Preparing for the SES: Assessing Your Skills for ECQs

November, 27, 2015

SES Candidates

Since 1978, when the Senior Executive Service (SES) was established, SES positions have been highly coveted and therefore highly competitive. As of an April 2015 survey, almost two-thirds of separating executives reported that they would recommend SES employment to others, further underscoring the SES as an attractive career path.

The United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM) offers guides for SES applicants, and the applications strongly focus on Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs), which are the basis of the SES application. When getting ready for your SES interview, you must be able to discuss the ECQs and must be able to demonstrate that you have strong competency in each ECQ area. The ECQ categories are:

  1. Leading Change
  2. Results Driven
  3. Business Acumen
  4. Technical Credibility
  5. Leading People

You must be able to supply examples from your career and employment history to show mastery of all five compentencies.

SES Statistic

What Makes a Senior Executive?

Many candidates jump right into preparing for the SES, but a crucial component of SES career preparation is determining whether you are a good candidate for an SES career, and the ability to prove them with supporting SES Application information . To determine this, you will want to:

1) Evaluate Yourself

Before you apply for an SES career or invest in SES resume preparation, carefully consider whether you have the qualities to excel at this level of leadership. As part of your self-evaluation, you may want to ask:

  • Can you communicate clearly and articulately with different types of people, both in person and in writing?
  • Do you display leadership and executive qualities in everyday life?
  • Do you handle social events and workplace events well?
  • Are you comfortable with people — including different types of people?
  • Can you debate effectively and use arguments to fortify your points?
  • Can you make hard decisions?
  • Are you comfortable with large amounts of responsibility?
  • Can you understand and resolve difficult problems?
  • Can you handle change well and use change to get strong results?
  • Can you organize people and bring out their best in team environments?
  • Do you have the ability to change the ways things are currently done in government?

You should pursue an SES career only if you can answer “yes” to each of the above questions.

2) Give Yourself Time

Before you launch into preparing for the ECQs and writing your SES application, give yourself some time to really think about what an SES career might mean for you. If you have the qualities and qualifications, would you be happy in an SES career? Would it be a good fit?

Consider what your life would look like day after day and think about how the pressure and leadership would affect you. If you don’t handle others well, can’t handle different types of people well, don’t do well in collaborative environments or aren’t looking for a job that can include a lot of pressure and responsibility, you may find that an SES career might not make you happy, no matter how attractive the prestige is and how qualified you might be.

3) Ask Others About the Qualities They See in You

Sometimes, friends, family and colleagues can have insights into our qualifications and qualities we can’t see for ourselves. Talk to people in your life and ask them about the transferrable skills they have seen in you. Before writing your ECQs, ask people in your life if they can remember specific instances in which you demonstrated leadership, critical thinking, collaborative work, business skills, logistical acuity and management expertise. Friends, workmates and family may recall instances you’ve forgotten.

When analyzing your ability for SES positions, carefully consider what a senior executive is. Senior executives show a selfless ability to focus on the good of an organization or group and are able to make decisions in high-pressure environments. They take responsibility and can often pull people together, bringing out the best in individuals for the good of larger projects. They focus on the mission at hand and the goals of the organization.

Consider successful leaders you admire and carefully think about whether you can — and would want to — do what they do.

Finding Material and Developing Your Competencies

If you’ve decided that you are qualified for SES careers and want to serve in this way, congratulations — you’ve made a choice that can advance your career while also helping you assist and lead at a higher level. There is some good news about SES careers —according to the SES Exit Survey Results in April 2015, over 150 executives reported that they are retiring or resigning. This means that there will be positions available for those willing to compete.

SES Statistic

One of the first steps you will need to take is to carefully review your skills for the ECQs, so you can pinpoint where and when in your career you have developed ECQ skills and where you can continue to develop the skills required for senior executives. You may have already developed some of these leadership skills at various stages of your career:

1) Personal

Most people begin with personal leadership. In the earlier stages of your career, before you are responsible for teams, you are responsible for yourself. At this stage, you may be developing your writing and speaking skills as well as other communication skills. You may be honing skills in innovation, project management, performance management and talent management. Most likely, you are learning to take responsibility for yourself.

2) Team-Based

Once you are responsible for projects or teams, you can build on your leadership skills. At this stage in your career you may be focused on entrepreneurship and you may be honing your skills in technology management, financial management, human capital management, program management and change management.

3) Organizational-Based

As your career moves to greater responsibility, you may be responsible for entire organizations or departments. This requires an external focus and negotiating power. At this stage of your career, you may be gaining political knowledge and partnership ability. You likely can develop and execute business and organization visions or missions and can use strategic thinking to accomplish missions.

At every stage of your career, there are several things you can do to further grow your executive and leadership skills in preparation for an SES career and for personal development:

  • Look for opportunities to lead.
  • Look for leadership opportunities outside your immediate scope and within your command.
  • Volunteer for assignments, especially challenging ones.
  • Sign up for additional training when it is offered.
  • Hone your writing skills and seek to get published.
  • Use opportunities to speak publically — take part in panels, debates and conferences.
  • Find mentors who are great leaders and who can teach you about leadership.

Once you have examined how your career may have led you to develop the core executive qualities demanded by the OPM for SES positions, look closer at each ECQ and to determine how you may excel in each area (and, more importantly, how you can demonstrate that excellence):

1) Leading Change

Leading Change

This ECQ is about managing and developing strategic changes inside and outside an organization. As the world and an organization changes, executives with this competency should continue to have a clear organizational vision and be able to implement that vision — or, if needed, adapt it — in the face of changes.

The OPM identifies six segments that make up this competency:

  • Creativity and Innovation. An executive should be able to develop their own new ideas and encourage them in others. They should question traditional thinking when it no longer serves and implement new strategies, solutions or processes.
  • External Awareness. No organization exists in a vacuum and an executive understands this. He or she follows the local, national and international news, especially the items that could affect stakeholder ideas or an organization’s position. An executive is also aware of the impact an organization has on the greater world.
  • Flexibility. An executive needs to be open and to adapt readily to new ideas, processes, circumstances and conditions — including challenges.
  • Resilience. A successful executive needs to overcome challenges readily and needs to be able to stay focused and positive, even in the face of challenges. They must deal with pressure and take responsibility, offering leadership in difficult times.
  • Strategic Thinking. A leader makes and meets goals, mitigates risks and seizes opportunities. He or she considers an organization’s goals and plans and acts to meet those long-term objectives.
  • Vision. A leader has a clear vision and is able to share that vision with a team or organization, turning the vision into action and reality.

2) Leading People

This competency involves leading people so that they work together to meet the objective and goals of an organization. It implies that an executive know now to build teams and environments in which people work efficiently, feel comfortable, bring their best work and easily resolve difficulties.

Leading people involves:

  • Conflict Management. Differences of opinion can be beneficial in an organization because they can encourage creative or innovative thinking. A leader encourages differing opinions without allowing differences to turn into conflicts or disagreements that harm productivity or morale.
  • Leveraging Diversity. Leaders encourage the differences between people and respect diversity, making it a part of a successful organization.
  • Developing Others. Leaders help others do their best with encouragement, appropriate opportunities and options for training and growth.
  • Team Building. Executives encourage diverse people to work effectively together for common organization goals, developing team pride, spirit, morale and commitment among team individuals.

3) Results Driven

This competency means executives can take the actions needed to make measurable progress on goals and to meet objectives. This competency involves:

  • Accountability. A leader follows the rules and takes responsibility for themselves and for their team. He or she meets responsibilities for delegating, creating goals and taking action.
  • Customer Service. An executive cares about the customer experience and works to meet the needs of external and internal customers, always striving to improve deliverables.
  • Decisiveness. A leader considers the outcomes of their decisions carefully but is able to make decisions in a firm and timely fashion, even when all facts aren’t available and even if a decision may lead to negative consequences.
  • Entrepreneurship. A successful executive has the drive to pursue organizational goals by seeking out new opportunities, improving deliverables or customer experiences and taking strategic risks. He or she seeks out and acts on opportunities.
  • Problem Solving. A leader is able to target and resolve issues and challenges. He or she is able to acquire information needed to solve a problem and is able to take decisive action or make decisions to address the problem.

4) Technical Credibility

Technical credibility refers to the leveraging of rules, systems, regulations and policies in leadership roles. This can include:

  • Building Coalitions. Executives are able to build coalitions or networks to support their organization and to meet organizational goals.
  • Partnering. Where necessary, leaders should be able to build strong partnerships — defined by trust, cooperation and mutual advantage — to execute objectives and meet goals.
  • Political Savvy. Leaders understand that political climates and external and internal politics can affect an organization’s goals, morale and mission. They recognize this type of political reality and leverage it for the benefit of the organization.
  • Influencing/Negotiating. Executives can exert influence to help an organization meet its goals. They can negotiate contracts, opportunities and issues for the benefit of the organization.

5) Business Acumen

Virtually all organizations have human, technological and financial resources that directly and indirectly influence the ability to realize organizational vision and meet organization goals. Effective leaders can use these resources to help an organization meet objectives. Executives do this through:

  • Financial Management. A leader understands finances and is able to prepare and administer a budget. He or she can also oversee spending and set priorities for spending and savings. He or she can manage contracts and procurements to meet objectives within budget.
  • Human Capital Management. Executives recognize employees as powerful assets and take care to develop a workforce that meets staffing needs, budget and skill needs. Leaders work to attract the correct workers and to ensure the workers are correctly trained, evaluated, hired and rewarded for their work. Executives are able to allocate staff in the best possible use of talents and skills and work to resolve any performance or workplace issues.
  • Technology Management. Leaders understand technology and security systems affecting their organization, effectively using technology to meet organizational goals in an efficient manner.

Tips for Writing ECQs

Tips For Writing ECQs

Before you consider how to write the ECQs, ensure you understand each of the ECQs (Leading Change, Results Driven, Business Acumen, Technical Credibility and Leading People) and what each ECQ entails. Once you are ready to sit down and write, you will want to:

1) Write an Outline First

Before you start writing, write down each of the five ECQs and beside each write down (in just a few words) how you can demonstrate this competency. Take the time to really find all instances of leadership, technical ability, business acumen, leading change and results driven behavior in your work history.

Look up specific figures, dates and other information to ensure your facts are accurate. Go through all the information and highlight or underline the most compelling or impressive facts that support the ECQs. These are the experiences you will want to highlight.

2) Make Your ECQs Easy to Read

Use adequate white space and edit carefully to remove any wordiness. Keep things precise and to the point. Write narratively: When trying to find the right tone, keep in mind how you might speak in an interview or formal presentation. Briefly explain any technical jargon and underline any important points to make your application easier to read.

3) Give Yourself Lots of Time

Professional writers might set aside a piece of writing for days or weeks so they can look at a piece with fresh eyes. Do the same with your ECQs. Go over your answers again and again, always looking to tighten the language and to make your meaning more clear.

4) Talk to Your Mentor

Ideally, find a mentor in senior leadership or SES positions who understands how to write ECQs. Ask them to look over what you have written and ask for feedback. Consider asking more than one person to offer guidance about your ECQs.

Other Pieces of Your SES Application to Consider

While the ECQs are a crucial part of your SES application, there are other components to consider. For example, you’ll need to consider your resume, your cover letter and even preparation for an SES interview if your application is considered impressive enough to warrant an interview.

Each element of the process could determine whether you get to pursue an SES job. Don’t make the mistake of spending all your time on your ECQs — small mistakes on your resume or in your SES interview could also harm your chances of landing a position.

Applying for an SES job can be nerve-wracking, especially if you are aware of the competition. If you’re highly qualified, you don’t want a minor mistake to harm your chances of success. SES writers can help. Our Senior Executive Service (SES) resume writers work closely with you to develop your ECQs and to draw out the narrative of your success. Together, we’ll develop the strongest application possible.

Our SES writers specialize in SES applications, not general resumes, so you are paired with someone who has helped professionals succeed in securing an SES position and understands what it takes to submit a successful application. Our SES writing process includes interviews with you, a strict editing process and collaboration between you and our professionals.

Learn more about our SES writing process or contact us for a free consultation to find out more.


  1. Brendale Taylor | November 30, 2015

    I am interested in the ECQ course. I would like to enroll to assist my skill improvement.

    Thanks, respectfully.
    Brendale Taylor
    (913) 758-3528
    Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 66027

  2. Tahmina Parvin | March 17, 2016

    I am interested in the ECQ course. I am not a federal employee but a citizen and state employee trying to get into federal government.
    Tahmina Parvin

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