Obama Calls for One-Year Onboarding Program for All New Senior Execs

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Top leaders across the federal government will soon have to spend one year learning the ins and outs of their agencies upon joining them, as spelled out in new guidance from the Office of Personnel Management.

The memorandum lists implementation instructions for a provision of a 2015 executive order issued by President Obama that called on agencies to develop onboarding programs for new senior executives. The onboarding period should “ideally” last one year, OPM said, and apply to those inside and outside government, as well as those who previously served in the Senior Executive Service at a different agency, component or location.

OPM suggested a specific timeline for senior leaders starting their positions, including a detailed checklist for each phase of the onboarding program. Agencies should begin the process before the executive even joins, OPM said, by gathering materials and forms the new SES employee will need. The full onboarding process will have the following steps:

  • Pre-boarding
  • First week: Processing the employees, with senior leaders welcoming them to the agency
  • First 30 days: Informing the employees of their roles and responsibilities
  • First 90 days: Build employees' on-the-job competence and provide early feedback
  • Six-to-nine months: Provide additional feedback and make plans for employees’ futures
  • One year: Continue to monitor development while discussing the employees’ goals and desires

Jason Briefel, interim president of the Senior Executives Association, praised OPM’s guidance, saying his group has for years called for formalizing the onboarding process. Currently, he said, agencies’ onboarding programs vary, with some doing it well and others not really having a significant program at all. He applauded OPM for providing a framework while recognizing different employees with different backgrounds will need different levels of onboarding.

While OPM suggested the one-year timeframe across the board, it called for distinct tracks depending on the onboarding employee’s experience. Someone being promoted internally from a GS-15 position to the SES, for example, does not have to go through the same basics of the agency’s goals as someone first joining the organization.

“If the new executive is from inside the same agency, they may not need the same parts covered,” Briefel said. “They are familiar with the program and organizational culture, as opposed to someone coming from another agency or someone coming to government who never worked in government before.”

OPM called for each agency to adapt its guidance to its specific needs.

“It is intended to allow agencies the latitude to customize the program that is most appropriate for their mission and the executive’s developmental needs,” OPM said.

In developing its onboarding program, OPM instructed agencies to focus on three areas for new executives: their personal skills, their knowledge of the agency and their understanding of the workings of governmentwide and interagency procedures. OPM stressed the importance of new SESers understanding the budget process and how to work with political appointees. Each agency should task a senior leader as the onboarding program “champion,” who will help implement the initiative, boost its visibility and identify its shortcomings.

Ultimately, the program should help new executives reach four goals: understanding the organization's culture, understanding their performance expectations, having access to influential networks and feeling valued and supported by leadership. As the one-year timeline indicates, OPM said onboarding should far exceed a single orientation event. After the program is developed and implemented, agencies must evaluate its success and make appropriate revisions.

The onboarding guidance is the second to come from Obama’s SES executive order; the first dictated details on the new rotational program. 

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