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When the Executive Core Qualifications Aren’t Enough


What skills do Senior Executive Service aspirants need to succeed in federal sector management positions? Are they developed to elicit employee engagement? Do the executive core qualifications defined by the Officer of Personnel Management create a hurdle high enough to ensure success as an SES leader?

The short answer seems to be no. Meeting the ECQs does not guarantee that a leader will be successful.

The most objective measure of SES capacity can be found in four questions in OPM’s Federal Employee Viewpoint survey, according to the Partnership for Public Service. They are the most critical to creating employee engagement and increasing agency productivity.

From 2011 to 2014, positive answers to the following questions have been trending down:

  • Q 53: “In my organization, senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.”  (down 15 percent, from 45 to 38 points)
  • Q 54: “My organization’s senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity.” (down 12 percent)
  • Q 61: “I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders.” (down 12 percent)
  • Q 64: “How satisfied are you with the information you receive from management on what’s going on in your organization?” (down 10 percent)

It seems clear that a significant leadership problem exists and needs to be addressed.

A good leader needs foresight, insight, resilience, critical thinking, emotional and social intelligence, and the ability to create an environment where those led are willing to give their discretionary energy to their leader to accomplish their leader’s goals and objectives.

Do the executive core qualifications challenge SES candidates to develop the kinds of skills and abilities that are necessary to lead others to achieve their full potential?

OPM states, “The executive core qualifications define the competencies needed to build a federal corporate culture that drives for results, serves customers, and builds successful teams and coalitions within and outside the organization . . . The ECQs were designed to assess executive experience and potential—not technical expertise.” So far, so good. Technical expertise does not predict success as a member of the SES.

But neither do the five core competencies of “leading change, leading people, results driven, business acumen and building coalitions,” as defined by OPM. More is needed.

The ECQs describe necessary skills, but do not include the necessary mental and emotional capacity needed to create a collaborative, interdependent, learning environment that leads to increased employee productivity.

The good news is that SES applicants have the ability to develop their mental capacity. Neuroscientists have taught us that there is no age-based cap on our ability to grow and change. We can, with intention, rewire our brain. We can challenge our assumptions and beliefs, and as a result, change our behavior at any age.

But rewiring our brain is not easy.

In Transforming Your Leadership Culture, John B.  McGuire and Gary Rhodes make clear that horizontal, or skill, development is not enough to become an effective leader. Leaders need vertical development, or the increased ability to make sense of the world and to create an organizational culture where leaders successfully engage those they lead.

McGuire and Rhodes describe three levels of organizational cultures:

  • Dependent-Conformer: characterized by hierarchy, control and a fear of being excluded for nonconformance. Engagement is based on loyalty and obedience.
  • Independent-Achiever: a culture based on success. Winning is everything. Engagement is motivated by self-interest and the interest of the primary group.
  • Interdependent-Collaborator: a culture in which “engagement gets beyond individual achievement to a point where successes and failures are shared because both are equally regarded as knowledge,” the authors say. “Group interaction centers on opening up the subject at hand and reaching multiple right answers that can be advocated, integrated and prioritized.”

According to McGuire and Rhodes, it is difficult to move oneself and those led from one level to another, especially if one’s mind-set is to be a dependent-performer selected to supervise because of technical expertise. In a 2010 report on improving first-level supervision in government, the Merit Systems Protection Board said selection of first-level supervisors is heavily based on technical expertise “without an interest or aptitude in leadership.”

Movement from one level to another, McGuire and Rhodes say, requires a willingness to accept that there may be different ways of doing things and making sense of the world. Furthermore, a successful leader must have a willingness to challenge old ideas and test new ones. After such testing, the leader must be willing to implement the new ideas until they dominate the old.

We need more leaders with independent-collaborator qualities to successfully address the many problems in the federal sector. But leaders need support and assistance as they struggle to move themselves and their organizations from one level to another. Few can do it merely by reading a book.

Robert Kegan, in In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life, describes some of the “how” to move from one level to another.

He says we often don’t understand or challenge our mind-set. We act automatically in certain situations. If we act automatically, without knowing the values and assumptions driving our behavior, we have no chance of changing. If we can use our emotional intelligence to stop and identify our values and assumptions, we have an opportunity to make a choice to change our behavior.

Stopping to examine one's assumptions and values, however, is always a challenge. It is much easier to continue to do what we have done in the past, because it is easy and comfortable.

To stop, reflect and make a choice to change, leaders need the self-awareness to recognize their emotions, the self-management to stop in the face of often strong emotions, the social awareness to understand the impact of their behavior on others, and the capacity to collaborate in a way that creates something new and different that could not be created by acting alone, explain Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee in Primal Leadership.

Successful leaders need values and assumptions that support engagement. In Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams, Roger Schwarz  identifies the values (transparency, curiosity, informed choice, accountability and compassion) and assumptions (I have information, so do other people; each of us sees things others don’t; people may disagree with me and still have pure motives; differences are opportunities for learning; and I may be contributing to the problem) necessary for a “mutual learning leader” to implement a “mutual learning model.”

These ideas—the need for leaders to develop themselves, creating the self-awareness to move from one level to another, developing necessary social and emotional intelligence, and creating a collaborative learning workplace environment—are not included in the ECQs. Those aspiring to be in the SES are rarely exposed to these concepts or given the opportunity and the support necessary to develop personally.

The current ECQs, which are primarily skill-based, put more tools in the aspiring SES applicant's toolbox. But having more tools does not guarantee knowing which tool to select or how to use it. Would-be leaders need support, so they can engage their followers in designing and implementing solutions to federal challenges.

It is time for the Office of Personnel Management to update the ECQs to include personal development, as well as leadership skill development, as a first step in addressing the employee engagement gap.

Robert M. Tobias is director of public sector executive education at American University.

(Image via Palto/

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