New Federal Senior Executives Are Being Left in the Dark As They Start Their Jobs

Survey finds only half of incoming SESers are satisfied with the onboarding process.

New senior executives in government are often not receiving information about their jobs or how to be successful during their onboarding process, according to a new survey of the government’s top civil servants.

The Office of Personnel Management released the first-of-its-kind survey of Senior Executive Service members to “establish a baseline” upon which to evaluate a new governmentwide requirement. The SES onboarding program was required across government by an executive order President Obama signed in late 2015 to strengthen the senior executive ranks.

Just 36 percent of new senior executives had a positive response when asked if the onboarding program was suited to their needs, while 34 percent had a negative answer. Fewer than half of respondents said their onboarding enabled to them to get up to speed quickly. About 30 percent were neutral on the question while one-quarter responded negatively. Overall, half of the SESers were satisfied with their onboarding program and half were neutral or dissatisfied.

“The results from this survey highlight the need for agencies to expand their onboarding programs and support the success of senior executives throughout the executives’ first year of service in new SES positions,” OPM said.

In guidance issued subsequent to Obama’s order, OPM recommended agencies “provide onboarding executives with critical information, prior to their actual onboarding, to ensure an efficient and effective assimilation into the organization.” More than one in three new executives, however, did not any receive information about their new position, required training, pre-boarding forms or other info prior to their first day in their new jobs. Fewer than half said they received information about their direct reports or information on their agencies’ priorities in their first week.

A majority of respondents said they did not receive information on team goals, key personnel policies or internal procedures “needed to do my job” within their first month. In some cases, the executives said they did not need the information because they were already familiar with it from their time at the agency. In many cases, however, respondents said they never received the information at all.

“Agencies are encouraged to use OPM’s executive onboarding guidance to identify information and other support needed by their executives to succeed,” OPM said, “and to customize or modify the onboarding practices referenced in the guidance to ensure effective onboarding for SES success.”

Jason Briefel, executive director for the Senior Executives Association, called agencies' failure to provide that information "a big problem," and reading the report left him feeling that "we’re really letting a lot of folks down." 

"There’s clearly some bright spots from this survey, but a lot more not-so-bright spots," Briefel said. "Frankly I'm pretty concerned by these findings in terms of the jobs these agencies are doing to prepare these employees for success." He added the results in many ways mirrored the findings from SEA's own survey issued last year. 

OPM emphasized in its report that career development should not stop once an employee reaches the SES. Federal regulations stipulate that senior executives must “prepare, implement, and regularly update” an executive development plan. The survey found just 48 percent of respondents completed a written development plan with their supervisor. OPM added that “despite the proven success of coaching,” just 27 percent of SESers surveyed said there were offered an executive coach during their onboarding.

Of the employees who did receive training, they overwhelmingly said it was effective, as long as it was in person. Just 38 percent of respondents who took online training gave it good reviews.

Sixty-eight percent of new executives said they were recruited to their position, and 60 percent received helped navigating hiring process. OPM said this demonstrated the importance of agencies implementing a “talent management and succession planning” process. Only 22 percent of new executives participated in the SES Candidate Development Program, however, a tool for agencies to “help identify, develop and prepare future senior leaders.”

Seven in 10 new senior executives were over 50 years, and the most common age bracket was a plurality between ages 50 and 59. Just 4 percent of the executives were under 40. Only 6 percent entered SES from the private sector and a majority had worked in government for more than 20 years. Nearly six in 10 new SESers worked at their agency for more than 10 years.

OPM administered the survey in December 2016 to a governmentwide sample of newly appointed SES members.