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Bringing Out the Best in the Executive Ranks

President Obama says the SES is key to making government smarter and faster.

Last week, President Obama and several agency heads spoke at a meeting of senior executives in Washington. The event helped frame why executive leadership remains a critical core of federal workforce productivity and effectiveness, and the president introduced several initiatives intended to strengthen the executive core as well as the services they lead.

This event, the first of its kind under the current administration, brought together several thousand federal leaders joined by a cadre of supporters of good government. The grand ballroom at the Washington Hilton was full and the mood was positive. We hope meetings like this continue periodically, whether they include the Senior Executive Service as a whole or subsets of leaders across government.

OPM Director Katherine Archuleta presented a video highlighting Presidential Rank Award winners. The director described federal leaders' impact in various fields that affect millions of Americans each day, including health care, disaster response, delivering loans to promote economic activity, and supporting small business. She reflected on the president’s priority on the importance of public service. Another video featured stories of some notable recipients of the Partnership for Public Service’s Service to America Medals.

View From Above

During the event a panel of agency heads, moderated by Rosemary Hart, a 2014 Presidential Rank Award winner and SES member from the Justice Department, took the stage. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden spoke about leadership as well as the importance and impact of federal service. Interestingly, all three agencies were highlighted the following morning at the Partnership for Public Service’s annual event unveiling the best agencies to work in government—the panel demonstrated how senior leadership is clearly an element of that success. Here are some key points from the discussion surrounding questions posed by SESers:

Q: How do leaders such as yourself develop? Describe one personal leadership challenge you faced and how you overcame it?

Pritzker talked about leadership creating an environment that empowers people—who she called the most important assets of any public or private sector organization—to act, to feel safe in taking risks and sharing information so they can focus on solving problems. A key value she discussed was encouraging people to identify problems early, when they are easier to fix, saying "crises tend to be problems that are allowed to fester."

Perez told a personal story about his work as a local politician on the theme of acceptable risk-taking, saying "the only failure in life is failure to take risks . . . there is no such thing as failure other than failure to try." Allowing risk-taking can foster a culture of innovators to carry out agency missions, and leaders should demonstrate their support of those who take risks in their organizations.

Bolden talked about the role of teamwork, noting a key value is to “take care of your people, and they’ll take care of you.” Participatory leaders make decisions with their people, not for their people, and as a result are far less likely to make a mistake due to a lack of understanding about a situation.

Q. What are the differences between leading in the public and private sectors?

Pritzker, who came to Commerce after a successful career as a CEO at multiple private sector companies, noted that government has a greater diversity of stakeholders with whom to coordinate, more complex budget and hiring processes, and a set of rules that limit flexibility, compared with the private sector. One of the main strategies to help address these issues, she said, was the development of a clear strategic plan for Commerce that reflected the input and priorities of SES members across the agency. That is constantly communicated, she added, so employees understand how their role is related to agency goals and objectives, allowing a focus on substance rather than on constraints.

Q. What is the difference in leading between the military and civil sides of government?

Bolden, who came to NASA from a career in the military, talked about the military’s leadership model and its bottom-up element. In theater, a junior officer or even enlisted soldier often leads the charge. In a civilian setting, he noted, top career civil servants can reach into their workforce for the best ideas because, as in the military, the front line—whether soldier or civil servant—often has the best ideas and just needs a chance and channel to implement them. 

Q: How should leaders support diversity and inclusion of all kinds, both in the traditional sense as well as ensuring diversity of perspectives and agency viewpoints where relevant?

Perez said diversity is necessary for getting a job done well in a global economy. He cited the demographic transformation of the nation, saying effective leaders should look to expand their pipeline of recruitment to get a wide range of perspectives and the best talent from many sources. 

He also noted that solving the hardest problems requires diverse views and contributions from across government, among levels of government (i.e., federal, state, local, global), and across sectors of the economy and society. Perez noted that collaborating in an environment of multiple backgrounds, viewpoints and organizations “doesn't occur organically, it's a leadership challenge. It is the leader’s job to be the stovepipe imploders,” who help their people work across boundaries and reach a broader set of stakeholders than if they stayed within their lane.

The President’s Message

During his remarks, President Obama said: "My main message is thank you. Our senior leaders, here and around the globe, are the best of the best." He noted that when SES members are doing their job right, they don’t get noticed. Obama also said Americans don't trust government, yet we need the best and brightest to serve. The challenge, he said, is: “How can we yank this government into the 21st century and make it smarter and faster and more responsive?”

Obama announced three initiatives designed to enhance the SES and improve service to citizens:

A White House Leadership Development Program, which will comprise rotating senior leaders (both aspiring and SES) into the White House and senior jobs in different agencies. This is to not only encourage new ideas, but to build relationships across government.

A White House advisory group on SES reform. One element will help executives better respond to employee survey findings on engagement and trust in senior leaders. OPM has created a website,, where leaders can find scores from their agencies.

An award to recognize outstanding customer service. Obama said “we want to honor people who do their job best.” There will be agency-level awards as well as governmentwide awards. This is an issue that a number of groups are also working to highlight, including the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council. (I am the chairman of IAC, which focused on the issue at its recent Executive Leadership Conference and will engage in a variety of activities on the effort.)

The president closed by recognizing that SES leaders have performed great work for the country for decades, highlighting one leader, Dwight Ink, a career senior management official who served seven presidents and has stayed active during the decades since. He continues to teach valuable lessons on government management through his work with the National Academy of Public Administration as a longtime fellow at age 92.

(Image via Africa Studio/