The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal agencies not doing enough to build next generation of leaders

Placeholder while article actions load

Every successful team has a solid bench. In the sporting world, the Washington Redskins were able to withstand Robert Griffin III’s injuries because they had a capable back-up in Kirk Cousins. In the workplace, succession planning exists to ensure there are individuals who can step in when turnover in leadership occurs.

To meet the complex challenges facing our government, agencies need to develop their own leadership bench for the Senior Executive Service (SES)—the career leaders who are central to the operation of every federal agency.

A new report from my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and McKinsey & Company examined the current state of talent development for the SES and found that agencies pay insufficient attention to identifying, developing, recruiting and selecting individuals for the SES—leaving our government’s bench all too weak.

The need to ensure that highly qualified individuals are being groomed to take over these critical executive roles becomes even more urgent with the significant number of SES retirements on the horizon.

Without a central authority responsible for talent development government wide, each agency has created its own methods for managing up-and-coming leaders. Most agencies have components of a talent pipeline, but the study found that many agencies have failed to put the kind of processes in place that will enhance their prospects of developing a strong bench of skilled managers and problem solvers.

While there are shortcomings across the federal landscape, some agencies are excelling at executive development. The practices at these agencies offer a look at what is possible and could serve as a template for those struggling to make progress. Here’s a summary:

National Security Agency (NSA): The NSA launched a succession management pilot program in 2011 framed around three primary elements: positions, people and development. First, the system is designed to identify key leadership positions in the organization, including a “success profile” of the needed experiences, expertise, competencies and recommended career paths. Then, eligible employees nominate themselves for consideration, and supervisors assess employees’ leadership potential based on a set of validated criteria. An NSA talent review board then looks at the performance, potential and readiness of all those who aspire to one or more positions and identifies a bench of candidates. Finally, employees identified as candidates are given feedback and opportunities for assignments, assessments, training, mentoring and networking that help them become more competitive when the leadership positions open up.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC): At the NRC, they begin cultivating potential executives well before they reach the senior level. The agency runs an academy with a set of leadership-development programs that build upon one another and prepare talent for executive positions. For example, the NRC offers a competitive Leadership Potential Program for high-performing individuals with little or no supervisory experience. The 12-month program targets individuals at the GS-13 to GS-15 levels and combines formal classroom learning with activities such as action-learning projects and rotational assignments. The leadership academy also includes individual classes and full curricula for supervisors and team leaders. This extensive background in leadership development prepares top candidates for participation in the agency’s SES candidate development program.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS): The IRS runs an integrated set of leadership development programs tightly linked to succession planning. Annually, the agency reviews rising leaders to determine what kinds of training they need to be ready for the next level, including individual assessments by managers and an analysis of the employee’s skills and competencies. Managers then sit down with employees to discuss their strengths and opportunities for growth for the purpose of putting together a development plan. The organization uses these assessments to select employees for its SES candidate development programs. As of November 2012, the IRS had three candidates ready for every vacancy for frontline managers, 10 candidates for every department manager position and five candidates for every senior manager position.  

Department of Defense (DOD): DOD’s core program for executive preparation is the two-year Defense Senior Leadership Development Program, which is distinctive in its emphasis on helping participants gain a department-wide perspective as opposed to focusing on a single subcomponent or agency. The program has three core elements. The first is a 10-month Professional Military Education in residence at one of the DOD’s war colleges. To broaden their experience, participants are expected to attend a college that is not affiliated with their own service branch. The second element consists of a series of seminars with an enterprise-wide focus, including joint, interagency and multinational leadership. The seminars offer a blend of academic and experiential learning. For the third element, program participants must select an experiential activity lasting four to six months that spans the enterprise.

Hopefully, your agency can follow the lead of these trend setters, and place an even greater emphasis on developing its leadership bench. How does your agency groom its potential SES candidates? Please let me know by commenting below or sending an email to

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership

Read also:

New report: Among Senior Executive Service, little job mobility

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.