April.

Some executives contend that mobility would help make the SES stronger. They point to the military officer system, in which leaders are required to move around to develop broad perspectives and experiences, and to the private sector, where executives commonly switch employers and fields.

Through their reviews this year, both OPM and the Defense Department appear to be moving toward the idea of two tracks within the SES. One would be for executives who stay at one agency their entire careers because they need highly specialized knowledge. Another would be for executives whose specialties are cross-cutting, meaning they are needed at every agency, not just one. Chief information officers, procurement chiefs and human resources leaders are examples of cross-cutting executives for whom mobility would be a smart move. Their specialized knowledge is functional, rather than technical.

The Defense Department is encouraging all executives to develop an "enterprise perspective," or an understanding of how their work fits into the overall mission of defending the nation. Some of them still will be single-office executives. Others will be "enterprisewide," expected to move around in the department.

So would mobility make executives better leaders? One answer: no for technical executives and yes for functional ones.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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