Is the Senior Executive Service Right for You?

July, 06, 2015

Is the Senior Executive Service Right for You

You’ve had an excellent military career, developed leadership and management skills, and furthered your education in the process. You’ve built teams, produced results, and earned your promotions. Now you’re retiring from the military and it’s time for the next step. You’re certainly qualified, but you’re not sure the private sector is the correct choice. Where do you go to do something that really matters?

The Senior Executive Service (SES) might be the answer. Established in 1978, the SES was intended to establish leadership continuity at the top echelons of the executive departments. The idea was to recruit and cultivate executive leadership that would bridge the gap between politics and policy implementation. SES members have performed well in this capacity for nearly 40 years.

This may sound like the perfect transition from your military career, but there are some negatives. Recent developments, in particular the management meltdown at the Veterans Administration, have brought the system under increased congressional scrutiny. Internal problems exist and changes to the SES structure appear likely. Challenges to the system may also present opportunities, but it’s best to proceed with eyes wide open.  Here’s some background information to help you determine whether the SES is a good fit for you.

According to exit interviews, some work environment issues that have led to turnover include toxic political environments, the organizational culture, unsupportive leadership, and a feeling that it’s too bureaucratic.

That said, challenges to the system may also present opportunities for openings, so it’s best to proceed with open eyes and an open mind.  Here’s some background information to help you determine whether the SES is a good fit for you.

Your Competitive Edge

SES positions are highly competitive. The executive service represents less than 1% of the federal employment roll.  SES permanent and temporary positions have remained around 7900 since 2008. In the same time period, new appointments have averaged about 400 each year.

Most initial appointments to SES positions are based on merit competition. Candidates must demonstrate their eligibility by meeting five Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) and 28 competencies included within the scope of the ECQs.  There is no preference given to military personnel, but your accomplishments may translate very well into the ECQ criteria.

Another channel into the SES is through Candidate Development Programs (CDPs), designed to open a pathway from GS-level positions into the executive service. Appointments from this candidate pool have declined in recent years in all agencies but the IRS, and there are suggestions that the programs should be abandoned. Elimination or continued decline in CDP appointments would increase the number of positions available through merit competition.

Leading America's Workforce

Turnover Means Job Openings

According to the 2017 SES Exit Report, retirement continues to be the most common reason (61%) that SES executives are leaving their agencies. Executives also reported leaving with the intent of continuing to work, in many cases for higher pay. Some said they would continue to work without a reduction in pay.

The SES has been criticized in recent years for diversity issues, and addressing those issues could also influence new appointments. The demographics of SES executives differ markedly from the profiles of the agencies they administer, tending to be heavily male (66%) with less minority representation, although there has been a push for diversity.

Compensation Gap and Mobility

Compensation is always a consideration, and a downside to the SES is the comparison of earnings to the private sector. There’s no doubt that you can earn more in the corporate C-suite. At the inception of the SES, salary flexibility and incentives were intended to promote personal initiative and accountability. Compensation was to be attached to individual accomplishment, but practice has generally followed the tiered model of the federal bureaucracy.

Senior Executive Service -- Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.In 2020, SES salaries will range from $131,240 to $197,300.  While that is above-average income, more than 75% of SES positions are in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area, so earnings are offset by higher cost of living. Bonuses and Presidential Rank Awards can range from 5% to 20% of base pay. In the most recent available data from the Office of Personnel Management, more than 81% of career senior executives received a performance award in fiscal 2016 compared to about 71 percent the previous year. On average, a career executive earned a bonus of $11,928, which was $3,667 more than the previous year’s average performance award across government.

(Caption: Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced legislation earlier this year that targets senior executives at the Veterans Administration.)

Another factor to consider, for good or bad, may be enforced mobility. The SES was initially envisioned to be a mobile group of executives that would provide top leadership across agency boundaries. Instead, executives have typically remained in agency silos, working for a single department over an average career of 27 years. There have been calls for voluntary programs, and incentives that would encourage executives to cross boundaries during their career.

In General, It’s a Good Gig

Despite the compensation drawbacks, most SES executives are generally positive about their career choice. They also serve important roles. In January 2017, nearly 70% of SES experienced their first presidential transition as executives. Quoted in a Government Executive article, Jason Briefel, legislative director at the Senior Executives Association, said: “We are transitioning all the time, whether it’s the [presidential] transition or not. There is constantly new brass, and politicals.”

An exit survey conducted by OPM in July of 2017 confirmed that most of the SES members leaving the service thought that SES was a good job. 63% responded with a positive recommendation.

Most (61%) were leaving for retirement after a long career, though many said they were leaving with the intent to keep working, in many cases for higher pay. The link to the survey is listed in the sources below, and it’s worth examination for insights into the culture and character of the executive service and the agencies where they work.

You’ll also find a wealth of information about the Senior Executive Service and SES Resumes on this site and on our website. CareerPro Global is the only ISO 9001:2008 registered resume company with an area of specialty in the SES application process. We’ve recently improved our procedures to include best practices gained from experience with SES resumes and OPM reviews.

If you’re considering SES after your military career, please call us for a free consultation. We are happy to share our insights to the process and you’ll benefit from the expertise of our experienced Master SES resume writers.

Take the First Step Toward the SES


Executive & Senior Level Pay Tables 2020

More career senior executives earned higher-value performance bonuses in 2016, Federal News Network, Feb. 21, 2018.

Nearly 70% of SES Are About to Experience Their First Presidential Transition as Executives, Government Executive, Dec. 19, 2016

2017 Senior Executive Service Report, Office of Personnel Management, April 2018

Senior Executive Service Exit Survey Results, Office of Personnel Management, July 2017

Learn More About The SES

Page Updated January 16, 2020

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