Top Ten ECQ Mistakes

Nicole Schultheis, J.D.
Senior SES Writer, Consultant, Instructor
June 22, 2018


Candidates for senior executive positions within the Federal Executive Branch typically require certification by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Usually this is earned through submission of a set of written narratives, called Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs). The standard format is a 10-page, single-spaced document evincing leadership across 5 areas: Leading Change, Leading People, Business Acumen, Results Driven and Building Coalitions. Two examples per ECQ are expected; all 10 must be unique and relate leadership actions and outcomes within the past 10 years. Here are the Top 10 Mistakes that Resume Place writer Nicole Schultheis encounters when working with candidates’ ECQ drafts—and how to avoid them:


  1. Not respecting your audience. QRB members are smart, but they don’t know your acronyms or your organization’s hierarchy. Their agency is different from yours and they don’t do what you do for a living. Orient them in time and place; explain what you were in charge of and where your organization fits into the overall agency and mission. Don’t use acronyms and initialisms just because you can; try not to use them unless you must.
  2. Not telling a vivid story. Listing tasks carried out over the period you held certain responsibilities is not a story, just a job description. Use the CCAR story-telling structure. Your readers want to root for you, but they can’t do that unless you tell a story that lets them see you as a full-blooded hero starring in your own personal action film. Let them see your eyeballs and the eyeballs of those you engage with. Let them see you listening, sweating it out, evaluating risks, and moving the story forward towards a meaningful ending.
  3. Failing to identify your specific leadership challenges. Articulate those that are on point for the ECQ at hand, and then address them with specific leadership actions that deliver relevant results.
  4. Using passive voice and weak constructions. Don’t say, “I was tasked….” Use first person, active voice. Also, don’t say “I scheduled a meeting with” or “X-y-z was needed.” Did you actually lead the meeting or just play with your calendar? Did you actually do x-y-z or just muse about somebody maybe needing to do it someday?
  5. Wasting space on things that aren’t needed. Lose the way-back-when paragraph, technical details that lose the reader, and language from other ECQs. For example, what’s an entire paragraph about employee engagement and morale doing in ECQ3? And please stop explaining your “vision” in every single story. “Vision” is an ECQ1 competency that has to do with leading organizational change.
  6. Mistaking project or process management for leadership (ECQ1). Writing a paper is not leading organization change, it’s a homework assignment. If you don’t want your leadership efforts to be mistaken for process or project management, don’t call it a “process” or a “project” in your narrative. At the end of the CCAR, explain exactly the organizational change that you led and how it made a difference. There must be a legacy of change – a different business model, a new paradigm. Explain how the new model has helped you address your mission.
  7. Writing “I led a diverse team” without identifying a specific diversity and inclusion challenge (ECQ2). Personal engagement is required. How many people did you lead, and in what structure? If you met with your team and listened to them, what did they say and how did you respond? If individual voices were not being heard, or factions existed, or there was a lack of transparency that led to or placed you at risk of EEO claims, silenced voices, or engendered distrust, how did you fix it? Did you leverage agency resources and use them wisely to solve your diversity and inclusion challenges?
  8. Failing to address entrepreneurship (ECQ3). This ECQ is about accountability, internal controls, and customer service. But don’t forget problem solving and entrepreneurship. If your agency can’t afford a new system, but you can use another agency’s infrastructure to expand your own capabilities with little effort and cost, your audience wants to read about it in ECQ3. Particularly if it helps you catch bad guys, do more with less, or recoup misspent public funds.
  9. Ignoring data and system security (ECQ4). Every QRB member has identity theft insurance courtesy of OPM. You knew that, right? Yes you must address your financial and human capital stewardship in ECQ4, but please also include a few sentences about how you were paying attention to data and systems security when you upgraded to your new information system.
  10. Mistaking event planning, task force leadership, or addressing a customer’s needs for coalition building (ECQ5). Your warmed seat in a conference room is not enough. Personal engagement in solving relationship challenges is required. Explain the agreement you hammered out, and describe how you won them over. How did you create a legacy of improved relations and what is that legacy?

The Resume Place coaches, instructs, reviews and provides editorial services for aspiring SES members who are writing their ECQs. Our book, the New SES Application, gives examples, definitions and insight for writing the ECQs. Nicole Schultheis is our lead SES writer with many years of expertise writing successful ECQs on behalf of applicants and agency selectees across government.


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Article author: Nicole Schultheis

Exec Bio:
Nicole Schultheis has taught ECQ writing to aspiring executives at numerous Federal agencies and has prepared SES applications for job seekers as well as QRB packages for agency-sponsored candidates across the Executive Branch since 2010. She is a Certified Federal Job Search Trainer & Certified Federal Career Coach (Federal Career Training Institute) as well as an attorney.

Attorney Bio:
Since 2010, Maryland attorney Nicole Schultheis has supported candidates seeking to become Administrative Law Judges, Immigration Judges, Administrative Judges, and Administrative Patent Judges. She has taught resume writing to aspiring legal candidates and others at numerous Federal agencies, successfully helping those seeking executive leadership roles at the Department of Justice and its components, as well as agencies across the Executive Branch. For more than 25 years, Nicole led her own law firm in Baltimore, Maryland before her focus shifted to teaching, writing, and professional mentorship.

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