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It’s Time to Rethink Business Training for the SES

Maksim Kabakou/

Prior to attending the Army Management Staff College’s capstone course, Continuing Education for Senior Leaders, we asked each student to answer the following question: “Of the five Executive Core Qualifications (leading change, leading people, results driven, business acumen, and building coalitions), which one do you believe your government service career/experience has prepared you for the least, why, and what can you do as a supervisor to better prepare your subordinates for that ECQ?”

After asking six classes of students that question, the results reveal some interesting and consistent trends in how the Army’s senior civilians view their expertise and experience.

First, some background for those who aren’t familiar with the Continuing Education for Senior Leaders course. CESL is a one-week resident program offered to Army civilians in the grades GS 14/15; lieutenant colonels and above; chief warrant officers 4 and 5; and command sergeants major who supervise Army civilians. The course draws on senior Defense civilian leaders’ and corporate business leaders’ expertise to train futures senior executives. It is designed to give senior civilian leaders the executive level education and training they’ll need to be effective senior leaders.

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 ECQ are required for entry to the Senior Executive Service and are used by many departments and agencies in selection, performance management, and leadership development for management and executive positions. Successful executives bring all five ECQ to bear when providing service to the nation:

Leading Change--the ability to bring about strategic change, both within and outside the organization, to meet organizational goals.

Leading People--the ability to lead people toward meeting the organization's vision, mission, and goals.

Results Driven--the ability to meet organizational goals and customer expectations.

Business Acumen--the ability to manage human, financial, and information resources strategically.

Building Coalitions--the ability to develop alliances internally and with other federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit and private sector organizations, foreign governments, or international organizations to achieve common goals.

A Need for Business Skills

After personally reviewing feedback from 273 students across six courses in 2014 and 2015, some clear trends emerge. Overwhelmingly, 48 percent of senior Army civilians say they are least prepared to meet the business acumen qualifications. No other area of qualification elicited anywhere near that level of concern among students (the next highest was building coalitions at 27 percent, followed by leading change at 14 percent).

What accounts for this self-perceived lack of preparedness in the area of business acumen? 

The most cited reason was a lack of expertise in the components of BA—financial management, human capital management, and technology management—due to “stove piping.” Specifically, many students felt that these areas are managed by very specialized staff elements and that this specialization caused or facilitated dependency.

The next most common reason cited is an organizational culture that does not value BA. Some argued that Army culture rewards those who spend all allocated assets, whether it makes sense or not, because failing to do so ensures a reduction in future resources. Students cited a culture that tolerates excessive and unnecessary spending due to a sense of urgency tied to mission accomplishment. There also was a sense that senior leaders did not necessarily have an overarching or holistic view of how all the disparate operations of the organization are tied together and related.

The next most common reason for the lack of BA preparedness was a lack of training. Some students said their first exposure to the elements of business acumen was during the CES Advanced Course. Many said they had received no formal training in any of the components of BA. They also mentioned that the Army’s focus on hiring qualified subject matter experts contributes to the lack of BA professional development in senior civilians. When the hiring process does not incorporate expertise in the components of business acumen or when senior civilians move to positions of higher responsibility that require previously unneeded expertise in the components of business acumen, the absence of formal training programs and opportunities becomes problematic.

Finally, some said they were “not empowered” and cited a “lack of private sector experience.” Many senior DA Civilians did not feel they had authority to establish budget priorities, that budget and hiring restrictions were not aligned with organizational goals, and that they were expected to execute assigned missions with the resources they were given. This was all done either above their level of responsibility or without their input. The lack of private sector experience was cited as a cause for the lack of BA in leading and managing Army organizations’ activities.

What should the Army do?

Based on analysis of available data, our senior DA Civilians need more exposure, training, and opportunity to work with and influence the financial management, human resource management, and technology management within their organizations, because there is a widely held perception that these functions are stove-piped and therefore beyond the control of senior civilian leaders.

You can read the full study here, or here:

Brice H. Johnson is chief of academic operations at the Army Management Staff College. The views expressed here are his own.

(Image via Maksim Kabakou/

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