Government Leaders

Good governance depends on great leaders doing exceptional work.

Government Leaders

The dedicated, mission-driven members of the Senior Executive Service are critical to the stability of our economy and the security of our nation. They ensure government continues to innovate so it can operate effectively and cater to the rapidly evolving needs of the American people.

Senior executives are responsible for leading the federal workforce and have a hand in developing and implementing nearly all the government’s policies and programs. Good governance depends on these 7,000 leaders doing their jobs well.

But ensuring the strength and stability of these executive leaders is challenging work, particularly when budget cuts, hiring freezes and massive retirements occur. Government leaders need to take immediate action to develop a pipeline of future SES members and support current executives to the fullest.

Our Role

We are committed to the long-term health of the SES. That’s why our research explains the benefits of a strong Senior Executive Service, articulates the current challenges facing executive leaders and identifies strategies to help SES members meet future needs. We also work with agencies to support individual SES members and help them excel at their jobs.


Our data analysis, research and interviews with senior leaders across government revealed the need to focus SES enhancement efforts in four key areas:

Culture, recognition and prestige

According to a Vanderbilt University study, only about half of current GS-14 and GS-15 employees across government expressed interest in joining the Senior Executive Service or advancing into senior level, scientific or professional positions.

To remedy this situation, agencies could aspire to:

  • Create opportunities for members of the SES to connect and collaborate with one another through formal and informal networks
  • Encourage senior executives to take the initiative to explore innovative projects and ideas.
  • Celebrate SES accomplishments at public events and forums.

Recruiting and hiring

With the prospect of a looming retirement boom, agencies need to aggressively recruit and hire diverse, highly qualified talent. While executive leaders in government are more diverse than those in the private sector, the SES is still less diverse than the group of federal employees it leads.

To improve how government recruits and hires senior executives, agencies could aspire to:

  • Use strategic workforce planning to anticipate future SES openings.
  • Identify and groom high-potential GS-13 to 15 employees.
  • Seek gender and ethnic diversity in candidates who hold different types of professional experience.
  • Use more sophisticated screening and interviewing techniques, such as resume-based hiring and behavior-based interviewing, to identify and hire the highest-quality candidates.

Performance management

Effective performance management systems are designed to produce better agency outcomes and help agencies fulfill their missions. Yet data shows that the SES performance management system is implemented inconsistently across government. In fiscal 2014, for example, 92.4% of career senior executives at one Cabinet-level agency received a Level 5 in fiscal 2014—the highest performance rating available. However, only 19.3% of executives at a different agency received the same score. Performance ratings also tend to skew high across the SES, with 89.7% of career senior executives receiving a Level 4 or 5 rating that same year.

To strengthen senior executive performance management, agencies could aspire to:

  • Evaluate performance based on quantitative results linked to the agency’s mission and qualitative feedback.
  • Connect rewards and recognition to performance reviews.
  • Offer frequent performance feedback, supported by data and examples.
  • Integrate performance review outcomes into succession management and talent development processes.

Leadership development

Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® data show that leadership development helps drive senior executives’ job satisfaction and engagement. Yet too often senior executives fail to undertake two of the most effective types of professional development: on-the-job experiential learning or training directly applicable to their day-to-day work. A survey conducted in fiscal 2011 found that just 21% of career senior executives have participated in an action learning project, and only 18% have participated in a developmental assignment lasting longer than 30 days.

To support senior executives’ continued professional growth, agencies could aspire to:

  • Make learning more experiential and action-oriented through rotations and coursework that lends itself to on-the-job application.
  • Provide “stretch” or challenge assignments that match individual potential to agency needs.
  • Use mentoring programs that demonstrate the importance of on-the-job learning and enable experts to share their knowledge.


A Pivotal Moment for the Senior Executive Service: Measures, aspirational practices and stories of success

June 21, 2016

Publication Type: Research and Publications

Publication Topic: Develop Strong Leaders,Modernize Management Systems

A Pivotal Moment for the Senior Executive Service: Measures, aspirational practices and stories of success

The dedicated, mission-driven members of the Senior Executive Service are critical to the stability of our nation’s government, economy and security. With most members eligible to retire in the next 10 years, this elite corps is at a critical juncture. Inspired by President Obama’s December 2015 Executive Order – Strengthening the Senior Executive Service, the…