Seven Top Tips for Applying to the Senior Executive Service

If you’ve got sterling management skills, deep professional experience, and the passion to serve your country, you might consider applying for a position in the Senior Executive Service (SES). But this prestigious federal employment is hard to come by; the SES made just 300 new hires for its workforce of 7,900 in 2013. Because the application process is demanding and competitive, it pays to prepare most of your application in advance, then just tweak those materials to meet the requirements of specific job announcements when they appear.

So now is the time to prepare to apply for SES positions in 2016. Here are my Seven Top Tips for preparing the SES application, especially the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) that will tell the stories of your expertise and experience:

1. Plan Your Career Path

Review the Leadership Journey Chart in the 2016 edition of The New SES Application. Compare your resume with the leadership competencies associated with the ECQs on the chart. If you see gaps, request work assignments to fill them – or make a lateral job change.

2. Understand the SES Selection Process

Know that you are writing your ECQ stories for three audiences: human resources, a board from the agency where you’re applying, and a board of current senior executives drawn from multiple agencies. The latter board focusses on executive skill, not technical expertise. So your ECQs must focus on the leadership competencies specified on the Leadership Journey Chart.

3. For Each Job, Identify and Prepare the Application’s Components

Read each job announcement carefully and note its application requirements. Required documents can vary by agency.

Format 1: Traditional SES Application: The traditional SES application includes a four-to-six-page executive resume that includes bullets for all ECQ accomplishment stories; 10 pages of Executive Core Qualifications stories in the CCAR (Challenge, Context, Actions, Results) format; and one or more Technical Qualification statements of one or two pages each, if the agency requires them.

Format 2: Five-page Resume-based SES Application: This application is a resume that  boils down all of the ECQs, TQs and traditional resume components into five pages. This challenging format must include bullets that summarize the ECQs and TQs.

Other formats: Candidate Development Programs, Intelligence Community Senior Officer Core Qualification, Air Force SES, Senior Leader, and other special programs or organizations may have their own requirements for the SES application. Read the announcements carefully and follow instructions to the letter.

4. Develop a Dozen Accomplishment Stories

Prepare a list of 10 stories for the ECQs and two for the TQs. ECQs are not duties but narratives of accomplishments presented as brief essays. Your stories should elevate your application above the competition, which is formidable. (For 30 openings in the 2014 Candidate Development Program, the Department of Homeland Security received 5,500 applications.)

5. Draft ECQ and TQ Accomplishment Stories in the CCAR  Format

SES applications require that accomplishment narratives use the Challenge, Context, Actions, Results format. Each of the 10 stories should be approximately one page composed of four paragraphs in the specified typographic format. Double-check that for each story you’ve included the challenge, context, actions and results; many applicants forget to describe the actions or results. (See my blog post on CCAR.)

6. Map Leadership Stories to ECQs

After you’ve created your Top 10 list of stories and outlined each one in the CCAR format, it’s time to map the stories to the ECQ leadership competencies. If one of your stories talks about forming partnerships, you could map it to the leadership competency called Building Coalitions. If another story focuses on personnel supervision and conflict resolution,  it might illustrate Leading People. Even if you write compelling stories in the CCAR format, should they do not map to the ECQ leadership competencies, they won’t support your application in the review process.

7. Finalize the Executive Resume, ECQs, and TQs

Have you have identified the leadership competencies, written at least 10 stories in the CCAR format, and drafted your resume and career history? If so, you’re ready to customize your application to meet the requirements of individual job announcements. Typically the ECQs need not be adapted for each job, though you might need to modify the page total, for example. You may also need to select one of the TQs you’ve written, or draft a new one.

Proofread all application materials before you submit them. Print documents and proof them. Read them aloud. Have someone proofread your materials and ask if they understand everything. Revise any stories that are even a bit confusing. When I write ECQ packages for clients, I tell them, “As a lay reader, if I can’t understand your stories, they’re not ready. We can’t assume the reader will know anything about your background, areas of expertise, or the stories you are telling.”

If you begin now, you will be ready to apply for SES positions in 2016 with well-written, edited, and polished ECQs, TQs, and an executive resume. If you need additional assistance, check out our newly updated book (December 2015), The New SES Application, or visit our Services page for a quote. Diane can also deliver hands-on training in ECQ writing at your agency.

Diane Hudson (Burns) is a multi-credentialed career coach, executive resume writer and editor, specializing in posturing federal and non-federal employees to enter the federal government’s Senior Executive Service (SES). She is co-author of The New SES Application, the first book written about the five-page SES federal resume and the traditional 10-page ECQ format. Diane is an experienced trainer in Senior Executive Service, ECQ/TQ, KSA and federal resume writing topics for SES Candidate Development Program candidates. Agency instruction experience includes Commander’s Leadership Development Program at the Naval Shipyard, Air Force Headquarters, U.S. Army Missile Command, FEMA, Defense Acquisition University (Fellows), EPA, PTO, and others. Diane is an instructor for military employment readiness specialists and retiring military; as well as train-the-trainer at career industry conferences internationally on outplacement and career search topics.

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