How to Prepare ECQs

November, 27, 2015

SES Candidates

Table of Contents:

Since 1978, when the Senior Executive Service (SES) was established, SES positions have been highly coveted and 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: As the organization changes, you need to respond to them. Show that you can lead your organization through any changes. This will demonstrate your flexibility, strategic thinking and creativity.
  2. Results Driven: A federal executive is expected to perform a job that will generate positive results. Show that you are successful at achieving necessary results, even in tough situations. This will demonstrate your entrepreneurial, customer service and technical skills.
  3. Business Acumen: In a federal executive position, you will be in charge of large amounts of money and people. Show how you have managed these resources in the past and streamlined business operations. This will demonstrate your goal-setting, stewardship and task management skills.
  4. Building Coalitions: Part of the SES world is being a team player, collaborating with others to achieve the necessary results. Show that you are capable of working with others, building professional relationships and getting the results you need. This will demonstrate your negotiation skills and the ability to foster relationships.
  5. Leading People: Show how you have been successful at bringing people together and strengthening your team. This will demonstrate your conflict resolution, mentorship and team-building skills.

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

Get Expert Help With Your ECQs

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Decide If a Senior Executive Position Is Right for You

Many candidates jump right into preparing for the SES since it is an attractive career path. A crucial component of SES career preparation is determining whether you are a good candidate for an SES career. You need to prove your qualifications with supporting SES Application information.

Decide if a federal executive position is the best choice for you. To do so, you will need 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 meet the following traits, 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:

  • You don’t handle others well
  • You can’t handle different types of people well
  • You don’t do well in collaborative environments
  • You aren’t looking for a job that can include a lot of pressure and responsibility

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.

4) Consider Senior Executive Qualities

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.

Find Material and Develop Your Competencies

If you’ve decided that you are qualified for SES careers and want to serve in this way, 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.

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ECQ Experience in Your Career

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 challenging assignments
  • Sign up for additional training when it is offered
  • Hone your writing skills and seek to get published
  • Use opportunities to speak publicly — take part in panels, debates and conferences
  • Find mentors who are great leaders and who can teach you about leadership

Connecting Your Experience to ECQ Areas

Once you have examined how your career may have led you to develop ECQs, 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 change, 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 can 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 knows how 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 can 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 can target and resolve issues and challenges. They can 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 and 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 the organizational vision and meet organizational goals. Effective leaders can use these resources to help an organization meet objectives. Executives do this through:

  • Financial Management: A leader understands finances and can 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 efficiently.

Write Your ECQs

Tips For Writing ECQs

Before you consider how to write the ECQs, ensure you understand each of the five 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, make a list of each of the five ECQs. 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. It is important to write narratively, including as many relevant details as necessary to demonstrate your point. 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 it later with fresh eyes. Do the same with your ECQs. Go over your answers again to tighten the language and to make your meaning more clear.

4) Use ECQ Examples That Are Executive In Nature

While managerial and project management experience may inform your responses, it is best to focus on your executive experiences. These examples will demonstrate how you used strategy, building coalitions and using conflict management to achieve results. Demonstrating leadership experience is key to the ECQ.

5) Emphasize Leadership And Results

It is easy to get caught up in telling the story and neglect to focus on the right things. When emphasizing your skillset, focus on leadership, not technical skills, and the results, not the process. This way, you can prove that you know how to take charge and make things happen.

6) Structure Your Narratives Using CCAR Format

When writing your narratives, be sure to frame them in the CCAR format, which is the preferred OPM format. Make your response as specific as possible. Using the CCAR method, address the topics of:

  • Challenge: What was the challenge, objective or goal?
  • Context: What environment and individuals did you work with to find a solution?
  • Action: What actions did you take?
  • Result: Explain or give an example of the results of your efforts.

7) Weave The Core Competencies For Each ECQ Throughout Your Narrative

While some of your experiences will fit best into one category, others demonstrate multiple qualifications. Talking about each of the core competencies in your narratives will further emphasize the connection between your experience and the qualifications.

8) Write In A Professional Yet Friendly Tone

Your reviewer may look at many ECQs, so striking the right tone from the beginning will help yours stand out. Avoid the extremes of stuffy and colloquial, aiming for a tone that will highlight your competencies and results. Every sentence should be concise, specific and in the first-person point of view.

9) Talk to Your Mentor

It is ideal to find a mentor in senior leadership in an SES position who understands how to write ECQs. Ask them to look over what you have written and give you feedback. Consider asking more than one person to offer guidance about your ECQs. SES Resume Writers is a great place to start.

When ECQS Don’t Make the Cut

ver the past decade or so, our Senior Executive Service (SES) writing team here at CareerPro Global has helped thousands of people develop ECQs (Executive Core Qualifications) that represent their accomplishments and executive potential in the best possible way.

Most of the time, our clients come to us for help early in the process. But sometimes, we hear this: “Please help! I wrote my own application materials, and was offered an SES position, but my ECQs were disapproved by OPM!”

In these situations, we look at the problem areas and work with the client to get his or her ECQs up to par. Obviously, each set of ECQs is different, and each person’s career stories are unique. Still, let’s highlight some of the issues and best practices that we used on many of our “ECQ rewrites,” all of which have resulted in resubmission and subsequent OPM (Office of Personnel Management) approval.

Issue: Examples were more than 10 years old.

Best Practice Applied: Challenged client to provide examples from within the past 10 years (5-7 years is the “sweet spot”).

Issue: Examples were vague and did not use the Challenge-Context-Action-Result (CCAR) format.

Best Practice Applied: Partnered with client to restructure examples and to ensure each one began with a clear CHALLENGE/CONTEXT paragraph, which served to “set up” the story by describing the individual’s job title, the timeframe, the scope and complexity of the organization/position, and then the “problem” or challenge that needed to be overcome/changed. Next, restructured each example to include three to five paragraphs of ACTIONS, followed by a robust RESULTS paragraph.

Issue: No evidence of executive leadership. ECQs read like project management descriptions.

Best Practice Applied: Worked with client to present examples that were “executive in scope,” such as influencing senior decision making, coordinating with interagency partners, participating in and leading strategic planning, changing major business processes, and achieving results that impacted the entire organization/enterprise/industry/division.

Issue: No evidence of the competencies in some, or all, of the ECQs.

Best Practice Applied: Educated client on how the competencies in each ECQ are the best guide for selecting which stories to use. If a particular story can’t be told naturally by addressing the competencies in that ECQ, then it may not be the best example.

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 deemed to be impressive enough to warrant an interview.

Each element of the process could determine whether you get to pursue an SES job. Instead of spending all your time on your ECQs, be sure to focus your efforts on your resume and SES interview, so you have the best chance of landing the position you want.

Take advantage of our interview preparation and coaching packages. These give you a chance to practice your interview skills and receive professional feedback to ensure that your real interview is successful. To make your resume stand out, you can consult resume books for help. Shop our book selection for insider how-tos on landing federal and SES jobs as well as writing military to civilian resumes.

Contact the Experts at SES Resume Writers Today

Applying for a federal executive job is a rewarding experience, professionally and personally. Executive experience offers you the ability to lead and impact the inner workings of the federal government. To get your SES dream job, do all that you can with your application to ensure high chances of success.

SES Resume Writers will help make your ECQs the best they can be. Our 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.


Learn More About Executive Core Qualifications


  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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