Are You SES Ready? | are you ready for the SES

Being SES ready is about being ready to lead, not just manage. I hear from potential clients all the time who ask about preparing a package for the Senior Executive Service (SES). In some cases, people currently serving in grades 9, 11, and 12, or those transitioning from the military at Master Sergeant and Chief Warrant Officer levels, reach out, seeking SES positions. Unfortunately, far too many times, I have tell these and other people that they are not ready for the SES.

Although there is no official time-in-grade requirement for the SES, candidates do need to demonstrate possession of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ): Leading Change, Leading People, Results Driven, Business Acumen, and Building Coalitions. Typically, this experience is gained at a GS-15, or Colonel / General (or equivalent), or private sector executive levels. While being promoted from the grade 14 to the SES is possible, the more typical route is for an SES candidate already in the federal government is a promotion from the grade 15. SES applicants can also use prior, non-government time (including military time at the senior officer level) to demonstrate their leadership.

In addition to thinking about qualifications, it is also important to think about whether you actually want to be a member of the SES. Qualifying for the SES is about more than proving your managerial capabilities—it’s about true leadership. Not everyone wants to be a leader—many are comfortable remaining as a manager, and still others like being an individual contributor, without the responsibility for supervising, managing, or leading others. What is the difference between being a manager and a leader? While The Wall Street Journal says that leadership and management are complementary and must go “hand-in-hand,” Warren Bennis, in his seminal book, On Becoming a Leader, defines the differences this way:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

In addition to asking yourself whether you are a manager or a leader, it is important to honestly assess yourself and your potential as a leader. If you do have the requisite leadership experience and want to pursue the SES, do not wait for someone to ask you to apply for an SES position; take things into your own hands. Seek out leadership opportunities through details, special assignments, etc. Take a leadership assessment, and develop and implement an action plan based on the results. Identify formal opportunities to develop your leadership competencies through attendance at OPM or Federal Executive Institute (FEI) training. Read about the challenges facing the whole of government, not just your agency to broaden your thinking. Talk to your leadership and ask them whether they see you as a leader, and what might help you grow; get a mentor if possible. Engage in 360-feedback and use the results with an open mind. Assess your competencies in the context of the ECQs and take specific steps to fill in any gaps. Finally, start developing your ECQ stories so you’re ready to go when that perfect announcement is posted.

These are just some ideas of things you can do enhance your readiness for the SES.


Nancy Segal is a federal human resources training and job search expert. Following her own 30-year federal HR career (much of it at the senior level), she founded Solutions for the Workplace LLC in 2003 to provide an HR management perspective to both federal managers and astute applicants to U.S. government positions. Nancy has unmatched federal career management insight, high standards, and respect for people’s time, and her clients use this to their advantage.