The Right Path

The military serves as a model for developing senior executive leadership.

The military serves as a model for developing senior executive leadership.

Our nation's military is the most powerful and effective fighting force in the world-for many reasons. Chief among them is the investment the Defense Department makes in its people and more specifically in its leadership.

What helps the armed forces excel are the clearly defined career paths through which officers advance based on results, the extensive training they receive, and a joint-duty requirement that encourages teamwork and gives rising leaders an organizationwide perspective.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the way we treat our civilian government executives. Recently, the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton examined the state of our nation's 7,000-member civilian leadership cadre, the Senior Executive Service, and the results were quite troubling. The members of the SES are the most important segment of the federal workforce. They are the top career executives responsible for managing 1.9 million employees and carrying out major policy decisions affecting the health, safety and well-being of every American. They are the glue that keeps the government running, and are crucial to organizational continuity as administrations and political appointees come and go.

Yet unlike the military or even top-flight, private sector companies, the federal government pays little attention and devotes meager resources to developing, recruiting, training and nurturing civilian career executives.

Few members of the SES ever move outside their own agency, remaining isolated and insular, and fail to develop a collaborative mind-set and an enterprisewide framework for governing. Promotions often are based on technical and scientific skills rather than managerial and leadership strengths, while the government's pay system serves as a disincentive for some to enter or move up the leadership ranks.

This approach is neglectful and shortsighted and citizens are paying a high price.

Senior executives frequently receive poor marks for leadership in employee surveys and other measures, resulting in low levels of worker engagement, poorly performing organizations and inadequate service to the public. Collaboration among agencies is rare even though it is more necessary than ever, given the complex and cross-cutting nature of today's challenges that range from the H1N1 flu threat to food safety and financial regulation.

The good news is the leadership problems can be addressed and the military can serve as a model for how it should be done.

In the early 1980s, experiences from the wars and conflicts of past decades made it clear to members of Congress, policymakers and many military leaders that separate army, naval and air operations would no longer suffice.

This led to the 1986 passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, a law that transformed the Joint Chiefs of Staff into a strong coordinating entity that could promote interservice cooperation. Its many provisions included requirements such as joint-duty assignments for specialty officers seeking promotions and for those aspiring to the rank of general or admiral.

Many in the military services fought for the status quo and did not want to give up their institutional prerogatives. But it became widely apparent over time that the joint-duty requirements improved the quality of leadership, motivated individuals, led to better cooperation and coordination, and helped change the culture of the military.

More recently, acting on lessons from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the intelligence community has begun implementing its own joint-duty rotational requirements so professionals, managers and executives can come to know the entire intelligence enterprise and their interagency responsibilities. The Defense Department has instituted similar requirements for its civilian executives.

Now the same approach must be taken for the rest of government.

The 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which created the SES, envisioned a mobile corps of executives moving across agencies to strengthen collaboration and apply their skills to an array of management challenges. This never came to pass.

While it was unrealistic to expect all senior executives to engage in rotational assignments, Congress should create a new National SES Corps within the executive service-a smaller cadre of leaders who could work in multiple agencies, at different levels of government or have temporary stints in the private sector to gain broad experience and capabilities. Incentives, including higher pay and additional prestige, must be provided to encourage participation.

This National SES Corps would supplement a sizable agency-based executive service whose members would continue to focus on developing their talents and skills needed primarily within a single department or agency.

At the same time, there needs to be better coordination and increased resources for preparing a pipeline of rising leaders, recruiting new members to the SES, and then training and developing them throughout their careers. In August, the Office of Personnel Management took a positive step in this direction, announcing plans to create a centralized office to oversee SES policies.

The Obama administration and Congress now must go further, creating a special SES unit of high-caliber, mobile leaders who embody strategic thinking and adaptable management skills. It has worked for the military, and the civilian leadership deserves no less.

Max Stier is president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.